The Steelers beat the Patriots, 17-10, in Week 15 of the 2018 NFL season, relying largely upon a key piece in their offensive attack that night:
Was it Antonio Brown? Nope.
Ben Roethlisberger? Nah.
JuJu Smith-Schuster? Nuh-uh.
It was Jaylen Samuels. Wait, wait ... It was rookie running back who never rushed for 100 yards in his life Jaylen Samuels.
There we go. That paints a more accurate picture. Samuels went for 142 yards on 19 carries in that contest at Heinz Field, a ridiculous 7.5-yards-per-carry clip. Now facing the Patriots in Week 1 up north in Foxborough to kick off the 2019 campaign, however, the Steelers know they're not going to surprise Bill Belichick and company. Not again.
"I thought Jaylen played a great game," Roethlisberger was saying at the Rooney Complex ahead of the team's Sept. 8 Sunday Night Football showdown. "He did a little bit of everything. [But] you're not going to surprise the Patriots twice. I promise you that ... You're not going to get over on the Patriots twice. That coaching staff's pretty good and their players are pretty darn good, too. So we'll have to figure some new things out."
Mike Tomlin agrees.
"[Tom Brady] is very difficult to trick," Tomlin was saying. "And even if you do, it won’t happen over an extended period of time over the course of a football game. That’s life when you’re competing against a guy like him.”
While there's nothing but respect for the Patriots and for Brady from both Roethlisberger and Tomlin, it's not like they're throwing up their hands and hoping for the best. Roethlisberger identified a key tactic the Patriots use to shut down offenses, and he's prepared to counter it as they did last season.
"They always do a good job of kind of combo-ing your top two guys," Roethlisberger said. "Whether that's a receiver, running back, tight end — whoever they deem as your top two, they're going to double. And that's what we anticipate this year. The key is going to be early on figuring out who they deem is your top two."
Beyond that, the concept is pretty simple: Take what they give you, then exploit the weakness within.
"I think the way that they had DBs on the field [last year] they wanted to stop the passing game, so you go dime and nickel packages, and that makes smaller guys that are in for coverage, not necessarily in there for stopping the running game," Roethlisberger said. "That's why you try to take advantage of those situations, depending on who's on the field defensively."
And that's also why Samuels had the game of his life on the ground. For Roethlisberger and company this year, there will be opportunities to trot out another unknown like Samuels last season. Rookie receiver Diontae Johnson figures to play a part in this year's offense, as does newly signed wideout Donte Moncrief. James Conner, injured for last year's game, is good to go this time around. That'll let Samuels mix in rather than star as the featured ingredient. Brown's gone, and Smith-Schuster is the No. 1.
It adds up to a significant change, but even beyond the personnel, Roethlisberger acknowledges a shift in philosophy — much like the Patriots themselves use — that could benefit his team in Foxborough.
"Obviously they've had one of the most dominant tight ends and some players, but I think that's one of their M.O.'s is just, spread the ball around," Roethlisberger said. "Everyone gets involved and no one ever shines too much. You got [Rob Gronkowski] and [Julian Edelman] and guys like that, but they just spread it around and let everyone make plays. And I think that's an awesome recipe for trying to be successful ...
"We got a lot of guys that I think that can be successful, can help us win football games. Kind of, my style is spreading it around anyway, so I'm going to have to be good and get them the ball. Then the rest is up to those guys."
Among "those guys" is one player not yet mentioned: James Washington. Now entering Year 2, Washington led the team with 10 catches, 208 yards and two touchdown in preseason action — team-highs in all categories. In addition to figuring out life at the NFL level, Washington made a physical transformation this offseason, dropping 15 pounds in an effort to get quicker and shiftier.
Roethlisberger has noticed it all, and he expects it to pay off.
"You saw, everybody saw him as soon as he walked in, how much better shape he looked in," Roethlisberger said of Washington. "Not better shape, but thinner, you know? Lighter. He was already strong. It's not like he was chubby and he lost weight. He looked good, but now he lost weight because he wanted to be faster, and I think we've all seen that.
"We've just seen him continue to grow in terms of understanding the offense and making plays. He goes up and high points balls and makes those contested catches. I think that's all growth. That's positive in everybody's eyes."
In the end, it's not about Player X, Y or Z, though. It's about the Steelers vs. the Patriots. And those two teams guarantee excellence almost every time out.
"No one's got a win, no one's got a loss," Roethlisberger said. "They are the world champs, and we have to go to their place and do our best."
MATT SUNDAY GALLERY
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