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Steelers Opponents

Patriots WR Carousel: N’Keal Harry Out; Demaryius Thomas, Josh Gordon In

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The New England Patriots have always had something of a revolving door at the wide receiver position since Tom Brady became the team’s quarterback in the early part of the last decade.

But rarely have the changes come as rapidly as they have this preseason for the Patriots.

Entering training camp, Julian Edelman and first-round pick N’Keal Harry were expected to carry the load, veteran with free agent Demaryius Thomas expected to work in as he returned from an Achilles injury.

Since then, Edelman and Harry have both suffered injuries. Harry was placed on the injured reserve and will miss at least the first eight weeks of the season with an ankle injury. Edelman also suffered a thumb injury that he appeared to re-aggravate in the Patriots’ preseason finale. His status for this Sunday is unknown, but the Patriots characterized the re-injury as a minor one.

Thomas was unexpectedly released after his big performance in the Patriots’ fourth preseason game, but was re-signed after Harry was placed on injured reserve. Thomas finished 2018 with 59 aches for 677 yards and five touchdowns, splitting his season between Denver and Houston.

He’ll be joined in the presumptive starting lineup by Josh Gordon, who was conditionally reinstated from his suspension for violations of the NFL’s substance abuse policy in August. Gordon started 12 games (one for Cleveland, 11 for New England) last season and racked up 737 yards and four touchdowns.

Gordon and Edelman both played in the teams’ Week 15 matchup in 2018. Edelman had seven catches on 11 targets for 90 yards. Gordon had one catch on two targets for 19 yards.

Steelers Opponents

Courtland Sutton Limited, Phillip Lindsay Didn’t Practice for Broncos Thursday

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Wide receiver Courtland Sutton (shoulder) practiced in a limited capacity Thursday, while running back Phillip Lindsay (toe) and linebacker Mark Barron (hamstring) sat for the Denver Broncos ahead of this weekend’s matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Sutton missed last week’s season opener against the Titans, but has now practiced for the second consecutive day. He is listed as questionable by Broncos head coaches Vic Fangio.

Lindsay missed for the second day in a row, while Barron worked individually on an adjacent field, the team announced.

Tackle Garett Boles (elbow) and wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland (hip) were also limited Thursday.

Safeties Kareem Jackson (not injury related) and Trey Marshall (wrist) were full participants. Jackson did not practice Wednesday, while Marshall was limited.

Outside linebacker Bradley Chubb (knee), wide receiver KJ Hamler (hamstring) and tight end Albert Okwuegbunam (hip) were also full-go on Thursday.

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Steelers

Scouting Report: Giants Playmakers Will Test Steelers Defense

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The Steelers are heading to New Jersey on Monday to face the New York Giants for their first game of the 2020 season. The Giants have an entirely new coaching staff, and are a young team, but boast some talented players that can give the Steelers trouble. How does their team look and matchup against the Steelers’ very talented team?

The Giants Schemes

This is a bit of a question mark as it stands since there is no definite film out there for how Joe Judge will mix his own schematic ideas with that of coordinators Jason Garrett and Patrick Graham, but there are some basic ideas that can be developed from the schemes.

For Garrett, it is a variation of the Air Coryell offense. In other words, that means this first and foremost a vertical offense that wants to push the ball down the field. The thing that makes Garrett’s offense scheme so dangerous is how he uses his tight ends. The tight ends in the Garrett scheme are seam busters, but they have ad-libbing schematic freedom. He does this with his signature play aptly named Y-Option.

Jason Witten was great running this while in Dallas. The tight end reads the coverage and decides on one of four routes — a flag route, dig route, double move up and go, and a curl route. It gives the schematic and route flexibility with great spacing across the board. Garrett likes to run a lot of levels concepts to really give his quarterbacks natural progressions at all levels of the field.

However, still at the heart of his offense, it is one that wants to push the ball. Sometimes, that will require Garrett to run some rhythm-based routes. The slant route is an effective staple of the Garrett scheme. As of recent, RPOs have been used heavily in the scheme. Garrett likes to really stress linebackers and put them in binds against a talented running back in the run game or pushing the ball vertically. Linebackers’ true skills are always tested against a Garrett-based scheme.

The running scheme has a lot of guard interaction. So Garrett likes what is called “G Action”. Pulling guards that will lead Saquon Barkley are very likely to be seen on Monday. Outside of that, Garrett really loves zone runs. It will test the Steelers linebackers ability to sift through the trash and sift against those outside zone runs that will look to take advantage of Barkley’s elite athleticism.

