By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — It’s that time of the year again, when the Patriots and Steelers take over the NFL’s spotlight for a Sunday afternoon in December.
The games never disappoint, either, filled with plenty of highlight reel touchdowns and controversial calls on the field. If one fan base isn’t up in arms about something on Monday morning, that will be a major letdown.
Last year, Mike Tomlin was talking about this matchup being a playoff preview two weeks before the game. That wasn’t a very bright idea, but he isn’t always the brightest guy, so it really didn’t surprise anyone. Now in 2018, with the Steelers mired in a three-game losing streak, the Pittsburgh head coach really hasn’t said much about the Patriots. The Steelers, sitting at 7-5-1, are just worried about making the playoffs.
The Patriots meanwhile still have a shot at the No. 1 seed, and it starts with another road win in Pittsburgh. There’s no better way to get rid of that horrible taste from last weekend’s loss in Miami than with another thrashing of the Steelers, whom the Patriots have beaten in each of their last five meetings. At just 3-4 on the road this season, the Pats could use a solid victory away from Gillette Stadium ahead of the playoffs.
It’s always fairly unpredictable whenever these two teams meet, aside from the fact that the Patriots always win. But here’s what we’ll be waiting and hoping for when the AFC rivals kick off Sunday afternoon.
Welcome To Gronksburgh
Gronk broke out with eight catches for 107 yards and a touchdown last week in Miami. Now he’s heading to a place that is near and dear to his heart, where he casually puts up monster numbers with relative ease.
Gronkowski has absolutely owned the Steelers since entering the NFL. The first “big” game of Gronk’s career came in the Steel City in 2010, when three of his five receptions went for touchdowns in a 39-26 New England victory. He had just three career touchdowns entering that game, but Gronk arrived that evening.
Overall, he has eight touchdowns in six games against the Steelers. He has just one other touchdown in Pittsburgh aside from that hat trick back in 2010, but has always made a giant impact on the game. He didn’t find the end zone in New England’s 27-24 win in Pitt last year, but hauled in nine receptions for 168 yards and caught the two-point conversion after Dion Lewis’ go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter. He did that by making safety Sean Davis look silly, the same guy who will likely have the honors of covering Gronk (or at least trying to) again on Sunday.
This is a terrible year for tight ends in the NFL, but the Steelers have given up some big days to them this season. Kansas City’s Travis Kelce torched them for seven catches, 109 yards and two touchdowns back in Week 2, and just last week, Oakland’s Jared Cook snagged seven passes for 100 yards. Pittsburgh lost both of those games.
Gronk hasn’t been putting up big numbers this season, and his box score may be fairly pedestrian (compared to the old Gronk standard, that is) by the time Sunday’s clash ends. But he will have a giant impact on the game one way or another.
Who Covers AB & JuJu — And Can They Actually Tackle Someone This Week?
Last weekend was not one for the resume tapes for anyone in the New England secondary, especially from a tackling standpoint. Now they have to slow down one of the best receiving duos in the business in Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster.
“They got a lot of other guys, too, but these two receivers are elite,” Bill Belichick said earlier this week. “Elite, elite.”
That double elite is no exaggeration, not that we would ever expect Willy B. to exaggerate about anything (nobody died, right?). Brown continues to be one of the top three receivers in the NFL, tied for the league lead with 12 touchdowns this season, and Smith-Schuster has the fourth-most receiving yards this season at 1,234 (how numerical). Smith-Schuster was a beast last year against the Patriots, snagging six passes for 144 yards.
The pair is really stinkin’ good, so long as Ben Roethlisberger throws the ball to them and not the opposing team. So what’s the likely play for Belichick on Sunday?
The Patriots could photocopy their game plan from Week 13 against the Vikings and put Jason McCourty and another defender (perhaps that other guy who looks just like Jason on the Pats defense) on Smith-Schuster, much like they did with Minnesota No. 1 Adam Thielen. Spending most of his day out of the slot, Theilen caught just five of his 10 targets for 28 yards and a touchdown two weeks ago. Stephon Gilmore was on Stefon Diggs on the outside that afternoon, and he was held to just five receptions for 49 yards. That 77 yards was the duo’s lowest combined output of the season.
None of them may end up working in the end, but Belichick has no shortage of options. He could put Gilmore on Smith-Schuster and double Brown with the McCourty boys. He could even let rookie J.C. Jackson try his hand in covering Brown, who has three touchdowns in his six career games against the Patriots.
Matching up against a pair of great receivers should be a fun chess match that plays out Sunday afternoon.
Just when we thought the Patriots run game was rounding into form, they put up a gigantic dud in Miami. The Dolphins are one of the worst run defenses in the league, and the Patriots could only muster 2.6 yards per carry for 77 yards. It was a pretty pathetic show from their running backs and even more so from the offensive line, who rarely created open space.
The Steelers tout a pretty good run defense, ranking in the top 10 in all the important categories, so Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead are going to have to fight for every yard. But don’t be surprised if James White has himself a game; the Steelers let Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey go wild in Week 10 to the tune of 77 rush yards on 11 carries (and a touchdown) along with five receptions for 61 yards and two receiving touchdowns. White should look a lot more like he did two weeks ago against the Vikings (118 total yards) than he did last week in Miami (28 total yards)
On the flip side, the Steelers are likely down to their third- and fourth-string running backs in Jaylen Samuels and Stevan Ridley again. Samuels started in place of the injured James Conner (who was surprisingly listed as questionable on Friday) last week and only ran for 28 yards on 11 carries, but added seven catches for 64 yards. He could be a problem for the Pats this weekend; Ridley will not.
The former Patriot is talking a big game ahead of this one. He really wants to beat the Patriots. He probably should have signed with someone other than the Steelers if that was his goal.
Gostkowski And The Uprights
While the national media flips out any time Tom Brady under throws a pass, nothing gets the local talking heads going like Stephen Gostkowski missing kicks.
The usually reliable kicker missed an extra point and a 42-yard field goal last weekend in Miami, costing the Patriots four points. He knows he has to be better. He should be better.
But brace yourself. Heinz Field hasn’t been great to Gostkowski, who has missed an extra point in each of his last two visits. If he continues that streak on Sunday, the panic may even reach us normal folks who don’t complain about everything on a daily basis.
Tune in to Sunday’s Patriots-Steelers game on WBZ-TV — the home of the New England Patriots! Coverage begins Friday night with Patriots All Access at 7 p.m., with pregame coverage kicking off Sunday at 11:30 a.m. with Patriots GameDay. Kickoff is set for 4:25 p.m., and after the game switch over to myTV38 for Patriots 5th Quarter!