By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Seemingly every year, the Patriots have a mid-to-late-season clash with the one team in the AFC that’s threatening their chances of reaching the Super Bowl. This year’s Regular Season Bowl will take place this coming Sunday in Pittsburgh.
In past years, whatever the showdown was for the Patriots, it’s tended to serve as a bit of a harbinger of things to come.
Last year, it was a bit muted, with Landry Jones in at quarterback for Pittsburgh in place of Ben Roethlisberger for the Patriots’ 27-16 win in late October. As it turned out, the Patriots won by a greater margin, 36-17, against Roethlisberger and the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game.
In 2015, the Patriots dropped an overtime game in Denver in Week 12. The Patriots ended up losing on their return trip to Denver for the AFC Championship Game.
In Week 11 of 2014, the Patriots rode Jonas Gray to a 42-20 blowout win in Indianapolis. The Patriots bettered that margin of victory with a 45-7 shellacking of the Colts in the AFC Championship Game in Foxboro.
In 2013, the Patriots ferociously stormed back from a 24-0 deficit to beat the Broncos at home in Week 12, but Denver was able to get the best of a hobbled Patriots team in the AFC Championship Game two months later.
In 2012, the Patriots won the big showdown with rookie Andrew Luck and the Colts in Week 11, but the Colts couldn’t make it past the Ravens in the wild-card round of the playoffs, robbing the world of the rematch.
And in 2011, the Patriots mixed it up by facing their biggest foe in the AFC with the Broncos and, as fate would have it, their biggest foe in the NFC, in the New York Giants. The Patriots beat the Tim Tebow-led Broncos in Week 15 and again in the divisional round, but they lost to the Giants at home in Week 9 and lost once again to New York in the Super Bowl.
Clearly, big regular-season games are nothing new to the Patriots, and given how late into the season this weekend’s matchup with Pittsburgh is taking place, this one has some undeniably high stakes.
Though it’s an over-simplification, the No. 1 seed in the AFC is essentially up for grabs. If the Patriots beat the Steelers and take care of business in the following weeks against two inferior AFC East opponents, then the No. 1 seed is theirs. If the Steelers win Sunday, there’s no way the Patriots can make up the ground needed. In fact, with Jacksonville threatening to get involved, a Patriots loss on Sunday could possibly lead to the Patriots losing a first-round bye altogether.
Obviously, Bill Belichick would rather not have to play an extra playoff game in January en route to a Super Bowl, and the best chance to ensure he won’t have to will be to play a much better game on Sunday in Pittsburgh.
Based on some recent observations with the two teams, here’s what figures to play significant factors in deciding this one.
Antonio Brown: The Uncoverable Man
What Antonio Brown did to the Ravens on Sunday night was disturbing.
Catching deep balls is not supposed to look so easy, but Brown makes it look like he’s only warming up as he’s bursting past corners and tapping his toes while making casual over-the-shoulder catches along the sideline. It’s non-human, really.
In recent meetings with New England, beginning in Week 1 of the 2015 season, Brown found himself matched up one-on-one with Malcolm Butler for the majority of the time. Brown was able to put up numbers (nine catches for 133 yards and a late touchdown in 2015, seven catches for 106 yards from Landry Jones in 2016, and seven catches for 77 yards in Pittsburgh’s AFC Championship Game loss this past January) but somehow, the Patriots managed to prevent Brown from really having an impact on the game.
That may not make sense when you look at the pure numbers, but Butler did a fairly good job on Brown. There is only so much a cornerback can do when a receiver is hauling in receptions like this:
Yet despite the numbers, the Patriots led — and led comfortably — in all three of those games. Butler on Brown worked.
This time around, though, the Patriots might not have the luxury of putting 21 on 84 and figuring out the rest. Butler just has not consistently performed at a Pro Bowl type of level this season. He’s had some strong performances, to be sure, but it also seems as though he’s been beaten more times this year than he was beaten in the previous two years combined.
That might mean the Patriots have to get more creative. Whether it’s employing Stephon Gilmore or Jonathan Jones for the job, it likely will require extra attention from the safety, too. And with the way the Dolphins just shredded the Patriots’ defense with crossing patterns, the linebackers ought to get involved in slowing down the receiver if he chooses to cross the middle of the field.
Any way you slice it, Brown is going to put up numbers. The Patriots just have to try to figure out a way — as they have in the past — to mitigate the damage.
Le’Veon Bell Is Back
The reason it would be entirely disingenuous to point at last year’s playoff blowout as an indication of what’s to come this weekend is the fact that Pittsburgh was without Le’veon Bell in that AFC Championship Game. Worse, they weren’t just without him, but they lost him to injury very early in the game, thus sending a wrecking ball through Pittsburgh’s entire offensive game plan.
It was a loss that cannot be easily quantified. But as a reflection of Bell’s value, let Bill Belichick explain.
“[Bell] leads the league in yards from scrimmage and that’s about really all you need to know,” Belichick said Wednesday. “He’s a receiver when he’s out of the backfield. He can run any run you want – inside, outside, runs with power, runs with a lot of skill and quickness in the open field. He’s an excellent receiver in the passing game. A big guy, blitz pickup, matches up well against linebackers and DBs that he has to block. He’s a tremendous player.”
He sure is. He leads the NFL with 1,105 rushing yards and he ranks in the top 50 in receiving yards with 579. Though his yards per rush is down at 3.9, his 85 rushing yards per game ranks second in the league behind Ezekiel Elliott. He’s coming off a three touchdown performance — two rushing, one receiving — vs. Baltimore, the third three-touchdown game of his career.
