The 5: Things to watch from Steelers in TNF game with Patriots

The Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5) suffered a tough loss in Week 13 of the 2023 NFL regular season to the Arizona Cardinals, filled with injuries and mistakes, and had a short preparation period ahead of Thursday night’s primetime showdown with the New England Patriots (2-10). There will be a slew of personnel changes that may prove to be as much of a challenge as the Patriots themselves as a result. We look at five Steelers players to watch in this game that will feature the team in their black and gold “Color Rush” jerseys.

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Is Jack back in the lineup?

Due to the injuries to inside linebackers Kwon Alexander and Cole Holcomb, the Steelers reached out to Myles Jack – who was retired and enjoying his new minor league hockey team and flying lessons – to see if he’d be interested in returning for another stint. Pittsburgh is now thinner at the position after losing Elandon Roberts in Week 13. Jack has been on the practice squad but may be elevated for Thursday night.

Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin emphasized communication ahead of the Thursday night game and admitted that the coaching staff is invested in making sure that the defense is on the same page in Week 14. “We have to do a better job as coaches helping our guys communicate better,” he said. “And when I say that, it is helping them in terms of demanding it more, making sure that they get it in practice and if somebody goes down, it’s not always just one guy.”

Blake Martinez could also be activated for this game to help Mark Robinson and Mykal Walker who played the center of the mid-defense against Arizona.

It will be interesting to see how the Steelers choose to handle the duties of limiting the rushes of Ezekiel Elliott as well as keeping tight ends Hunter Henry and Mike Gesicki from making big plays. Pittsburgh may choose to use the nickel and dime packages to shore up the middle of the field and force the Patriots to keep plays bounced to the outside.

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Mitchell Trubisky

The injury to starting quarterback Kenny Pickett was an unfortunate one in Week 13, which means that Pittsburgh is calling on Trubisky to find some magic as the leader of the Steelers offense against the Patriots. Trubisky was serviceable last week, not exceptional. He did throw a great pass on a button to Diontae Johnson – the only touchdown for the Steelers – against the Cardinals. Outside of a couple of plays, though, he was caught coming from behind with very little working for the black and gold offensively.

“I’m going to be aggressive. I’m going to take care of the football, and we’ve got to play better as an offense. We’re going against a good defense this week that is well-coached. So, we’ve got to do our job and execute… (we’ve) got to find ways to score points. That’s the bottom line.” – Mitch Trubisky

The balance of run versus pass will still be dictated by what the Patriots’ defense gives the Steelers’ offense, but there isn’t expected to be a total abandonment of any facet of what Pittsburgh has been working on all season. One thing they have been is safe; maybe too conservative at times in throwing the ball down the field. While Trubisky hinted this week that the Steelers may be less conservative, he reiterated that taking care of the football is key.

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Mason Cole

Thursday night is an opportunity for the Steelers’ center to redeem himself after some careless snaps in Week 13’s game. If he can correct that – and hopefully he did in limited practice time with Trubisky under center this week – the offensive line will benefit greatly. Pittsburgh’s offensive line needs a leader who can communicate and keep them on track on snap counts, eliminating penalties that hurt them in the game with the Cardinals.

The offensive line had been doing better in previous weeks, especially in creating effective blocks and traps up front to free running backs Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren. Every member of the line could use a boost this week, and it starts in the center.

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Alex Highsmith and T.J. Watt

Highsmith and Watt could be added to this list every single week, the way that the duo had performed. Against the Patriots, though, they could be real difference-makers as the Steelers try to rebound from the disappointment last Sunday. With Bailey Zappe at quarterback, the Patriots will have to double-team one of them along the offensive front if they hope to have any offense on Thursday night.

In the “Color Rush” jerseys, Highsmith and Watt seem to find another level. There’s just something about those jerseys. If Highsmith and Watt can get active early and remain disruptive, expect the rest of the Steelers defense to elevate their play, as well, as that energy becomes contagious. The pair will need to help limit the run and keep their eyes on the tight ends, at times, but their pressure on Zappe will be critical

Patriots offensive linemen Michael Onwenu and Trent Brown allowed six pressures combined, with five of those pressures coming from Onwensu’s right tackle spot, in Week 13 against the Los Angeles Chargers. The Patriots gave up six total sacks of Zappe in the same game. Two of those sacks came on third and fourth down plays. That kind of performance is something that Highsmith and Watt can feed off of. The duo currently has a combined 20 sacks this season. Watch for them to dial up the heat.

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