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Patriots – Steelers AFC Championship Key Matchups

Steve Balestrieri
January 20, 2017 at 9:44 am ET

The New England Patriots head to the AFC Championship Game for a record sixth time in a row and take on the Pittsburgh Steelers at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro on Sunday evening at 6:40 p.m.

The game will be televised by CBS and can be seen locally on WBZ-TV Channel 4 in Boston. Jim Nantz will handle play-by-play duties with Phil Simms 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 SportsHub with Bob Socci and Scott Zolak on the call, produced by Marc Cappello.

The Patriots (15-2) defeated the Houston Texans in the Divisional round 34-16 despite not being at their best offensively. The Patriots turned the ball over three times although Dion Lewis set an NFL record with a rushing, receiving and a return for a touchdown. The Patriots defense forced three turnovers with interceptions of Brock Osweiler.

The Steelers (13-5) defeated the Kansas City Chiefs in the Divisional Round 18-16. The Steelers offense also struggled and failed to score a touchdown relying on six Chris Boswell field goals. The Steelers defense stopped a two-point conversion with seconds left in the game that could have sent it into overtime.

We here at PatsFans.com are continuing our “Razor’s Edge” column in 2016 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.

Series History:
The Patriots and Steelers meet for the 30th time but just the 10th in Pittsburgh. The Steelers own a 15-14 edge overall in the history between the two teams. However, since Bill Belichick took over the Patriots in 2000, the Patriots have had great success against the Steelers taking 10 of 13.

In their last meeting, earlier this season the Patriots won 27-16 at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh was without Ben Roethlisberger and had Landry Jones at quarterback. Tom Brady completed 19-26 for 222 yards and LaGarrette Blount rushed for 127 yards and two TDs on 24 carries.

Here is a look at some of the key matchups and who holds the Razor’s Edge.

First up is the Patriots offense:

Patriots Film Review, Good Execution in Pittsburgh Win

Steve Balestrieri
October 25, 2016 at 8:20 am ET

Gronkowski Mismatches, Good play Calling Key win

Reviewing this week’s game film via NFL Gamepass from the Patriots win over the Steelers just highlights what a mismatch nightmare Rob Gronkowski is for opposing defenses. The Steelers did their best to neutralize Gronk and fellow tight end Martellus Bennett for most of Sunday’s game but at crunch time in the second half, he made key plays in the two drives that capped off a Patriots win.

We’ve highlighted a few of the plays from the Patriots offense that show some good play calling by Pats Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels, some very good execution, and the complete player that Gronkowski is.

James White 19-Yard TD: On the Patriots first scoring drive of the day, they moved methodically down the field taking up nearly half of the first quarter, running on eight of the plays and passing on just four, moving 61 yards to the Pittsburgh 19-yard line. There they faced a 3rd down and 2.

They lined up in a passing formation with four wide, two to each side, Mitchell and Amendola to the left, and Edelman and Bennett to the right. Brady is in the shotgun with White aligned to his left.


Pittsburgh shows that they will rush only three and moves their coverage players in the middle up tight to defend the sticks. They have two deep safeties at the seven and one-yard lines.

This was a nice play call by Josh McDaniels and good execution by the players. At the snap, all the receivers try to drag their coverage guys deep. White flairs out just behind the line of scrimmage at the numbers. Brady hits him with the pass and White has clear sailing down the field because of Joe Thuney. Thuney fired out from his left guard position and took down LB Lawrence Timmons who would’ve been in perfect position to stop the play for no gain.


At the 15, White cut back against the grain of the Pittsburgh defenders flowing to the left attempting to cut him off. He then made a nice move inside and took it into the end zone to give the Patriots a 7-0 lead. This was a well-designed and executed play, especially by Thuney and White to cap off an impressive drive.


LeGarrette Blount 3-Yard TD: The Patriots on their third possession moved quickly down the field. After hitting a play to Gronkowski down to the three-yard line, the Patriots quickly line up in a goal line, run-heavy formation with both tight ends, Gronkowski and Bennett lined up on the left-hand side of the formation. Blount is the lone back behind Brady who is under center.

The Steelers weren’t prepared for the quick snap. Many of their players aren’t lined up yet or properly. There was still some milling around in the secondary. Neither safety, Mike Mitchell or Robert Golden is ready and that is exactly where the play is going to go.


