Tom Brady has almost always posted big numbers against the Steelers. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
What you have to know when the Patriots and Steelers meet Sunday at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh:
WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN THE BALL
The run defense totals against the Steelers have to be put in context, but no matter the situation, I can’t stop looking at the Miami-Pittsburgh boxscore and the whopping 222 rushing yards that were allowed by the Steelers. Holy moly. (Jay Ajayi had 204 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries, including 153 in the second half as Miami gave him the ball time and again in hopes of helping protect the lead.) That came after Pittsburgh held four of its first five opponents under 100 yards rushing. In all, the Steelers are 13th in the league against the run, having allowed an average of 101.2 rushing yards per game, so the numbers are skewed a bit by what happened against the Dolphins. While every situation and every week is different, the feeling here is that if the Patriots get their chances — that is to say, get up early and are able to control the tempo — they should hand the ball to Blount about a zillion times in the second half. As expected, Blount’s production has taken a hit the last two weeks with Tom Brady back, but he’s still seventh in the league with 439 yards rushing. The 3.7 yards per carry isn’t so hot, but his six rushing touchdowns more than make up for it. If New England takes a comfortable second-half lead, look for Blount to get a lot of work.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS THE BALL
Brady (76 percent completion rate, 782 passing yards, six touchdowns, no INTs, passer rating of 135.5) has an almost impeccable track record against the Steelers: In eight career games against Pittsburgh, he’s 6-2 and has averaged 326 passing yards and almost three touchdowns per contest. In his last five starts against Pittsburgh, Brady has 17 touchdowns and no interceptions, with a 127.9 passer rating. Bottom line? The names and faces might change, but he’s always been a pretty safe bet to light up the Steelers hyper-aggressive defense. Pittsburgh will be forced to try and stop New England’s double tight-end set, which managed to overwhelm the Bengals in the second half last week. Rob Gronkowski (13 catches, 282 yards, 1 TD) appears to be back to his old self, while Martellus Bennett (26 catches, 362 yards, 4 TDs) has made an excellent complementary fit alongside him. Julian Edelman (28 catches, 261 yards) has been slowed the last few weeks, but should be in for his fair share of targets, along with Danny Amendola (13 catches, 160 yards, 2 TDs), Chris Hogan (13 catches, 275 yards, 1 TD) and James White (25 catches, 212 yards, 2 TDs).
Brady can talk as nicely as he wants to about the Steelers, but the fact is that they’ve had trouble defending anyone you could call an even slightly better than average quarterback. Pittsburgh has yielded an average of 294 passing yards per game, which puts them 29th in the league through six games: Kirk Cousins, Andy Dalton and Carson Wentz threw for more than 300 yards on the Steelers. The Steelers struggle to get consistent pressure, as they have just eight sacks and three picks in six games. (Only four teams have fewer interceptions than Pittsburgh.) Ross Cockrell and William Gay are the Steelers’ two lead corners, and Cockrell leads the team with seven passes defensed.
WHEN THE STEELERS RUN THE BALL
Oh my God. Those were the three words that Bill Belichick first uttered when talking about Le’Veon Bell this week. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Bell is a multidimensional threat who has been able to pile up big numbers since his return from suspension: in just three games, he has 48 carries for 263 yards for a 5.5 yards per carry average. (He’s also second on the team in catches with 20 receptions on 24 targets for 177 yards.) Even without Ben Roethlisberger, the Patriots will have to play pick-your-poison a bit here because of the two-headed threat of Bell and Antonio Brown (more on him in a second), but our guess here is that given the fact that backup Landry Jones is under center, they like their chances putting an emphasis on stopping Bell, because Jones probably won’t be able to get the ball to Brown as consistently as, say, Roethlisberger. That means a heavy box with plenty of big bodies designed to slow down the running game. (For what it’s worth, with D’Angelo Williams ruled out, it’ll be Bell’s show from wire-to-wire.)
On the other side of the ball, the Patriots run defense has been up-and-down, but in truth, the good has outweighed the bad, at least as of late. Overall, New England is ninth in the NFL against the run, having allowed an average of 92 rushing yards per game. The group did well against the league’s best rushing attack in Cleveland two weeks ago, holding the Browns to 27 yards per game. But because this is a more well rounded offense than Cleveland, it’ll be an even sterner test for the Patriots.
