The Patriots head back out on the road for a big game against the Pittsburgh Steelers for their third straight game against AFC North opponents. Kickoff is slated for 1:05 p.m.
The Patriots (5-1), beat the Cincinnati Bengals 35-17 in a triumphant home return for QB Tom Brady. After a slow start in the first half, Brady lit up the Bengals for 376 yards and three touchdowns. Dont’a Hightower led the defense with 13 tackles, 1.5 sacks and a big safety that turned the game’s momentum.
The Steelers (4-2) laid an egg, losing 30-15 to Miami on the road. Their normally stout run defense was gashed by Jay Ajayi who ran for over 200 yards. Worse was they lost Ben Roethlisberger for at least this week when he tore his meniscus. His replacement will be Landry Jones this week.
Here are our Five First Impressions of the Steelers:
Under Tomlin, They Always Have a Mulligan: The Steelers are always one of the more talented teams in the league. But it seems every year Pittsburgh has a game or two against a very inferior opponent where they don’t show up and lose in ugly fashion. Last week in Miami was a prime example. Prior to the game, the media in South Florida was talking about another house-cleaning. Then they blow out a team, many picked to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
It eventually comes down to coaching. And Tomlin, considered one of the better coaches in the game, has to take the heat for his team not showing up for these very winnable contests.
While the injury to Roethlisberger certainly had something to do with the loss, when was the last time an opponent ran for 220 yards on the Steelers defense? This was a team that wasn’t prepared and lost an opportunity to gain additional ground on the rest of the division in the standings.
Roethlisberger’s Absence Dims the Matchup: This was one of the games that we circled when the schedule came out as not only a potential shootout but one to maybe chock up in the loss column. Pittsburgh is always tough at home and Roethlisberger leads one of the more prolific offenses in the game. With the explosive Antonio Brown, the speedster Sammie Coates as well as a superb duo of running backs in Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams, the Pittsburgh offense is fun to watch.
Roethlisberger was also leading one of the best units on third down as well as in the red zone, two areas that the Patriots defense has struggled with during the first six games of 2016. This one had all the makings of an old-fashioned AFL shootout between Roethlisberger and Tom Brady and his absence takes some of the shine off that.
Landry Jones, the 3rd year QB from Oklahoma is a far cry from Roethlisberger in the Steelers offense. He started two games in 2015 with Big Ben out and completed 32 of 56 passes, just 57 percent for 513 yards, three touchdowns, four interceptions and a passer rating of 76.0. They’ll have to change the offense somewhat for Jones but getting the ball to Brown and throwing down the field will still be a big part of the offense. Does this mean that this is an automatic Pittsburgh loss? Hardly. They have plenty of weapons and Jones like anyone else can heat up, but the Brady – Roethlisberger duel was one we really looked forward to.
Bell and Williams are the Great Equalizers: Pittsburgh’s running game this week has the ability to make this one interesting regardless of who is at QB. Last season, with La’Veon Bell out for the opener DeAngelo Williams had a very strong game in Foxboro that kept the Steelers offense balanced.
Bell has only played in three games this season but sports a gaudy 5.5 yards per carry average on 48 carries for 263 yards. For a big man (6’2, 230 lbs), he runs exceptionally well and is a huge factor in the passing game as well with 20 catches, good for second on the team for 177 yards.
Much like New England did for the first four games during Brady’s suspension, look for the Steelers to lean on their running backs to weather the storm while Roethlisberger heals up. Expect to see plenty of Bell, in the running game, and split wide outside to create mismatches against the Patriots linebackers in the passing game.
A key for the Steelers this week will be to start fast and use their backs and running game to slow the pace down and keep Brady and the offense on the sideline.
Pass Defense is Not Good: There is a good reason to want their offense to keep Brady on the sidelines. The Pittsburgh defense, notably their pass defense isn’t very good. Of course it doesn’t help that the team was missing two of their best defensive players in Cameron Heyward and Ryan Shazier, no one will feel sorry for them. But it is what it is. Heyward will miss this week’s game, although they hope to get Shazier back.
The Steelers have had trouble getting after the QB so far in 2016 and their secondary hasn’t been able to hold up. Opponents are averaging 293.7 yards per game, third worst in the NFL and the secondary has not made a single interception. All three picks the defense owns comes from the linebackers.
Consider this, in the Steelers’ four wins, they’ve generated, three fumble recoveries, and eight sacks. In their two losses, they have zero fumble recoveries, zero interceptions and zero sacks. Conventional wisdom suggests if Brady and the Patriots take care of the football this week, they should be successful.
Lack of Balance Equals Lack of Success: While the sample size is small with only six games played thus far in 2016, one thing that has stood out is the Pittsburgh offense has been much more effective when they’ve remained balanced.
In their four wins, the Steelers offense has been nearly unstoppable averaging about 34 points a game. In their two losses, again a small sample size, they scored about nine points per game. Why is there such a discrepancy? The balance between the running and passing games.
In the Steelers four wins, they were humming along at about a 50-55 percent mix of pass and the run. The running of Bell kept defenses honest and then they were able to hit the passes down the field. The only exception was the Jets game, and with their stiff run defense Roethlisberger threw on 66 percent of his plays.
In the two losses, when they lost that balance, the offense struggled to move the ball and score. Against the Dolphins the ratio of pass to run rose to 68 percent, and granted Big Ben was hurt but in the Week 3 loss to Philadelphia, that ratio was 81 percent.
It is a trend, they’ll look to stop this week, look for Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley to try to get back into that 50-55 percentile and keep their balance.
Check back with us later in the week as we’ll break down the key matchups for the game right here on PatsFans.com.
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