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    Sunday, March 03, 2024

    Patriots head to Pittsburgh looking to upset Steelers

    New England Patriots quarterback Bailey Zappe runs against the Los Angeles Chargers during an NFL football game at Gillette Stadium, Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023 in Foxborough, Mass. (Winslow Townson/AP Images for Panini)
    Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris (22) rushes while being tackled by Arizona Cardinals safety Jalen Thompson (34) during an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Matt Durisko)
    New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick during the first half of an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Chargers, Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

    Pittsburgh — The NFL used to come to a near standstill whenever the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots met.

    Now, not so much. Thursday night's meeting might merit a passing glance.

    If that.

    The two teams that will run onto the Acrisure Stadium turf won't have future Hall of Fame quarterbacks at the controls. They won't be fighting for home-field advantage in the playoffs or a spot in the Super Bowl.

    The Patriots (2-10) are simply looking for something — anything — to build on amid a five-game losing streak that has a team that used to pick last in each round of the draft nearly every year at the height of the Tom Brady era to somehow perhaps pick first.

    The Steelers (7-5) are better off in the standings but can't seem to get off the treadmill of mediocrity. A chance to take a step forward and create some breathing room in the race for an AFC wild-card spot slipped away last Sunday in a sloppy and dispiriting loss to rebuilding Arizona.

    Several players — running back Jaylen Warren and wide receiver Diontae Johnson among them — said in the aftermath there's a chance Pittsburgh overlooked the then-two-win Cardinals based merely on their record.

    That can't happen again if the Steelers want to be considered a serious threat to play beyond the first weekend in January.

    And they know it.

    "I've been around, so I just know you just can't take anybody lightly in this league," said quarterback Mitch Trubisky, who will start with Kenny Pickett out indefinitely following right ankle surgery.

    "I've been around too long to know that anybody can win on any given day. So, we play on Thursday this week, and the best team is going to win."

    It hasn't taken an opponent's "best" to get the better of the Patriots lately. New England is already assured of its worst season since Bill Belichick's first year with the team in 2000, mostly thanks to an offense that achieved a piece of NFL infamy last week in a 6-0 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.

    The setback made the Patriots the first team since the 1938 Chicago Cardinals to lose three straight games when allowing 10 points or fewer. Putting second-year quarterback Bailey Zappe into the mix failed to provide a spark, though Zappe is likely to get the nod again against T.J. Watt and company.

    While Belichick put the onus on the coaching staff to help a group that has massively underachieved, he allowed that in early December, there's not much you can do.

    "You pretty much are what you are at this point in the season, in terms of schematically," Belichick said.

    It's much the same in Pittsburgh. The Steelers saw a brief flash of what its offense could be in a 421-yard outburst in a win over Cincinnati on Nov. 26, a game played just days after firing offensive coordinator Matt Canada. They came crashing back to earth against the Cardinals, as penalties, a poorly timed turnover and an inability to sustain drives blunted whatever momentum the victory over the Bengals had generated.

    The loss did little to damage Pittsburgh's playoff hopes. It also did little to help them. Another setback at home against a two-win team could be disastrous.

    Inside job

    Injuries have decimated Pittsburgh's depth at inside linebacker. Cole Holcomb and Kwon Alexander are already lost for the season, and Elandon Roberts is dealing with a groin issue that could force him to sit out.

    Enter Blake Martinez and Myles Jack, veterans who came out of retirement in November. Martinez signed with Carolina's practice squad before the Steelers brought him in before Thanksgiving. Jack, who retired in August, was helping run the minor league hockey team in Texas he owns when the Steelers called last month.

    "(We were) hopeful that we would have more time (to prepare them)," Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said. "But you don't always get what you want. And so, we'll see what those dudes look like from a preparedness standpoint as we prepare for this one."

    QB shuffle

    Zappe is expected to get another try as the Patriots' No. 1 quarterback — if only because there isn't enough time in a short week to get another passer ready.

    Zappe completed 13 of 25 passes for 141 yards in Sunday's loss to the Chargers and failed to deliver a single point. The Patriots punted seven times, turned the ball over on downs twice and ended their best drive on a fumble. They never crossed the Los Angeles 29 yard-line.

    Rookie Malik Cunningham was activated from the practice squad, but did not get into the game; he took six snaps in a Week 6 loss to Las Vegas but did not throw a pass. New England also has Will Grier — who started two games for Carolina in 2019 — on the roster.

    Zappe had relieved Mac Jones in three previous games this season. He got most of the first-team snaps in practice last week and addressed reporters from the podium on Tuesday, a privilege usually afforded the starter. The "unofficial" depth chart on the Patriots website — they're one of only three teams in the NFL that includes that qualifier — lists Zappe as QB1.

    "Coach has made it pretty clear, but I'll let him announce it to everyone," he said. "That's private right now, and whenever he announces it, that's with him. I try to prepare every week like I'm the guy. Nothing different from me."

    Letting it fly

    Trubisky figures to bring a more aggressive attitude to Pittsburgh's offense than the risk-averse Pickett. Whether that translates into more points for the NFL's 28th-ranked scoring offense likely depends on Trubisky's sometimes iffy decision-making.

    The 29-year-old has thrown seven interceptions in 229 attempts with the Steelers and allowed he's still learning about when to let it fly and when to check it down.

    "You want to be aggressive, but if you're too safe with the football, you're not going to move it," Pickett said. "So, you got to know what you can do, and you always got to take care of the football at the end of the day. But sometimes you just got to believe in yourself that you can make the throws to move the ball down the field and score points."

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