By Daniel Benjamin
The Pittsburgh Steelers are on an eight-game winning streak, but it hasn’t been easy to say the least. And it surely won’t be easy this upcoming weekend when the Steelers host the New England Patriots. Kickoff is set for 4:25 p.m ET at Heinz Field.
Pittsburgh (11-2) is coming off an extremely emotionally draining nine days. The Steelers’ season was turned upside down last Monday on their first defensive series when star linebacker, Ryan Shazier, had to be carted off the field with a spinal injury after making a tackle on Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Josh Malone.
Following the injury, as most Bengals-Steelers games have been prone to get, the game got very physical and violent. The emotional aspect ultimately caused rookie wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster to miss Sunday’s comeback win over Baltimore due to a suspension.
At the very least, the past few weeks have shown the Steelers to be very resilient. They have come back from double-digit fourth quarter deficits in each of their last two contests. In fact, six of their wins during the streak have been by a touchdown or less.
New England (10-3) had its eight-game winning streak snapped with a 27-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins on Monday night.
This meeting will be the 31st all-time between the franchises. The Patriots have won the last four meetings to tie the all-time series up at 15 wins apiece. The Pats have outscored the Steelers 146-85 over the last four games and 682-651 overall.
Patriots on Offense
New England is coming off their worst offensive showing this season. The Patriots managed a season-low 246 yards of total offense as they were 0-for-11 on third down conversions against the Dolphins. The 20 points were the second fewest for the NFL’s fourth-highest scoring offense, who average 28.3 points a contest.
New England ranks second in the league in total offense with 400.5 yards a game. The Patriots are the top passing team with 281.1 yards a game and tied for first with 8.1 yards per pass. They are also 15th in rushing at 113.2 yards on the ground.
Quarterback Tom Brady leads the offense. Brady is a gunslinger who gets the ball off quickly and from a variety of different angles. Brady leads the league with 297.3 yards per game as he is completing 67.4% of his passes, which ranks third. He has thrown 27 touchdowns and six interceptions.
However, Brady hasn’t been on top of his game for the past three weeks, and he had his worst game of the season Monday night. Brady was just 24-of-43 (55.8%) for 233 yards along with one touchdown and two interceptions. It was his third least accurate game of the season while 5.42 yards per attempt was the lowest of the year.
Brady has a ton of weapons. Tight end Rob Gronkowski, who was suspended for Sunday’s game, leads the team with 55 receptions for 849 yards (15.3 ypc) and seven touchdowns. Brandin Cooks, who has 54 receptions on the season, is the team’s big play threat though he has just three receptions in the last two games. James White (53), Danny Amendola (52), Chris Hogan (34), Rex Burkhead (29) and Dion Lewis (20) all have over 20 catches. And the Patriots just inked veteran free agent wide receiver Kenny Britt.
Lewis leads the Pats with 607 yards on the ground. Mike Gillislee, who has been inactive the last five games, is second on the team with 399 yards. Burkhead has 252 rushing yards along with four touchdowns and James White has 171 rushing yards.
Patriots on Defense
New England struggled early in the season on the defensive end. The defense then turned things around, giving up a total of 85 points during their eight-game winning streak. However, the Pats couldn’t contain running back Kenyan Drake as he accounted for 193 of the team’s 362 yards on Monday night. Drake ran for 114 yards on 25 carries and caught five passes for an additional 79 yards. It was the most dominant performance against the Patriots since Kansas City Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt accumulated 246 total yards of offense in Week 1.
New England is giving up the fifth fewest points in the league at 19.2 points a game, although the Pats are 29th in total defense as they are allowing 374.6 yards a game. The Pats, who are just giving up 160.0 yards per game via the air in the last three games, are 29th in passing defense and 24th against the run.
The Patriots are in the middle of pack with 30 sacks and 18 forced turnovers.
Safety Devin McCourty leads the team with 79 tackles to go along with one sack and an interception. Defensive end Trey Flowers tops the team with 6.0 sacks while linebacker Kyle Van Noy is second on the team in tackles (73), sacks (5.5) and first in tackles for losses (four).
Players to watch: RB Dion Lewis and CB Stephon Gilmore
The Steelers should expect Lewis to be heavily involved in the Patriots game plan. While Lewis is averaging just 46.7 yards on the ground a game, he had produced 204 yards on 30 carries in the two contests prior to Sunday’s game — where he had just 17 yards on five carries. He had topped the 50-yard rushing mark in seven of his last eight games before Week 14.
Lewis is an explosive runner, averaging 5.2 yards per carry, which is the third-highest among players with at least 75 carries. His seven runs of 20-plus yards is the fourth most in the league.
Lewis is a threat catching the ball out of the backfield as well, as he demonstrated against the Dolphins, hauling in a season-high five passes for 50 yards. He has 20 receptions for 137 yards on the season. Lewis is even elusive in the passing game, as he has forced six missed tackles.
In addition, Lewis is a superb kick returner, averaging 26.6 yards in 17 returns. He took a kick 103-yards to the house versus Denver in Week 10.
Gilmore is the Pats’ best cornerback and will likely lineup opposite Antonio Brown, who has four 100-yard games this season, including a 212-yard outburst against the Ravens this past Sunday. Gilmore is ranked as the 20th-best cornerback in the league by Pro Football Focus, though he did not have a good game against the Dolphins. He allowed two receptions, on three targets, with both going for first downs. Gilmore was also flagged for pass interference early in the game.
Gilmore has 34 tackles and one tackle for loss in 10 games this year. He also has seven pass defensed and two interceptions. Gilmore has been flagged for six penalties this season.
Outlook: Patriots 35, Steelers 32
This is a huge game for both teams. A win by the Steelers virtually clinches the top seed in the AFC, which would mark the first time they had the conference’s best record since 2004. A win by the Patriots gives them the edge for the No. 1 seed. The Jacksonville Jaguars (9-4) are also in the running for the top spot, as they defeated the Steelers earlier in the season.
Brady has been a thorn in the Steelers side throughout his career. Brady is 7-2 against the Steelers as he has thrown for an average of 314.2 yards a game with a completion rate of 69.42% to go along with 24 touchdowns and three interceptions.
That is not good for a Steelers defense that has been reeling of late, surrendering 28.7 points a game over the last three contests — the third most points given up over this stretch. It will help the Steelers if corenerback Joe Haden is able to play for the first time since suffering a fractured fibula in Week 10.
The good news for the Steelers is that the offense is rolling. The Steelers, who play much better at home, has put up 31.0 points per game over the last three contests. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who became the first player in NFL to throw for more than 500 yards in three games, along with running back Le’Veon Bell and Brown, have been outstanding lately.
The Steelers are 6-1 at home, outscoring their opponents by an average of 29.0-22.7 a game at Heinz Field. On the other hand, the Patriots are 6-1 away from home with a plus-13.0 scoring margin (28.0-15.0).
The keys for the Steelers are the following: protecting the ball and Roethlisberger, limiting big plays on defense, and containing Dion Lewis as well as Rex Burkhead.