JuJu Smith-Schuster and Antonio Brown were both double-teamed by Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots when the Pittsburgh Steelers and Patriots met in Week 15 of the 2018 regular season. Despite the added attention on both Smith-Schuster and Brown, Pittsburgh came out with a 17-10 victory.
With Brown no longer in his huddle, Smith-Schuster, who will make his debut as Pittsburgh's No. 1 receiver Sunday night in Foxboro, is expecting the same treatment from Belichick and the Patriots.
"I won't be surprised that he'll double me," Smith-Schuster said of Belichick, via the team's official Twitter handle. "I'm very confident in my guys going on there, making their plays on one-on-one coverage."
JuJu was also asked if he expects Stephon Gilmore to be the primary coverage guy on him on Sunday. That wasn't the case last year, with Jason McCourty being the primary corner that covered Smith-Schuster.
"In the past, Gilmore is usually on [a team's] best receiver," Smith-Schuster said. "He's a vet, he's a tough guy, a great, great player. For me, to have the opportunity against him would be amazing."
Take away a team's biggest offensive threat and force someone else to beat you. That's the staple of a Bill Belichick defense. That philosophy helped him pull off two of the most notable upsets in Super Bowl history: a 20-19 victory over the Buffalo Bills when he was the New York Giants defensive coordinator in Super Bowl XXV, and New England's 20-17 win over the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.
While his defense allowed Buffalo running back Thurman Thomas to run for 135 yards, Belichick's defense contained the Bills' "K-Gun" offensive attack while allowing virtually no yards after the catch. Over a decade later, while his defense permitted league MVP Kurt Warner to throw for 365 yards, the Patriots held running back Marshall Faulk, the league's MVP the previous season, to under 80 rushing yards while also keeping him out of the end zone.
Belichick's Patriots weren't as fortunate when they faced the Steelers last December. While their double-teams of Brown and Smith-Schuster mostly worked (the duo combined to catch just eight of 17 targets for 89 yards), both players still found ways to make an impact. After New England tied the score at 7-all, JuJu's 22-yard catch on a second-and-14 situation set up Brown's second quarter touchdown that gave Pittsburgh the led for good.
The Steelers wouldn't have defeated the Patriots, however, if not for the performances of its supporting cast on the offensive side of the ball. James Wahington led Pittsburgh in receiving yards that day, while backup running back Jaylen Samuels, starting in place of an injured James Conner, rushed for 142 yards on 19 carries. How the Steelers plan to use Samuels is one of the biggest question marks entering Sunday night's game.
"It gave me a lot of confidence," Samuels, who is entering his second NFL season, told reporters earlier this week when looking back at his previous performance against New England. "Not just for that game, but for the rest of the season. It gave players around me confidence. My teammates, they believed in me, they trusted me, and that definitely gave me more confidence going into the rest of the season and I'm gonna carry that into this season."
With Smith-Schuster likely facing a double-team, Pittsburgh's other skill position players -- Washington, Samuels and Conner, along with No. 2 receiver Donte Moncrief, slot receiver Ryan Switzer, and starting tight end Vance McDonald -- will have to make plays to help free up some space for Smith-Schuster, who led the Steelers with 111 receptions last season. If they can't, the Steelers will likely drop their fourth consecutive game to New England at Gillette Stadium.
Pittsburgh's defense will also have to be up to the task against Tom Brady, who enters Sunday night's game with a 5-0 record against the Steelers in Foxboro.
"He's a good guy. One of the greats that you play against each week," Pittsburgh starting strong safety Terrell Edmunds recently said of Brady. "He's somebody that you watch growing up and somebody that you watching growing up that you always wanted to compete against. It brings out the best in people because you have to go put it all out on film, because you know that he's looking to find ways to beat you."