What to Watch For: Patriots vs Steelers
Sunday, December 16, 2018
Joe Calabro, GoLocalProv Sports Team
The New England Patriots play their final road game of the regular season on Sunday when they travel to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers at Heinz Field.
It is a critical game for both teams with the Patriots still in position to earn a first-round bye and the Steelers clinging to a playoff spot following three straight losses.
“We know it’s a big challenge, nothing easy about this. It’s a good team, well-coached and good in all three phases and it’s a tough place to play. We’ve had a long history with them. This is a big game for both of us so hopefully, we’re ready to go. It should be a great game,” said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady during his press conference on Friday.
See What to Watch for in the Slideshow Below
Game time is set for 4:25 p.m.
Patriots vs Steelers
Sunday’s game will be the 32nd all-time meeting between the Patriots and Steelers, with the Patriots holding a 16-15 edge.
In the most recent meeting last season, the Patriots edged the Steelers 27-24 at Heinz Field to lock up the number one seed in the AFC.
The Steelers have not beaten the Patriots in a game since 2011, when they came away with a 25-17 win at Heinz Field.
"The Patriots are one of the best teams for a reason. We are not the only team that has issues with them. They’re that good. The past is the past, we can only focus on this week," said Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger during his press conference.
New England has won the last five games.
See What to Watch for in the Slideshow Below
After a solid outing against Minnesota, the Patriots defense was shredded against the Dolphins. Especially the run defense.
In New England’s last two games, the Patriots defense has given up 284 yards on 34 carries, that is an average of nearly 8.4 yards per carry.
In their last five games, they have given up 625 yards on 110 carries. That is an average of 5.7 yards per carry.
“Run defense comes down to 11 guys being where you expect them to be in whatever coverage or defense you’re in. We just have to do a better job of that. Obviously, when you talk run game, pass game, it starts up front and then it goes second level, then it goes third level, so it’s all three of those levels doing a good job whenever the run’s called,” said safety Devin McCourty during his press conference on Thursday.
This week, the Patriots major concern will be the passing game and defending wide receivers Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Brown enters the game with 86 catches for 1,063 yards and 12 touchdowns, a career-high.
Smith-Schuster comes into the game with 91 catches for 1,234 yards and six touchdowns.
“I think whether it’s Schuster catching a 97-yard touchdown or Antonio Brown beating a coverage and getting over the top, you really can’t fall asleep. Even though they’re different, it’s not one of those things where it’s like, ‘Well, this guy’s going deep and this guy’s not.’ They both are different but they do a lot of the same things on the field that make it hard to set your defense,” said McCourty.
New England has four losses this season, all of which have come on the road.
Heading into their final road game of the season against Pittsburgh, the Patriots are 3-4 on the road this season.
"It’s just a different team this year. We’ve put a lot into it and we’re trying to obviously do great in both. It just hasn’t turned out that way but we’re hanging in there. We’re hanging in there," said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady during his press conference on Friday.
Brady added, "Going on the road is always challenging in the NFL. You’re playing good teams and there’s a lot of tough road environments. It’s always sell-outs and if we don’t play well, it really gets the crowd into it."
Of the Patriots four road losses, three of them have been by more than ten points.
The Patriots recent road struggles are something totally different then what we have seen in recent years.
Last season, the Patriots went 7-1 on the road and then 8-0 in 2016.
The last time the Patriots finished a season with a .500 road record was 2013, when they went 4-4.
The last under .500 road season was in 2009 when New England went 2-6.
Last week, tight end Rob Gronkowski was as involved in the offense as he has been the entire season, hauling in eight catches on eight targets for 107 yards and a touchdown, the most catches he has had in a game all season.
This week, Gronkowski goes up against the Steelers, a team he has historically dominated.
In six games against Pittsburgh, Gronkowski has hauled in 39 catches for 664 yards and eight touchdowns.
“Just playing ball. Just going out and just doing what we’ve got to do, preparing throughout the week and going out and executing. Just executing plays, and that’s what we’ve got to keep on doing. Been having a good practice week this week, got to keep on building chemistry out there with the whole offense, and when we go out there Sunday, we’ve got to be prepared mentally and physically, and we’ve got to execute plays in order to put up points,” said Gronkowski during his press conference on Thursday.
In last years game, Gronkowski caught nine passes for 168 yards, including three straight catches for 67 yards on New England’s final touchdown drive.
Coming into this game, Gronkowski will be a major focus of the Steelers defense.
"I feel like they’ll throw a lot of things. I mean, I’ve seen a lot from them before – a lot of coverages, a lot of split-safety, post-safety, man, zone. They switch it up a lot, too, and so I’ve had a couple guys before – like a linebacker covered me one time, a safety or a corner," said Gronkowski.
Last week, kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed an extra point that would have put the Patriots up 7-0 as opposed to 6-0, and then missed a 42-yard field goal that would have given New England a two-score lead.
Two weeks ago against Minnesota at Gillette Stadium, Gostkowski mixed a 48-yard field goal.
"Steve’s kicked in the league a long time. There’s a lot of aspects to kicking. There are three people involved, not just one. It’s not like a kickoff where you just put the ball on the tee. So, just collectively, we’ve got to – obviously, the expectations are high, and hopefully we’ll be able to convert on all of our scoring opportunities. That’s the goal. But, nobody takes it more seriously than Steve does. So, I have a lot of confidence in him,” said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick during his press conference on Wednesday.
Overall, Gostkowski is 24-for-29 on field goal attempts and 40-for-41 on extra points.
His field goal misses have all been from at least 40 yards.
Gostkowski is a free agent after this season.
The current AFC playoff picture is as follows:
*1. Chiefs 11-3
2. Texans 10-4
3. Patriots 9-4
4. Steelers 7-5-1
*5. Chargers 11-3
6. Ravens 7-6
*Clinched postseason berth
Clinching Scenarios for Pats
For the Patriots to clinch a playoff berth, they need to win and have Tennessee lose.
For New England to clinch the AFC East, they must win and have the Dolphins lose.
First Round Bye
Despite last week's loss, the Patriots are still in position to get an all-important first round bye.
However, it is a little more tenuous now.
With Houston winning last night, the Patriots need to beat Pittsburgh to stay in position, if not, they drop to the three seed and out of a bye with two weeks to go.
The Patriots have the tiebreaker with Houston.
New England could still get the number one seed if they win out and the Chiefs and Chargers both lose one of their final two games.
Kansas City has a road game at Seattle and a home game against Oakland to close the season, while LA has a home game against the Ravens and a road game at Denver in their final two games.