As for the defense, this is a big question mark. Graham was the defensive coordinator with Brian Flores last season, but how much of that scheme was actually Graham and not Flores is remained to be seen. However, with some Patriots blood in him, it is without a doubt that there will be a lot of flexible fronts. Even and odd fronts as it pertains to the look the Giants are seeing will be key for them to stop the running game and get pressure on Ben Roethlisberger.

What that Patriots scheme likes to do is be flexible up front to help the back end with their assortment of responsibilities. The Patriots run some Nick Saban ideas, including lots of Cover 3 shells and quarters. The point being is that Graham, if he is like other Belichick disciples, will have a flexible scheme that executes whatever he wants based on the matchup. Cornerbacks may be playing safeties and so forth. It is a multiples look defense that is meant to play with the quarterback’s eyes, while the front is meant to close in on the running game by slanting more than any other defense In the NFL.

Key Players to Watch

RB Saquon Barkley

Barkley, the former Penn State running back, is going to be enemy number one on Monday. Mike Tomlin noted that as such earlier in the week when talking of the threat that Barkley possesses. One of the best running backs in the NFL, Barkley is built like a brick house. He has incredible contact balance and body control for any football player of his size. Add in the fact that he is an absurd athlete by any given scale and there is a threat here. Barkley is a solid pass protector and a huge threat in the passing game with soft hands and surprisingly good route running.  He will threaten the linebackers to key in on him, and it may cause the Steelers to shift their schematic decisions.

QB Daniel Jones

The young Duke product is coming off a promising rookie season. His mental reads were sporadic, however, and it leads to some questions of if he will be able to decipher this Steelers defense. The Steelers were great at messing with the quarterback’s eyes last season by disguising their coverages. Jones threw the fifth most interceptable passes in the NFL with 29 last season because of mental lapses. He throws some really pretty balls and is coming along with his development, but his decision making, especially under pressure, could lead to some disastrous consequences for the Giants.

CB James Bradberry

Bradberry was the big free agent signing of the offseason for the Giants. It made sense given their holes at cornerback and now that last year’s first round pick in DeAndre Baker has been released, Bradberry will offer some much needed comfort for the Giants secondary. It is yet to be known if Bradberry will shadow JuJu Smith-Schuster or just play one side of the field, but his last year in Carolina showcased a physical player with great feet and discipline. If the Steelers want to beat Bradberry, it will not be easy.

DL Dexter Lawrence

Coming off a rookie season where he flashed his athleticism and traits, Lawrence is going to be a guy to watch as an interior penetrator for the Giants. He has the juice to run through guys, even as a nose tackle, but the with the front Graham may employ, it is possible Lawrence may see some matchups against Stefen Wisniewski with David DeCastro likely out. It depends on the jump Lawrence makes from year one to year two, but he is a fiery player that will be a problem for the Steelers with his tools.

Matchups to Watch

Corey Ballentine vs Steelers receivers

The Giants are inevitably going to have some questions at cornerback. Logan Ryan was signed, but it is unclear how he will be used on this defense. Whether that is as a slot corner, safety, or both. It makes sense that he would be signed by the Giants given his experience with the Patriots system. However, Ballentine will be the starter across from Bradberry. A second-year player out of Washburn, Ballentine is a lengthy cornerback with good ball skills and great physical tools that was thrown into the fire last year. He did surrender four touchdowns and 351 yards on 35 targets. This is a mismatch the Steelers can exploit, no question.

Andrew Thomas and Cameron Fleming vs Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt

This is the biggest question mark for the Giants on Monday. They have a problem at tackle naturally, even if Thomas pans out, but in Thomas’ first game, he will be facing a very talented pass rusher in Dupree. However, Fleming is the real one at risk here. Facing a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Watt is going to be a very dangerous matchup for him. This could get bad quickly. Jones has been prone to fumbles, with 18 fumbles last year. If Watt and Dupree are getting consistent pressure there is a good chance Jones may cough up the ball to catastrophic consequences.

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Steelers Interviews

Steelers Rivals: Interview with Former Cleveland Browns FB Kevin Mack

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In the latest Steelers Rivalry interview, our Ron Lippock spoke with former Browns fullback Kevin Mack who played with the team from 1985-1993, making two Pro Bowls. 

