Patriots vs Steelers : The sample size on the 2018 Patriots is now large enough to draw some conclusions. There’s no escaping the fact that this team, especially the defense, is much different on the road.
The Pats allowed a career day to Blake Bortles in Week 2. Marcus Mariota torched New England in Week 10. Miami’s backfield trio of Kenyan Drake, Frank Gore and Brandon Bolden accounted for an unfathomable 255 yards from scrimmage a week ago. The final 55 were particularly devastating.
The Patriots went 15-1 on the road in the 2016 and 2017 seasons, which both ended with Super Bowl appearances. In that span, they never allowed more than 27 points in a single road game.
Today, they’re sitting at 3-4 away from Gillette. They’ve allowed 30+ points in four of those games, and their defensive implosions came against bottom-of-the-barrel offenses at Jacksonville, Tennessee and Miami (Chicago also hung 31 on the Patriots, but the Bears at least have a capable group).
To close out their regular-season road schedule, the Patriots visit the Steelers, a team that traditionally chokes at the sight of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, but a team with undeniable offensive talent.
How will the defense fare against such a high-powered attack on the road? That’s the biggest question heading into this Week 15 matchup.
Here are five things to watch when the Patriots square off with the Steelers…
WILL GRONK GO NUTS?
The best game of Rob Gronkowski’s career came last year in Pittsburgh, when the superstar tight end caught passes of 26, 26, and 17 yards on consecutive plays to set up the game-winning Dion Lewis touchdown run.
For good measure, Gronkowski added the two-point conversion, towering over safety Sean Davis and punctuating the play with a patented Gronk spike.
In six games against the Steelers, Gronkowski averages 110.7 receiving yards and has scored eight touchdowns.
“He’s a dangerous man,” said Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin.
This time around, Gronkowski enters as a secondary option for the Pats. He’s taken a back seat to Josh Gordon and Julian Edelman. In certain matchups, the Patriots have heavily favored their running backs over the passing attack.
Gronkowski is coming off his second 100-yard game of the season, and his first since the opener. Despite the ending, the Dolphins game should serve as a confidence-builder for Gronk. And the comfort of facing Keith Butler’s defense should only refuel the confidence tank.
A week ago, Pittsburgh was rocked by Oakland tight end Jared Cook for 116 yards on seven receptions. The Steelers mixed and matched coverages, using linebacker L.J. Fort, linebacker Jon Bostic, strong safety Terrell Edmunds and cornerback Mike Hilton on Cook. None of them were very effective.
The Steelers rank eighth-worst in the league in tight end defense, allowing 65.6 yards per game.
MATCHUPS IN THE SECONDARY
Teams game-planning for the Steelers now face a dilemma. Antonio Brown remains one of the top receivers in the league, but he’s no longer the clear-cut No. 1 option in Pittsburgh.
Second-year pro JuJu Smith-Schuster has statistically out-performed Brown, catching more passes (92 to 85) for more yards (1,234 to 1,063) at a higher catch rate (69.5 percent to 60.6 percent).
So how will the Pats play them?
Stephon Gilmore generally covers the tallest of the starting receivers. Against the Chiefs, for example, Gilmore was assigned to Sammy Watkins rather than Tyreek Hill.
At 6-foot-1, 215 pounds, Smith-Schuster is the bigger of Pittsburgh’s two stud receivers. He’s not necessarily a downfield threat, but he’s a possession receiver who is dangerous with the ball in his hands. Smith-Schuster moves around the formation, sometimes playing out of the slot when the Steelers use three receivers.
That leaves either Jason McCourty or J.C. Jackson to cover Brown. McCourty is coming off perhaps his worst outing as a Patriot. He struggled to cover Kenny Stills and was eventually replaced by Jackson in the team’s base defense.
Brown scored a touchdown or topped 100 yards in four of his first five games against the Patriots. In last year’s Week 15 showdown, Brown exited in the first half with a calf injury.
Much of the focus will be on the Patriots’ matchups with the Steelers electric receiver duo. Rightfully so.
But the real weakness of the New England defense has been on the ground.
For the second straight season, the Patriots rank near the bottom of the league against the run. Last year’s mark of 4.7 yards allowed per carry was the worst in the Bill Belichick era. That figure has ballooned to 4.9 yards per carry this season.
The Dolphins game was rock bottom.
Without James Conner, the Steelers don’t have much of a rushing attack. They’re relying on rookie Jaylen Samuels, who’s an interesting hybrid back/receiver, and veteran Stevan Ridley. But as they try to exploit the deficiencies in the New England defense, they’ll undoubtedly try to find a rhythm on the ground.
Which team is better suited for a down-to-the-wire affair?
Last year, it was clearly the Patriots.
After Jesse James’ touchdown was overturned, Ben Roethlisberger tried the ol’ fake spike play. Didn’t fool the Patriots. Still, Roethlisberger fired the ball into traffic. It was deflected by Eric Rowe and intercepted by Duron Harmon. The sequence instantly shifted the entire AFC playoff landscape.
Generally, the Patriots find ways to win tight games. Since 2013, they’re 13-4 in games decided by three points or fewer. And since 2001, they’re 42-18 in such games.
The Steelers aren’t quite as clutch. That’s not surprising given Roethlisberger’s late-game volatility and their special teams struggles; Chris Boswell has made only 10-of-16 field goal attempts this year.
Since 2013, Pittsburgh is 12-10-1 in games decided by three points or fewer.
Yes, Ben Roethlisberger moves well for his size.
But that doesn’t mean he moves well.
Once the 36-year-old Roethlisberger gets going, he can pick up some yards on a scramble. He’s not particularly nimble, though, which makes him an easy target in the pocket.
As brutal as their defense was a week ago, the Patriots did a decent job of generating pressure on Miami’s Ryan Tannehill. They’ve brought the heat all season. Sometimes, it’s Trey Flowers winning one-on-one matchups. In other situations, the Pats have used well-designed stunts or blitzed defensive backs.
With Brian Flores calling the shots, the Pats haven’t been afraid to send extra rushers.
Don’t be surprised to see an aggressive approach against Roethlisberger.