When the Pittsburgh Steelers host the New England Patriots this Sunday, it will be in a game that has lost some of its luster.
After all, the game was supposed to be a matchup between the top-two teams in the AFC and a preview of a possible playoff game in the future. It was expected to be a matchup that could decide home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, as both the Steelers and Patriots seemed destined to be at the top of the AFC after the first six weeks.
Until Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger got hurt.
From the moment it was discovered that Roethlisberger needed surgery on his injured knee and would be forced to miss the game, suddenly the matchup between the two teams lost something. No longer was it a game between powerhouse teams in the AFC. Instead it was now a matchup between the AFC’s best team, and a team just hoping to survive behind an unproven backup quarterback.
As you can imagine, that change is clearly represented by the Las Vegas betting line on the game. Before the injury, the Steelers, who will be at home when they play the Patriots, were expected to be slight favorites in the contest. At the worst, the game would have been even-money once kickoff arrived.
But with the injury to Pittsburgh’s star quarterback, suddenly the Steelers are now dramatic underdogs in the game. According to the Las Vegas betting lines, the Patriots are now eight-point favorites in the contest.
So clearly the Steelers have no chance in the game. With Tom Brady back at the helm in New England and with Landry Jones now commanding the Steelers, Pittsburgh does not have a chance at winning this particular game. That is the common thought at least.
But believe it or not, the Steelers and Jones can beat the Patriots this week.
They just need to change their game plan.
The bottom line is that the Steelers will not beat New England if they play with their normal game plan with Jones running the show. They may be built to win with an explosive passing game that relies on passing the ball to set up the run, but that is not the way to win on Sunday. And, more importantly, it is not the way to beat the Patriots.
Ultimately for the Steelers to win, they need to put together a plan that relies heavily on the run and simplifies the passing game with short throws for Jones. Instead of big plays, the plan needs to be long, time-eating drives that play to Pittsburgh’s strength in the trenches. This will help Jones minimize his mistakes and, more importantly, will keep Tom Brady and the Patriots offense off the field.
For offensive coordinator Todd Haley, the run-first system may be tough to swallow. In 2016 so far, the Steelers have thrown 242 passes compared to just 138 running plays. That represents a 64-36 percent split, making Pittsburgh’s offense with Roethlisberger one of the most pass-reliant units in the NFL.
That being said though, this is not the first time Haley has had to make a game plan without his star quarterback. So he should be ahead of things when it comes to planning with Jones in at quarterback.
Last year when Roethlisberger was forced to miss four games with an injury, the Steelers drastically changed their game plan and managed to go 2-2 during the star quarterback’s absence.
During the period with him out, the Steelers averaged 152.5 rushing yards per game and 162.8 yards passing per game. Compare that to the 308.1 passing yards and 97.3 rushing yards per game the team averages with Roethlisberger and it’s clear that there will be an extreme emphasis on the rushing attack until the quarterback returns.
With that in mind, we will likely see a very different Steelers team when they take on the Patriots in terms of tactics. The game will not be in the hands of Landry Jones and the passing game. Instead Le’Veon Bell and the running game will decide the outcome of this one.
So to reiterate to Steelers fans everywhere the message Jones gave to his teammates at a Wednesday morning meeting – “don’t panic.”
Because with Bell and the running game leading the way, the Steelers just may be able to pull off the upset of the year with their backup quarterback.