At the snap, the offensive line blocks down to the right. Nate Solder gets a good push on DE L.T. Walton. Bennett seals off James Harrison to the inside and Lawrence Timmons, coming over in support is caught up in the wash. Gronkowski fires straight off the ball and blocks Mitchell, which is a mismatch. Blount runs right in the gap created by the tight ends. Golden was a tad slow to react and doesn’t get there in time to stop Blount from rumbling in the end zone for the second score of the game.


Gronkowski 36-Yard TD: After the Steelers had narrowed the Patriots lead in the third quarter to 14-13, the Patriots answered with a 5-play, 75-yard drive to give them a 20-13 lead. The Patriots faced a 3rd down and 7 from the Pittsburgh 36-yard line.

The Patriots went to a four-wide passing formation with Chris Hogan split wide right and Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman and Gronkowski on the left side. James White is the lone back and is standing next to Brady on his right while Brady is in the shotgun.

Pittsburgh is rushing just four and is aligned with five players either at or just in front of the first down marker attempting to take away the short pass in the middle of the field. Brady sees the numbers and alignment, immediately recognizing that Gronkowski will be in single coverage.


At the snap, Gronkowski runs straight down the seam and blows right by Golden who whiffed trying to jam him at the line. Edelman runs a short cross in the middle and Amendola takes his route down to the 20 and pulls his defender and the deep safety outside. Gronkowski splits the safeties and is wide open. Brady throws a dime right on the money. Gronk corrals the ball at the 13-yard line and has an easy touchdown.



Gronkowski 37-yard Reception: Following the Patriots touchdown, the Steelers moved down into the Patriots territory and kicked a FG which narrowed the lead to 20-16. Brady then engineered another impressive drive to put the game away. The drive covered just six plays and 75 yards with the key one being Gronk taking up nearly half of it with this play.

Facing a 1st and 10 at the Pittsburgh 42-yard line, the Patriots line up in what looks like a run formation. Brady is under center; Bennett is aligned in-line on the right-hand side. Gronk on the left. Edelman is in the slot and Mitchell wide to the left. Blount is the sole back and seven yards deep in the backfield.


At the snap, Mitchell runs straight down the field. Edelman runs a deep post. Gronkowski runs straight for about five yards and dipped his shoulder and Golden bit. Golden moved quickly to cover the deep post but Gronkowski digs left into the area vacated by Edelman and Mitchell.

He has about 4-5 yards of separation on Golden who won’t catch him. It is an easy throw for Brady, and he hits Gronkowski in stride at the 24-yard line. He then keeps rolling down to the five-yard line where he’s finally brought down. Blount would then run it in on the next play to put the game away.




It is a testament to how talented and dangerous a receiver is in Gronkowski when the Steelers put so much effort into slowing him down and he still gets 93 yards receiving as well as a touchdown. The big man averaged over 23 yards per reception and punished the Steelers secondary for the second year in a row.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Patriots 2015 Opponents, Five First Impressions of the Steelers

Steve Balestrieri
September 7, 2015 at 8:44 am ET

The Patriots 2015 season kicks off with a Thursday night prime time match-up against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The will be televised nationally by NBC with Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth on the call and Michelle Tafoya handling sideline duties. Kickoff is slated for 8:30 p.m.

The Steelers (11-5) have one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL. QB Ben Roethlisberger set career records for attempts (608), completions (408), yards with 4952 and tied his touchdown record with 32 in 2014. His 106-52 record as a starting quarterback is fourth best among active QBs putting in the company of Brady, Manning and Rodgers. His start on Thursday will make him the all-time leader in QB starts in franchise history.

The defense is going through a transition period with the departures of long-time defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, as well as long-time Steelers Troy Polamalu, Brett Keisel and Ike Taylor. The onus now by new coordinator Keith Butler will be on fast, athletic players and having their defensive linemen tee off and come after the quarterback. It may take them time to gel as a unit with so many changes in both personnel and philosophy.

Here are our Five First Impressions of the Steelers:

Bell, Brown and Ben Cornerstones of the Offense: The Steelers have arguably the best offensive trio of QB, WR and RB of any team in the NFL, led by RB Le’Veon Bell, Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown.