WHEN THE STEELERS PASS THE BALL
No Roethllsberger means that Pittsburgh will turn to backup Landry Jones, an intriguing youngster who has had some nice moments over the course of his relatively brief NFL career, but is by no means the equal of Roethlisberger. In his career, the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Jones is 32-for-56 (57 percent) for 513 yards, three touchdowns, four interceptions and a passer rating of 76. He’ll look to do whatever it takes to get the ball in the hands of Brown, who is one of the best in the game, period: In six games, the 5-foot-10, 180-pounder has 41 catches (tied for second in the league) on 64 targets for 486 yards (11th in the league) and five touchdowns (tied for best in the NFL). It’s going to take a combination effort to try and slow him down. Bell and Sammie Coates (more on him in a second) will also be part of the mix when it comes to the passing game.
Pittsburgh kicker Chris Boswell is 4-for-5 on field-goal chances and 18-for-18 on extra points. (Good numbers for anyone, especially someone who has to kick on the lousy Heinz Field turf.) Punter Jordan Berry is averaging 45.3 yards per punt (18th), and a 40.8 net (13th). Brown has gotten the most work as punt returner, with five returns and an average of 14.6 yards per return. Fitzgerald Toussaint leads all kick returners on the team (four returns, 20.0 average). Overall, the Steelers are 24th overall on kick returns and 12th on punt returns.
The Patriots have struggled more than usual on special teams this season. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski is 9-for-12 on field goal attempts and 16-for-17 on extra points. Punter Ryan Allen is averaging 44.6 yards per punt (21st) and a 42.2 net (ninth). While the returners have been middle-of-the-road at best (18-yard average on kick returns is 27th in the league, while 8.8 yards per punt return is 18th), the coverage units have been good. The Patriots have the best kick coverage unit in NFL when it comes to opponents starting field position, as the average opponents drive has started at the 22-yard line — the best mark in the league.
THE PATRIOTS ARE IN TROUBLE IF… it comes down to the red zone. Pittsburgh has scored a touchdown on 78.6 percent (11-for-14) of its red-zone drives this season — third best in the NFL. The Patriots have allowed a touchdown on 71.4 percent (10-for-14) of their opponents’ red-zone drives in 2016 (tied for fourth-worst in league).
THE STEELERS ARE IN TROUBLE IF… if they can’t make big plays. The Patriots have done really well at limiting big plays this season — they’re the only team in the league not to give up a play of 40 yards or more. But Bell and Brown are two of the most explosive offensive threats in the NFL, while Coates leads the league in yards per catch with 22.2 yards per opportunity.
BY THE NUMBERS (tie) 1.85 (via Ryan Hannable) — Keep an eye on Brady’s quick release. The Steelers are known to blitz a lot, and Brady’s 1.85 average release time in last year’s game against Pittsburgh was his fastest time of the 2015 season.
110 — New England has scored 30 or more points 110 times since Belichick took over as head coach — by far the most of any team in the league since 2000. (That includes five times in the 11 games the two teams have played against each other in that span.)
UNDER THE RADAR STAR: If all the attention is given to the likes of Bell and Brown, Coates is the sort of ancillary player who might be able to pick up some big yardage at important moments. He’s been dogged by a hand injury for the last few weeks, but when he’s completely healthy, he can be extremely dangerous. In six games, he has 19 catches on 35 targets (22.2 yards per catch) for 421 yards and two touchdowns. The 6-foot-2, 213-pounder out of Auburn isn’t always the most consistent receiver, but when he gets his hands on one, look out.
QUOTE OF NOTE: “I don’t think they’re doing anything special. I think they do things outside the box sometimes, you know, that might be on the edge of being legal or not legal. They’ve done a couple of things in the past — putting an offensive tackle out as ineligible but he’s not really. Sometimes the emphasis by the NFL in terms of what they call and what they don’t call, [the Patriots] use that a little bit. They’ve been accused of doing a lot of things. But the thing we’ve got to do is ignore that and play.” — Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler on the Patriots
PREDICTION: If Ben Roethlisberger were playing Sunday, despite their six-game roller coaster ride to start the season, the Steelers would have a legit chance at knocking off the Patriots and making their statement when it came to the AFC. Instead, it’ll be Landry Jones against New England, which should make things considerably easier for the visitors. The truth here is that this game for Pittsburgh is a lot like the tightrope New England had to walk at quarterback over the first four games of the season. There’s a lot of talent on both sides of the ball for the Steelers, but with a backup signal-caller, the margin for error is just too slim in a big game. Pittsburgh is still going to score its points, and the combination of Bell and Brown is still enough to make it really interesting. But in the end, the Patriots just have too much, especially on offense. Brady throws for four touchdown passes and Dont’a Hightower has another monster game. I’m going to say New England 38, Pittsburgh 24.