Bill Belichick has many objectives this weekend. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
It’s the kind of challenge that Bill Belichick embraces. It’s also the kind of challenge that he and the Patriots usually thrive under.
The Patriots must get ready for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the season opener next Thursday while also trimming their roster to 53 by Saturday at 4 p.m. ET. They also must formulate a practice squad and install a game plan for Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and the explosive Steelers offense.
The Patriots have gotten a good head start, according to Belichick, but there’s still lots to get ready for.
“I’d say it’s a little more of a crunch than usual, absolutely, because not only do we have to prepare for Pittsburgh, but we also have to be ready to practice on Saturday,” Belichick said Friday, a day off for the players. “So, that’s a little bit of a challenge. We spent some time on Pittsburgh last week, so I think we’re further along than we would normally be at this point if we were playing on Sunday, not Thursday. Hopefully that will put us in decent position to be ready for the players when they come in since we’ve already done some of that. We’ll just have to spend the time that we need today and [Saturday] to make some roster decisions.”
Of course, as Belichick said during the week, the reason they’re being forced into this position is they won the Super Bowl last year so he can live with that.
Both teams will be without feature running backs, as LeGarrette Blount is sitting out for the Patriots and Le’Veon Bell is sitting for the Steelers. Ironic, since both were in the vehicle that was involved in a marijuana-related stop by police in Aug. 2014. The Steelers figure to feel the pain a little bit more since Bell was a huge piece of the Steelers’ offense in ’14. So, the Steelers will turn to veteran DeAngelo Williams and 24-year-old speedster Dri Archer.
“DeAngelo Williams is a good player. He’s certainly a challenge for us to defend,” Belichick said. “They’ve used Archer quite a bit. He’s a different type of player, but also extremely fast and explosive and he presents a lot of problems as well, too. I’m sure that [offensive coordinator] Coach [Todd] Haley and [Head] Coach [Mike] Tomlin will use their explosive players and put them in positions that are tough for us to defend them. However that goes, we’ll just have to be ready for it. They have a lot of options. We have a lot of things to be ready for. We’ll just have to do the best we can to prepare for it and then see what happens Thursday night.
“Archer played a lot in preseason. I mean DeAngelo Williams, we know him pretty well. Look, I think they have plenty of weapons. The question is how they decide to deploy them and what combinations they are and where they line up and what they do with them and all that. We’ll just have to see. Look, Le’Veon is a good player, I’m not saying that, but they have a lot of other good players, too. We have to be ready for all of it. They have a lot of talent.”
Then there’s Roethlisberger, entering his 12th NFL season as Steelers quarterback.
“He’s really good. He had a tremendous year last year on a lot of different levels. That’s the best ‘ the Steelers have a great tradition, a great football tradition, and that was their best offensive year in history,” Belichick added. “I don’t know how you could do it any better than that. The last few times he’s played us, I don’t think we’ve held him under 350 yards, we might not have held him under 400 yards, I don’t know, with a lot of touchdowns. He’s played very well against us, and he’s a great player, one of the top quarterbacks in the league. He’s great on the deep balls, reads coverages well, hard to tackle, extends plays. He’s a really good player and he has a lot of great weapons. He’ll be very difficult to defend. We’ve certainly had a lot of trouble with him.”
Some other takeaways from Belichick on Friday:
Q: What are your thoughts on Tom Brady re-joining the team?
BB: He never left.
Q: What are your thoughts on him being available to play the first four games of the season?
BB: We’ll do the best that we can to have the best plan, the best preparation for Pittsburgh, same as we always do.
Q: On your list of objectives for the upcoming season, where does winning the AFC East rank on that list?
BB: We’re one game at a time right now. We’re just trying to get ready for Pittsburgh and that’s it. I don’t know about all the rest of that. I’m sure if we win enough games we’ll be in good shape. But right now we just need to try to win one.
Q: Was the coaching staff prepared to have Tom Brady for Week 1 all along?
BB: Right now, we’re going to take the players that are available and try to figure out the best way to prepare our team for the Steelers Thursday night. That’s all we’re doing.
Q: As far as you’re concerned, is everything from the AFC Championship Game and deflated footballs and all that, is that all in the rearview mirror?
BB: We’re focused on Pittsburgh.
Q: Does not having a practice squad until Sunday affect your preparation for a Thursday game at all?
BB: Yeah. We’re on a different schedule than everybody else, but we’ll do the best we can to make the most of our opportunity to prepare, that’s all.
Q: The transition from Coach [Dick] LeBeau to Coach Keith Butler at defensive coordinator, with the 3-4, but they did use the 4-3 in the preseason, do you have thoughts about that transition?
BB: Well, we’ve seen some of the things carry over from last year defensively. We’ve seen a few new things. There certainly is the potential for other new things that they haven’t shown that they’ve been working on that we see for the first time on Thursday night. That’s always the way it is opening day. We have to prepare for some of last year, some modifications they’ve put in this year and then there’s the unexpected if you will. I’m not saying they’re going to reinvent the game or any of us are, but there are some things that maybe haven’t shown up on film that might show up Thursday night in the game. It’s a combination of all those things, but it always is for opening day. That’s why opening day is such a hard game to prepare for. You have all the things you’ve seen in preseason, you have the things that they did last year and then they’ve had a lot of time to work on whatever it is they want to work on that you haven’t seen. Everybody is in the same boat. That’s opening day. When you get to that second game, I don’t want to say you can eliminate a lot of things, but I’d say you can eliminate a lot of things if they don’t show up on opening day and they haven’t shown up in preseason, there’s probably a pretty good chance they’re not going to be a real big part of what your opponent is doing. But we’re not there yet.
Q: Did you see anything last night that clarified the cornerback position or do you see a scenario where everyone sticks?
BB: Sure, I think we got a lot of snaps of Logan [Ryan], Robert [McClain] and Dax [Swanson]. They played multiple positions. They played on the outside and also played some on the inside. It just gave us a great opportunity to see all of them play, see them compete [and] also see them play in the kicking game. They’ve gotten a lot of reps through the course of preseason as well. It’s just another piece to the puzzle in the evaluation. Like I said, we have the Carolina game, the New Orleans game, the New Orleans practices, the Green Bay game, training camp. So there’s a big body of work there for all the corners. We’ll just use last night as I said, as another component of that and make the best decision we can for our team based on quality of play, position flexibility, role in the kicking game, upside or improvement, however you want to look at it and just try to figure it out from there.