THE PITTSBURGH STEELERS
Last week: 39-38 win over Ravens
Previous three: 3-0 (Bengals, Packers, Titans)
2016 record: 11-5
Coach: Mike Tomlin
Offensive coordinator: Todd Haley
Defensive coordinator: Keith Butler
The Steelers haven’t lost since Oct. 8 when they got whacked at home by the Jaguars, 30-9. They’ve been on the edge – four of their past five victories have come as time expired of the foot of kicker Chris Boswell, including the past three. The Steelers have two of the most dynamic offensive players in the NFL with running back LeVeon Bell (1,005 yards rushing and 579 receiving) and Antonio Brown (1,509 receiving yards on 99 catches). Both players have nine touchdowns. The Steelers have been yielding points to bad offenses – 38 to Baltimore, 28 to the Brett Hundley-led Packers – in a way that makes you wonder how much damage New England can do to them. They’ve lost their best linebacker, Ryan Shazier, and have allowed 282 yards on the ground on 48 carries the past two weeks. They also spent the offseason saying boldly that they had a plan for Tom Brady this time around.
Offensively, the Steelers are fourth in yards and second in passing yards (New England is first) and they are yielding the second-fewest sacks per attempt. They still aren’t the greatest in the red zone (25th in the NFL), but their playmakers – tight end Jesse James and wide receivers Martavis Bryant and Juju Smith-Schuster need to be included there – may be as deep as any team. And Ben Roethlisberger is the sloppy assassin. He is second in the NFL in the percentage of passes when the game is late and close (42-for-59, 71.2 percent). He’s also gotten 1,760 yards after the catch this year. Brown leads the league in 25-plus yard catches (16) while Bell leads the NFL in YAC (615). Cam Heyward is the Steelers defensive anchor up front. Vince Williams and T.J. Watt are also good at getting after the quarterback (13 sacks between them).
The loss of linebacker Ryan Shazier was chilling. It also removed the team’s best defender and one of the NFL’s speediest linebackers from a defense that has – in years past – struggled mightily to keep pace with the Patriots. The aggressiveness of the Steelers defense has been used against it by Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels through the years and Pittsburgh looks ripe for the picking again after allowing 38 points to the Ravens. Also, despite Bell’s rushing numbers, the Steelers are just 28th in rushing yards per play. They are not tremendously balanced either with Roethlisberger having attempted 502 passes and throwing 13 picks – tied for third most in the NFL.
The Patriots have won the past four meetings, including two last year by scores of 27-16 at Heinz and 36-17 at Gillette in the AFC Championship Game. The Steelers beat New England at Heinz back in 2011 but are 1-4 in their past five at home against New England.