They mark a very impressive trio that vaulted the Steelers to the #2 offense in the NFL last season. Bell won’t play on Thursday, having to serve a three-game suspension for a DUI arrest and drug possession charges. Although he’ll be missed, former Panther DeAngelo Williams and Dri Archer still give them a formidable duo.

Brown’s 129 catches last season were the second most in NFL history for a single season. He’s Roethlisberger’s go-to guy and with Markus Wheaton and newcomer Sammie Coates, the Steelers have plenty of speed outside. The venerable Heath Miller returns for an 11th season, providing Roethlisberger with a reliable safety valve.

Allen Replaces Thomas At Safety: Pittsburgh announced that 12-year vet Will Allen will replace Shamarko Thomas at strong safety this week and play opposite free safety Mike Mitchell. Thomas, the 3rd year safety was originally drafted to replace Polamalu but has struggled this preseason.

He allowed a 31-yard scoring play against the Jaguars, as well as a 67-yard scoring play against the Bills and a 49-yard touchdown run versus Carolina where he missed a key tackle. He still may see the field in some sub-packages on Thursday.

Allen and Mitchell will be tasked with stopping the Patriots tight end tandem of Gronkowski and Chandler which will be one area of interest to watch in this week’s game.

Offensive Line, Once a Weakness, Now a Position of Strength: The Steelers offensive line for years took a lot of flak, some of it deservedly so for their play in protecting Roethlisberger. But part of the reason was that the big QB would hold the ball for incredibly long stretches trying to allow plays to develop. While many big plays developed, Roethlisberger also took a terrific beating.

Now with an improved offensive line, perhaps the best in his time in Pittsburgh and a passing game of OC Todd Haley that is keyed on his getting the ball out quicker, the offense has thrived.

Maurkice Pouncey anchors the line at center, although he’s hurt now and will miss the first eight weeks of the season. But Big Ben’s blindside is firmly protected by left tackle Kelvin Beachum and left guard Ramon Foster. Beachum is a good story, a 7th round pick who worked his way into a job and has been steadily improving. The right side is held down by T Marcus Gilbert and G David DeCastro.

This is a very solid unit and will provide a great test for the Patriots new improved front seven this week.

Change in Philosophy on Defense Still Working Out Kinks: The zone blitzes of the Steelers defense under Dick LeBeau was known as Blitzburg. But he’s gone, now in Tennessee and former LB coach Keith Butler has had to retool on the fly.

Instead of the two-gap responsibilities of the past, this Steelers defensive line will probably get after the quarterback in a more aggressive style.Cameron Heyward had a breakout season last year and Stephon Tuitt will have to fill big shoes with Keisel retiring. Steve McClendon leads a group of large bodies in the interior with Daniel McCullers, Clifton Geathers and Cam Thomas.

The linebacking group will have to pick up the slack in the pass rush department with James Harrison, Arthur Moats, Lawrence Timmons, Jarvis Jones, Ryan Shazier and newcomer Bud Dupree.

The Steelers secondary was a problem, compounded by a weaker pass rush in 2014. They’re most probably going to use a Cover-2/Tampa-2  system to cut down on the big plays that they gave up last season. In the Tampa-2, the safeties and MLB drop and cover the deeper part of the field to take away the deep ball, but against New England with a shorter passing game, which is very effective against that, we may see some other looks. But the secondary of Cortez Allen, William Gay, Mitchell and Allen will be under the microscope early this season.

Feel Good Story, Army Ranger Villanueva Makes Roster: The Steeler have a big offensive lineman that made the roster this season. Huge 6’9, 335 pound Alejandro Villanueva made the initial 53-man roster out of training camp.

Villanueva is a West Point graduate and served in the 1st Ranger Bn at Hunter Army Airfield as well as in the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division. He earned a Bronze Star for Valor while rushing to the aid of pinned down fellow soldiers under fire in Afghanistan.

He gained 90 pounds from his military weight of 245 due to a strict workout and his wife’s cooking. He’s a versatile player who can play multiple positions and has impressed the Pittsburgh coaches with his work ethic and professionalism, hallmarks of a military officer.

He was signed to the Steelers practice squad last August and earned his way onto the 53-man roster this season. Note to the Patriots coaches….there ARE other services other than the Navy…

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.