The Patriots go back out on the road for their fifth game in the last six and their last in the 2017 regular season as they take on the Pittsburgh Steelers. This is still a hat and t-shirt game for the Patriots. With a win or a tie, the Patriots clinch the AFC East once again for the ninth straight time and the 17th since Robert Kraft took over the team in 1994.
This week’s game will be broadcast by CBS on Sunday, December 17 at 4:25 p.m. ET and can be seen locally on WBZ-TV Channel 4 in Boston. Jim Nantz will handle play-by-play duties with Tony Romo as the color analyst. Tracy Wolfson will work the sidelines.The game will also be aired on the Patriots flagship radio station 98.5 The Sports Hub with Bob Socci and Scott Zolak on the call, produced by Marc Capello.
The Patriots (10-3) are coming off an ugly 27-20 loss to Miami on Monday night. The offense struggled all night long and the defense couldn’t stop Kenyan Drake either running or receiving. They’ll be looking for a bounce-back game.
The Steelers (11-2) had another late 4th quarter comeback and pulled off a dramatic 39-38 win over the Baltimore Ravens where Ben Roethlisberger threw for over 500 yards and Antonio Brown had 213 yards receiving.
We here at PatsFans.com are continuing our “Razor’s Edge” column in 2017 to give some quick analysis on some of the key matchups of the game and what you can look for in how the game plays out.
The Patriots and Steelers are meeting for the 31st time and the Steeler and Patriots are tied with 15 wins each. However, during the Bill Belichick era the Patriots are 10-3 against the Steelers and have won the last four meetings including the 2016 AFC Championship Game 36-17 in Gillette Stadium last January.
Here is a look at some of the key matchups and who holds the Razor’s Edge.
First up is the Patriots offense:
Patriots RBs vs Steelers Front Seven – Razor’s Edge Push
The Patriots running game was steadily gaining momentum with the duo of Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead giving them big-play potential. The gained nearly 200 yards two weeks in a row against Miami and Buffalo before hitting the wall last week against the Dolphins and abandoning the running game too soon.
The Steelers run defense has been pretty good all season but in a short week after losing LB Ryan Shazier to a potential career-threatening injury, they were gashed by the Ravens for 152 yards while averaging 5.8 yards per carry.
Now they’ve had time to work out the kinks of replacing Shazier and this will be a key area to watch. If Lewis and Burkhead regain their game this week, it will go a long way in negating the Steelers pass rush and make their job of slowing down Tom Brady and Co. much, much harder. The key from a New England perspective is getting the running game going early and opening up the middle of the field.
Patriots WRs vs Steelers Secondary – Razor’s Edge New England
The Patriots passing game is still tops in the NFL and this week they get Rob Gronkowski back from his one-game suspension. Chris Hogan returned from a shoulder injury last week but was ineffective last week. Ditto for Brandin Cooks. The versatility of the Patriots lies with the multiple running backs they can utilize in the passing game, Lewis, Burkhead and James White. And Danny Amendola does nothing but move the sticks every time he catches the ball.
Pittsburgh’s pass defense is the #4 unit in the league, while second in sacks with 41. They can get after the passer in a variety of ways with Cameron Heyward providing them with a career year with nine sacks, Vince Williams with seven and rookie T.J. Watt has six. The Steelers have only allowed an opposing QB to throw for more than 264 yards once (M.Stafford). The pressure on Brady will be the key for them… And will they change their defense from their zone to more of a man scheme?
We don’t have to repeat the stats Brady has against Pittsburgh, he’s had his way with them for 16 years. And with the Patriots offense, it is all about spreading the ball around. Gronkowski leads the team with 55 receptions, White and Cooks have 54 each while Amendola has 52. Hogan who missed four games has 34. While everything goes thru Gronkowski, for Brady it is about sharing the wealth. If he has time to throw.
Next up the Pittsburgh offense:
Steelers RBs vs NE Front Seven – Razor’s Edge Pittsburgh
The Steelers running game is based on the incredibly patient Le’Veon Bell who has the vision and physical tools to wait for the slightest crack in the defense and then burst thru the hole. Bell not only leads the league in rushing with 1105 yards rushing, but has 75 catches for 579 yards. He carries a tremendous workload on his shoulders and behind a very good offensive line is a guy who can easily take over a game by himself.
The Patriots run defense has suffered all season. Injuries have piled up both on the edge and inside, the latest with Alan Branch who will miss Sunday’s game is a big blow for a Patriots unit that has struggled to stand up inside.
This matchup is a clear, big advantage for the Steelers. Bell can control the game either on the ground or in the passing game and the Patriots will be hard pressed to keep him in check this week. If he consistently can grind out big gains on 1st and 2nd down, it will make the potent Pittsburgh air attack more deadly.
Steelers WRs vs NE Secondary- Razor’s Edge Pittsburgh
Ben Roethlisberger has a plethora of weapons, arguably the best he’s ever had in a Steelers uniform to use in the passing game. Antonio Brown easily leads the NFL with 99 catches for 1509 yards and nine touchdowns. Brown is another guy that can take over a game and he had 213 yards against the Ravens last Sunday night. Roethlisberger uses Bell out of the backfield, Jesse James at the tight end position as well as JuJu Smith Schuster, Martavis Bryant and Eli Rogers. They’re heating up at just the right time of the year.
The Patriots pass defense has undergone a transformation in the past seven games. Since a horrible start in September, the New England pass defense in the last seven is allowing an average of 193.1 yards per game. The secondary with Stephon Gilmore, Malcolm Butler, Eric Rowe and Jonathan Jones at corner have really picked up their game. And they’ll need to against this Pittsburgh talented group of receivers.
Obviously, the keys from a New England perspective is how well they can slow down Brown and Bell, they won’t stop them. Even in games where the Patriots have won comfortably, have got their yards. The key is getting a few stops in the red zone. They’ll have to manufacture some pass rush pressure on Roethlisberger who has been sacked just 19 times this season. And force him into getting rid of the ball before he can find one of his receivers downfield.
Special Teams- Razor’s Edge New England
The kickers in this one, the Patriots’ Stephen Gostkowski, and the Steelers’ Chris Boswell are both having outstanding seasons. Both have been money on big kicks from long range. What has made Gostkowski so special this season are his kickoffs, which are pinning teams deep. The Patriots’ outstanding coverage units are smothering the opposition. They’ve also gotten some big plays from Special Teams. The Steelers units rank lower to the bottom of the league in punt and kick returns. The Patriots could use a big play on Special Teams this week on the road.
Next up, who wins and why…
This one should be another Patriots-Steelers instant classic. With the top seed of the AFC on the line, whoever wins this one will have the inside track for home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Pittsburgh has been openly clamoring for this one since March and have proclaimed themselves to be “a team of destiny.” Coach Mike Tomlin hasn’t shied away from it either saying the Steelers should win the Super Bowl.
The contrast is, of course, Bill Belichick, while the Patriots know what is at stake, he never lets the team’s focus get too far ahead. To them, this week is a big game, obviously but they say that about every week.
Everything is breaking right for the Steelers, they’re hitting their peak at just the right time and get a Patriots team that is banged up with 13 players on IR and 10 more questionable to play on Sunday. Plus they get it at home where they have a better home record in the last decade-plus than anyone…except New England.
A lot has been made about the changes to the Steelers defense, but until they show those changes on the field, Brady’s dominance over them for the past 16 years is the driving factor here. It will go down to the wire, but the Patriots go home with a very close win. Patriots 30-28