What’s particularly relevant for this matchup is Bell’s tendency to hesitate in the backfield while patiently waiting to find the smallest crease, through which he’ll often bursts for gains of 10 yards or more. It’s become a bit of a running joke among football fans, because play-by-play announcers and color analysts repeat that detail at least five times every game, but it’s nevertheless true.
And when you consider that the Patriots’ defense is coming off a game when they allowed Kenyan Drake to turn this play into a 26-yard gain:
And when you remember Patrick Chung missing a tackle on Drake in the backfield to allow the running back to scamper for 31 yards, and when you remember Elandon Roberts letting Drake run straight through a tackle to extend a play and gain more yards, the most recent picture of the Patriots’ run defense is not entirely promising when it comes to stopping Bell.
Bell missed the 2015 meeting with New England due to suspension, and he was somewhat kept in check (21 carries, 81 yards; 10 receptions, 68 yards) last year against the Patriots. Yet New England’s leading tackler that day was Jamie Collins. Dont’a Hightower and Rob Ninkovich were also part of the defensive effort.
This time, the Patriots are a bit undermanned, thus making the health statuses of Kyle Van Noy, Trey Flowers and Alan Branch critically important for Sunday.
There is no such thing as “stopping” Bell. If he doesn’t get you as a rusher, he’ll probably get you as a receiver — or vice versa. But just like with Brown, the Patriots’ defense has to try to limit the damage and, when it comes to third down, bearing down and keeping a keen awareness of the sticks.
Pittsburgh’s Porous Pass Defense
With the threats of the Steelers now healthily examined, it’s time to shift attention to the team’s glaring weakness: their pass defense.
It’s a situation where stats can lie. The Steelers rank fourth in the NFL in passing yards allowed, eighth in passing touchdowns allowed, and eighth in passer rating against.
But after losing Ryan Shazier two weeks ago — and even before that — the pass defense has been trending in the wrong direction. The trio of Brett Hundley, Andy Dalton and Joe Flacco has combined to throw seven touchdowns and one interception over the past three weeks, with Hundley managing to throw three touchdowns against Pittsburgh after throwing just two total touchdowns in his first five starts.
You take that recent history and factor in Tom Brady’s complete ownership of the Steelers’ secondary over the years, and the signs are pointing to the Patriots putting up a lot of yards and a lot of points on Sunday.
Which receiver is the greatest beneficiary of Pittsburgh’s defensive issues is yet to be determined. Considering Ravens running backs caught eight passes for 107 yards last week, it could be a big night for Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead and James White. Or, considering Rob Gronkowski has caught eight touchdowns and averaged 99 receiving yards in five career games against Pittsburgh, the tight end could once again go off in his return from suspension.
Or, the Steelers might completely forget that Chris Hogan exists again, thus opening the door for a repeat of Hogan’s nine-catch, two-touchdown, 180-yard performance from January.
Whoever it is, someone’s going to pick up yards against a Steelers defense that looked like this at times last week:
There might even be a repeat of this:
Or this (with another receiver, not Julian Edelman):
The Steelers’ defense always struggles mightily against Brady and the Patriots, and this week shouldn’t be any different.
Brady should have plenty of opportunity to light up Pittsburgh’s pass defense, but the Steelers have been having enough issues with their run defense that the Patriots would be wise to do some damage on the ground, too.
Alex Collins just ran for 120 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries for the Ravens, who as a team ran for 152 yards on 26 carries for a 5.8-yard average. Collins’ aggressive style could perhaps lead Belichick and Josh McDaniels to activate Mike Gillislee, who’s been kept in mothballs as a healthy scratch for the past five games.
The Ravens’ performance came after the Bengals rushed for 130 yards on 22 carries (5.9 YPC). The Patriots themselves ran for 140 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries (4.8 YPC) in last year’s regular-season meeting, though that was with LeGarrette Blount doing the bulk of the work. This year, though, the Patriots are running more effectively (4.2 yards per carry, compared to 3.9 yards per carry), and that diverse stable of backs will present a number of matchup problems for Pittsburgh’s defense.
In Conclusion …
Forget about Monday night’s flop in Miami; those happen, especially in that stadium. There’s no reason to believe Tom Brady’s offense will do anything but roll when they hit the field late Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh. They’ve averaged 34 points per game in the last six meetings with Pittsburgh, and the results this week should be more of the same.
What’s different this time is that the Steelers seem armed and ready for a shootout. They haven’t had all three of Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell for a full game against the Patriots since 2013, which was Bell’s rookie year.
With the Patriots’ defense ranking 22nd in pass yards allowed per attempt and 29th in pass yards allowed per game, it’s safe to expect the Steelers to rack up the yards. (Roethlisberger is coming off his third career 500-yard passing game, by the way.)
The game, then, ought to come down to third-down execution and red-zone scoring. On both sides of the ball, Pittsburgh owns a slight edge on third downs, but the difference is marginal. Despite New England’s red zone struggles, the Patriots are still much better than the Steelers in that regard. New England ranks 13th in red zone touchdowns at 57.1 percent; the Steelers rank 25th at 48 percent.
But those numbers won’t mean much on Sunday. What the Patriots and Steelers did or did not do in September won’t have much relevance. It’s going to ultimately come down to healthy personnel and execution, and the scoreboard should reflect a much closer game than the way recent meetings have gone between the two teams.