Pittsburgh Steelers

Who will be the Patriots’ biggest challenger in the AFC?

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Who will be the Patriots’ biggest challenger in the AFC?

Covering the NFL for almost 20 years allows you to make relationships with a bunch of people. So I thought I'd tap into some of those people as we gear up for New England Patriots training camp for a series of pieces about topics we've been kicking around.

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The panel consists of one former Pats player still in the game, two scouts of AFC teams, one front-office member in the AFC, and one NFC scout. They all requested anonymity for obvious reasons (as the player said, "hey, I might want to end up back there!") I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I had talking to these guys.

Today's topic: Who will be the Pats’ biggest challenger in the AFC?

Scout 1: Themselves. Honestly. There’s too much there for them not to roll through the AFC with relative ease. I’m not saying they’re going undefeated. Let’s pump the brakes on that one, shall we? But when you start running down the list of AFC teams, there isn’t one that doesn’t have a glaring weakness as we sit here mid-summer. The Steelers? Ben [Roethlisberger] wasn’t sure he wanted to play, their most talented receiver can’t stop smoking weed [Martavis Bryant] and that defense gets carved up by [Tom] Brady repeatedly. The Texans? Do they have a quarterback? That’s kind of a big deal. The Ravens? I think that window closed. The Bengals? Lot of talent, sure. But the coach/QB combo doesn’t exactly make you crap yourself. I like [Trevor] Siemian in Denver but that’s still asking a lot. Oakland may be the one team that appeared poised but that defense wasn’t good a year ago. So chip Khalil Mack all night and watch Brady throw for 400-plus.. I just think if the Pats stay healthy and stay together, they’ll be in Minnesota playing for back-to-back titles.

Scout 2: Pittsburgh’s the one team that can match them point for point, assuming everyone is on the field. But is Ben still vertical in late January? Is Bell burned out (as of this piece, Le’Veon Bell remained a holdout). Antonio Brown is a talent but is a Facebook Live video more important than putting in your work and respecting those you work with, and against? Mike [Tomlin] should have reeled that in a long time ago. Bill would have. Hell, any coach with a clue would have. They’d win in spite of Mike, not because he matches wits with Bill.

Scout 3: Seattle. (I meant AFC) AFC?? Geez . . . I guess Houston, if I have to stay in conference. That is the one organization that seems like it may be on to something. They’ll stand in there and land all kinds of body blows on Brady. That divisional game was the worst one I’ve seen him play since the start of the 2014 season. They can get after him with four people. They have good corners. But you can’t make mistakes. On either side of the ball. Defensively, can [new defensive coordinator Mike] Vrabel make them an even more disciplined bunch? I like Tom Savage. I think he’s smart. I think he’s poised. But the drafting of DeShaun [Watson] means he doesn’t have much time. Watson is poised too. And god knows he’s played in a ton of big games. But New England in January? Do that, and they’ll erect a statue of him in Houston. 

Ex-Patriot/Current NFL player: “It’s us. No doubt in my mind. (Hey, I can’t tell them who you are and where you play, remember?) Fine. But remember I said it. (Note taken!)

Front Office Exec: I think there are a handful of teams capable. January is a long time away. I’d put it like this: a) give me a coaching staff that has experience and can adjust. You have to against that team because they can dial up so many different ways to beat you, b) a quarterback who is accurate and protects that football. You can’t give Brady a short field. And you can’t waste opportunities +50. Mistake free football is critical. c) Brady is almost human if you hit him early and keep that pressure on him. That’s every quarterback in this league, by the way. In conjunction with that, mix and match coverages. You can’t get comfortable in that regard. He and Josh [McDaniels] are too smart, d) confidence. It sounds stupid, but it’s true. Teams I’ve been a part of that have beaten the Pats or the so-called favored team believed. Plain and simple. And one bad play, or two, wouldn’t change that confidence. The urgency, maybe. But never the confidence. 

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Steelers show up to training camp with ridiculous cars

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Steelers show up to training camp with ridiculous cars

The most annoying logic in sports is the “Look at the silly things this team is doing; that’s why they STINK!” logic.

Let people do what they're going to do. The Texans didn’t lose because they were wearing letterman jackets and the Dolphins haven’t failed to reach the playoffs because T-Pain re-did their fight song. Teams win and lose because of what they do on the field. 

Anyway, the Steelers showed up at training camp in some bonkers vehicles. That’s why they stink. 

This will factor in 0.00 percent to how the Steelers fare this season, but it makes one kind of wish Adalius Thomas was still in the league because maybe he’d have that flying car by now.  
 

Steelers defensive coordinator's goal: Make Brady cuss out his offensive line

Steelers defensive coordinator's goal: Make Brady cuss out his offensive line

When Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler last saw Tom Brady, he was carving up the Pittsburgh secondary for 381 yards and three touchdowns in the AFC Championship Game on his way to a fifth Super Bowl title.

It wasn't much better for Butler's D in Week 7 in Pittsburgh (Brady was 19-for-26 with two TDs).

But the key number was zero. That's the number of sacks the Steelers had on Brady in both games. That's got to change, Butler told ESPN's Jeremy Fowler.

"If we would have gotten some pressure on him and sacked him a couple of times and get him to cuss his dadgum offensive linemen out, hey man, it's a beautiful world for us," Butler said.

Butler reiterated what Steelers corner Artie Burns and others had said earlier this month at OTAs - that Pittsburgh needs to move away from zone coverage against Brady and other elite QBs. 

"We have to be able to develop a four-man rush and not just blitz all the time," Butler said. "This year we have to be able to play conventional coverages with conventional people playing those coverages and conventional people rushing the passer. We’ve got to be able to do that in order to advance defensively, in my opinion."

Butler will get his chance to test the strategy this season in Week 15 when Brady and the Pats visit Pittsburgh.