Pittsburgh Still a Dangerous Team without Roethlisberger
The Patriots finish their current three-game tilt against the AFC North with a trip to Heinz Field to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers at 4:25 p.m. Sitting alone atop the AFC standings, the Patriots can put some distance between themselves and the Steelers who will be one of the teams to watch in the AFC once the postseason begins.
The Steelers come in at 4-2 and are undefeated at home, with both disappointing losses coming on the road this season. With Ben Roethlisberger banged up and not playing on Sunday, the Steelers offense still has plenty of weapons that they can bring to bear, notably RB La’Veon Bell and WR Antonio Brown. Both can turn a game around on their own in a split second, so they’ll be looking to limit each of their effectiveness.
Pittsburgh is trying to do what the Patriots did early in the season, rally around their backup QB and get a tough team win and show that they’re a team to be reckoned with. Landry Jones doesn’t have a lot of experience but he does have plenty of weapons to use and it should be an interesting matchup.
Here are our five players from a Patriots perspective to watch on Sunday:
QB Tom Brady: While still defying Father Time at the ripe old age of 39, Brady has been outstanding in his first two games back this season throwing for 782 yards and six touchdowns with zero interceptions. Now he’s facing a Pittsburgh defense that has struggled to defend the pass this season.
Brady has mostly shredded the Pittsburgh defense in the eight games that he’s faced them, with a 6-2 record. In the last two matchups, Brady has completed 48 of 65 passes (73%), for 720 yards (11.07 YPA), eight touchdowns and zero interceptions for a passer rating of 149.3 in those games
Pittsburgh’s best pass rusher, Cam Heyward is out for this one, and the Steelers are going to have to get very creative with their pressure packages. He should be primed to have another big game against the Steelers Sunday.
We circled this one as a shootout with the Steelers when the schedule came out. The Steelers don’t want that type of game with Jones at the helm. Now without Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh will try to slow down the pace and shorten the game.
LB Dont’a Hightower: The big man in the middle of the Patriots defense was fantastic a week ago. He logged 13 tackles, 1.5 sacks including a safety and was awarded the AFC’s Defensive Player of the Week against the Bengals. If anything, his job this week is even tougher.
Facing a Steelers duo of La’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams, and with Jamie Collins’ status still unknown, the onus this week of slowing down the Pittsburgh tandem will fall to Hightower.
While the big men upfront Malcom Brown and Alan Branch and edge setters Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard must slow things at the point of attack, the playmaker that must step up is Hightower. Bell especially is a dual threat; he can run the ball very effectively and be a mismatch in the passing game. Hightower will be under the microscope again this week.
TE Rob Gronkowski: Questions about the big man’s health have been answered. Two weeks ago, he had five catches for 109 yards against Cleveland. Including a highlight reel 34-yard completion where he made five defenders miss. Last week against Cincinnati he posted up a career-high 162 yards on seven catches (23.1 yards per reception) and a touchdown. He enters this game on a roll.
Last year the Steelers didn’t have an answer for Gronk in the season opener and had big communication issues that saw the big guy left all alone in one red zone gimme touchdown from Brady. He finished with 5 catches for 94 yards with three touchdowns to lead the Patriots.
He and Martellus Bennett are the big mismatches this week as the Patriots will try to stretch the Pittsburgh defense both down the middle as well as lining up out wide. They struggled a year ago to match up with him. Now with Gronk on a roll, the past two weeks and Bennett aligned opposite, both he and Gronkowski are primed to have a big day.
Julian Edelman: Earlier this week we wrote about #11 and the fact that he hasn’t had a big impact this season…yet. While his foot injury may have resurfaced where he’s not 100 percent physically, the additional weapons added to the Patriots arsenal may have something to do with that as well.
Edelman too, had a big game against this Steelers defense a year ago, catching a team-high 11 passes for 97 yards, he was at his best, exploding off the line, making sharp cuts and consistently moving the chains for the offense.
Brady’s favorite target and closest friend on the team is #11. The two are fiercely protective of one another and lean on each other on the field. This is the kind of big game that Edelman normally elevates his game for. The Steelers are a tough, physical football team, Bill Belichick told the players this week, if you love football, then this is the week for you.
Edelman isn’t the biggest guy. But he’s as tough as they come. He’s made a living going into those dangerous places across the middle, making the plays and taking the hits that come with that territory. He’ll definitely be a guy to watch on Sunday as Brady will try to get him involved early and often.
CB Malcolm Butler: The Patriots third-year cornerback is having a very good season and had a very solid game a week ago against the Bengals. This week, as with the running backs, the Steelers have a plethora of very good, explosive wide receivers who can catch the ball and make big plays. Butler must be on his A-game regardless of who is at quarterback.
A year ago, in his first NFL start, Butler was matched up with Antonio Brown one-on-one for much of the game. Brown won the duel with 9 catches for 133 yards and a touchdown on 11 targets for the game. But Butler challenged well and learned some valuable lessons that served him well the rest of the season.
It isn’t known if the Patriots will use Butler to match up again with Brown this year, but whoever he’s matched up with, he’ll have to set the tone in the secondary. This will be an interesting chess match this week, because these two teams may be doing this again in January.
Stay tuned to PatsFans.com as we’ll have up-to-the-minute breaking news as well as post-game analysis.
Posted Under: Patriots Commentary
Tags: 2016 NFL Season 2016 Patriots season Antonio Brown Ben Roethlisberger Bill Belichick Chris Hogan Danny Amendola DeAngelo Williams Dion Lewis Dont'a Hightower Jabaal Sheard Jesse James Jimmy Garoppolo Julian Edelman La'Veon Bell LaGarrette Blount Landry Jones Malcolm Butler Markus Wheaton New England Patriots NFL Patriots Patriots edge rushers Pittsburgh Steelers Rob Gronkowski Tom Brady