First, can you let me know what you’ve been doing with yourself since your time in the NFL?

I’m  actually working for the Browns now – doing the alumni relations for the team. I got started with them in their player development – I was going to work my way towards becoming a scout – that’s when Phil Savage was there as the GM.

He told me though that it was going to be a slow process to get me over to the football side of the business. It was a blessing though because I got to work a lot with those younger guys, and now I have an opportunity to work with them as alumni. So it’s been great.

How was the post-NFL adjustment for you?

It’s definitely a process. I lived in Houston for 14 years and did some coaching at Texas Southern. I was trying to assess whether or not I wanted to put them time in as a coach that you need to put in. It was different – I had two young daughters I wanted to spend time with. After trying it out, I decided against coaching.

When you signed with Cleveland, were you aware of how intense the rivalry was then?

No, I wasn’t! No one realized how intense it was until they made the team and played in that first game.

It’s funny because a few of those guys I played against I knew. Louis Lipps – I met him when we went through the combine together and we got to be friends. It’ weird how many of those guys I knew and played against, Delton Hall was another guy – I played college ball with him. LeVon Kirkland went to the same school I did as well at Clemson. The games were intense but it was hard going against people you knew so well – especially the ones that played on the other side of the ball. It was difficult when they were on defense and they could be real nice guys, but when you played against them you wanted to knock each other’s heads off!

Any memories stand out to you from those games?

One game I remember – I guess it was funny at the time. We were playing Pittsburgh in Cleveland, and it never mattered what our records were. They were just battles. Well, I remember a play – we ran it on the left side and I stiff-armed someone – I think I did anyway. But I got more facemask than anything with my hand. I walked back to the huddle opening and closing my hand – something just felt funny but I didn’t look down at it until I got to the huddle. I saw then that my finger was snapped at the base of the knuckle – it was sticking out of the other side of my hand where my thumb was.

Well, I started running off the field when I saw that, but the guys on the sidelines didn’t know what was going on and kept trying to wave me back into the huddle. Then they saw my hand – I thought some of them were going to puke. It didn’t really bother me until the doctor tried to reset it. I was kicking and screaming on the ground while he was setting my finger, like a big baby. I didn’t even know he was done – I barely felt it – it took like a second and I was still kicking and screaming!

Any of the guys you face stand out to you most in those games?

Everyone seemed to play at a Pro Bowl level in those games – we fought for every inch.

One guy that stood out to me was Donnie Shell – he’d come up and lay the wood on you. It was unbelievable how tough he was. But I guess they had a long line of tough defensive backs there.

Kevin Greene was one of those guys that was always tough too. I wouldn’t tell those guys then, but I hated blocking him and some of those big linebackers they had. Lloyd too – he was a great player you always had to pay attention to.

Anything specific you did to prepare for those games?

As an individual, there are always certain assignments you have to pay attention to. As a fullback, I had to know my blocking assignments, and there was always a new twist every week our coaches brought in. And as a fullback, I had to work closely with the offensive line to make sure I was there to clean up any missed blocking assignments.

In practice, we always picked up the tempo in those weeks. We knew they wouldn’t be slow, boring games!

What do you think of the rivalry today and of this current Browns team?

I feel the same way I did when I played – I want to win that game every time we play Pittsburgh! But of course I have no control over that now.  I do try to convey to those guys today how big the game still is. The Steelers I think have the upper hand right now, but we’re getting the team back to where it used to be. I think it takes a couple of years to get it to where it was.

I think if these guys today could watch film of some of those games we played in, even though I know the rules have changes and you can’t do some of those things anymore – but if they could see the passion we played with in those games they’d be extra motivated. No matter what each team’s record was, you could never assume you’d win that game.

What do you think of the current Browns team?

I do like this current team’s makeup.  People don’t realize even though they out this team together and it has  lot of talent, that it’s till really in it’s first year. It’s not going to click right away. It’s the first year this team has been together and it takes repetitions before you get that chemistry. It’s a process that takes time – and that’s compounded when you have a new head coach and playcallers.

They are on the right track. I don’t get down with the losses – I know they will work on it and work it out. And the schedule the first half of the season had a lot of playoff teams they faced – so it’s a big learning lesson for them. Especially for a guy like Baker Mayfield. who’s in his second season. The second season is hardest because teams now have film on you and cam gameplan better against you. That makes a big difference as well.

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