In a Week 7 battle of AFC Heavyweights, the New England Patriots head to coal mining country to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field. Some of the luster of this matchup has been lost with the Steelers Ben Roethlisberger going down with a knee injury in Week 6 but this game still has important playoff implication for both squads. Including the playoffs, these teams have 28 times with the Pittsburgh holding the series lead 15-13. However, the Patriots do hold the playoff series lead (3-1) and with Tom Brady starting at quarterback have won 8 of the last 10 meetings.
The Steelers are coming off of an exceptionally bad loss against the perennial bottom-feeding Miami Dolphins. In that game, Pittsburgh’s defense was gashed for 222 rushing yards and lost their starting quarterback for the next several weeks. Though the outcome of that matchup would certainly have been different had Roethlisberger not been hurt, the Steelers need to now move forward with quarterback Landry Jones.
For the Patriots, this will be the third game of Tom Brady’s return from ‘vacation’ and their third consecutive game against an AFC North opponent. New England’s offense has been slowly returning to form and has been highlighted by the dual tight end threat of Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett.
So in yet another futile attempt to be non-bias and analytical, both teams were broken down in key areas to see how they will match up against each other and which one may have the key to a victory.
Quarterback – Patriots: In 7 appearances in 2015, Pittsburgh’s Landry Jones posted a QB Rating of 77.3 with 3 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. Though anything can happen on Sunday, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Jones will be able to go toe to toe with Tom Brady who, by the way, is off to a historically hot start to his season.
Running Backs – Steelers: Though the Patriots running back combo of Blount/White have been very productive, the Steelers get the edge in this match up with Bell and Williams in their backfield who could very well be one of the best running back combos in the AFC.
Wide Receivers – Push: The Steelers’ Antonio Brown is clearly a top 10 WR in the NFL. However, beyond Brown there is a there is a significant drop off in talent and production in the Steelers’ wide receiver corps. The Patriots, while still settling into their offense, have several serviceable options that can be relied upon to make critical plays in the passing game.
Tight Ends – Patriots: Both Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett have more yards individually than the entire tight end group for the Steelers put together.
Offensive Line – Push: Both teams are fairly even when comparing their run blocking and their ability to protect the passer. Based on that there is no clear cut advantage for either team.
Defensive Front Seven – Patriots: New England has a versatile and deep front seven that has fielded a top 10 rushing defense while their Pittsburgh counterparts are coming off a 200+ yard gashing by the lowly Miami Dolphins. The Patriots have a slightly better pass rush than their Steelers counterparts as well.
Secondary – Patriots: The Steelers are ranked 30th in average passing yards allowed per game. The Patriots are better in this department and have held opposing quarterbacks to a lower quarterback rating to this point.
Special Teams – Push: Both the Patriots and Steelers have solid kickers in Stephen Gostkowski and Chris Boswell respectively. Additionally they both have very good punters that have been used to strategically change field position against their opponents.
Coaching – Patriots: The Steelers’ Mike Tomlin is a respected coach and true to Pittsburgh’s philosophy of having head coach stability through the ups and downs that franchises will go through. After the performance of his team in Week 3 (at Philadelphia) and the debacle in Week 6 (against the lowly Miami Dolphins), one has to wonder how well Tomlin is able to keep his team focused on a week to week basis against teams that the Steelers should beat. For the Patriots, even though there will not be a Surface tablet in Bill Belichick’s hand, paper photos should be enough for him to make in game adjustments as needed.
If we assign 2 points for every category (1 point per team for draws) this is how it lines up:
Key’s to Victory:
Force Pittsburgh to Throw Deep: Though this strategy can come back to hurt you because of Antonio Brown, stopping the run and covering shorter to mid-range routes may force the inexperienced (and mistake prone) Landry Jones into situations that actually could favor the Patriots secondary.
Take What the Defense Gives You: It’s easy to fall in love with throwing the ball to the tight end combo that that the Patriots have. However Pittsburgh’s defense may present the opportunities to run the ball effectively and allow for one on one coverage to the wide receivers. The Patriots must keep their offensive game plan diverse and make quick adjustments to force the Steelers to defend the entire field.
Expect the Unexpected: With the loss of Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers will look for every opportunity to keep the ball away from the Patriots and generate more opportunities for their offense. New England needs to ensure that they are mindful of trick plays (especially on Special Teams) and not let their guard down against what could be a very desperate Pittsburgh team.
As recently as a few weeks ago, this game had the look of a potential preview of this season’s AFC Championship Game. The absence of Ben Roethlisberger certainly may have changed that perception. New England got the best of the Steelers last season 28-21 in Foxboro so even though Pittsburgh is shorthanded, they will still be looking to return the favor to the Patriots.
On paper this seems like a mismatch with a fresh and motivated Tom Brady going against a Steelers defense that would make the members of the Steel Curtain Defense sick to their stomach. Without Big Ben, Patriots fans and fantasy owners are probably drooling over this matchup. As with most games against Pittsburgh this will probably be a much closer than what people would expect.
The Knuckles Prediction: Patriots 28 – Pittsburgh 24