New England travels to Pittsburgh this Sunday to meet the Steelers in what many have predicted will be a preview of the AFC Championship game. It is certainly a fun matchup, and will hopefully produce a great game for fans to watch. The Patriots are coming off of a 35-17 win over the Bengals, and currently sit atop the AFC East at 5-1. The Steelers suffered a 30-15 loss to the Dolphins last Sunday, but are still in 1st place in the AFC North at 4-2.
Like so many other teams in the NFL, the Steelers season has been a baffling inconsistency. They have dominating wins over Washington (38-16), Kansas City (43-14), and New York (31-13), which is impressive because two of those teams are over .500 on the season so far. However, they have also suffered embarrassing losses to the Eagles (34-3) and the Dolphins (30-15). While the Eagles have been exceeding expectations, they are not exactly a powerhouse team in the NFC, and the Dolphins are having another down year, with their only other win coming against the perennial first-round-pick-contending Browns. With the talent level that the Steelers have, they should have easily been able to beat both of those teams, or at the very least keep the games closer than they were.
The Steelers biggest advantage is their offensive weapons, and that has shown in all of their wins so far this season. They rank 9th in points per game, which is not particularly difficult when your Big Three are Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and LeVeon Bell/Deangelo Williams. They also have great depth at receiver with Sammy Coates and Darrius Heyward-Bey. Pittsburgh’s skill players posses top notch speed, and are extremely dangerous in the open field. It is difficult to stop all of them, which is why it has been so easy for them to score on opposing defenses so far this season.
The Steelers defense has been better than it was in 2015. They are only giving up 20.5 points per game, and specifically have held their opponents under twenty points in each of their four wins. They are in the bottom of the league in opponent’s yards per game but that does not equate to losses. For some reason, Pittsburgh defense and offense have either been running smoothly, or been complete train wrecks, in the same games.
For the third week in a row, I am going to beg the Patriots to balance out their offensive attack. The Steelers are the third worst team in the league in opponents passing yards per game (293.7), which is probably the greatest news in the world for the pass-happy Josh McDaniels/Tom Brady. Pittsburgh’s rushing defense is better, hovering in the middle of the league for opponent rushing yards per game. However, their star defensive end, Cameron Heyward, is out with a hamstring injury. The Patriots would do well to exploit this, and try to establish a strong rushing attack early so that they will be able to tire the defense out and hit play action passes for big games later on. New England’s problem with play action passes over the past two games has ben that the rushing game has not been prominent enough for teams to bite too hard on the fake. Establishing a strong ground game will also help the Patriots control the ball for longer, keeping the Steelers offense off the field. The less time you can give Antonio Brown and LeVeon Bell the ball, the better. The Patriots will also need to come out with a much higher intensity than they did against Cincinnati last Sunday. If they fall behind to a team that can score as easily as the Steelers can, they will have a difficult time coming from behind to win.
While I never wish injuries on anyone and am wishing Ben Roethlisberger a speedy recovery from his meniscus tear, seeing Landry Jones at quarterback is a welcome sight for New England. Big Ben’s ability to escape pressure, along with his powerful arm, make him one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the game of football, especially when he has the best receiver in the game on his team. Landry Jones, on the other hand, has played in 11 games over four years, with three touchdowns and four interceptions to his name. While he could certainly come out and have a great game Sunday, the Patriots can devise a much simpler defensive game plan against Jones than they would have to against the more experienced Roethlisberger. I would expect them to play more zone coverage, so as to double team Antonio Brown, and prevent the big plays. Brown is too quick for any of the Patriots cornerbacks to cover in straight man-coverage, so they will try to keep him from getting those favorable match ups. They will most likely be willing to give up a little room in the run game, and hope that regular four or five man pressure will be enough to slow down Bell and get pressure on Jones. The biggest key for the Patriots defense will be tackling. Throughout the season they have had a lot of missed tackles from either overextending in the backfield, or grabbing at the ball carrier but being unable to pull him down. That is not something that they can let happen with players as good in the open field as Bell and Williams.
With Ben Roethlisberger out, I think the Patriots have a much better shot at winning. If they can keep their turnovers down and control the clock, they should be able to overpower the weakened Steelers offense.
New England 27 Pittsburgh 14
Until next time- B$
PS. We are at DEFCON 1 with Stephen Gostkowski. For years he has been arguably the best kicker i football, and this year he has been horrible. Something is seriously wrong, and if this keeps up the Patriots may need to consider bringing in another kicker. They can’t loose another playoff game (or any game really) because of a missed extra point.