The Patriots are a team that no Steelers fan really like to talk about. Not only have they dashed the Steelers dreams of going to the Super Bowl on two occasions since 2000 but during that time span there was also Spy Gate that was going on during one of those AFC loss Super Bowl seasons. I have no idea if those tapes that the Patriots had helped them win, but they won. Actually they dominated the Steelers in those AFC Championship games and that might hurt me as much as the Spy Gate incidents.
It doesn’t help that the Pats are coached by a smug SOB like Bill Belichick who wears his cutoff sweatshirts like they are going to go out of style or that Tom Brady is wearing uggs around town with his model girlfriend that we all wish we could get with.
All of that being said the Patriots have been a staple as one of the best teams in the league for the last 10-12 years and no matter how many third rate receivers and defensive backs they imploy they still manage to beat down opponents and win every year. The playoff success hasn’t been there for them in the recent past but that does nothing to diminish how good of a team they are.
Under Tom Brady the Patriots are 6-1 against the Steelers and a lot of those wins weren’t close ones as we saw last season. This is a huge test for the Steelers as the combined winning percentage of the team’s they have beaten is only 8-24 and they have lost to the only two somewhat good teams they have faced in the Ravens and Titans. This is the first game of two huge ones as they will face the Ravens next week. Winning this game will give them some respect in the AFC and make it known that they are just not going to roll over against good teams.
Not gonna lie this one isn’t going to be easy, but it gets your blood going just thinking about it. Heinz Field is going to be jumpin for the 4:15 p.m. start and it should be an unreal atmosphere. Games like this can define a season and while I don’t know that will be the case a win here can go a long way in telling us what kind of Steelers team this is.
Lets take a look at the statistics on these two teams:
Pittsburgh 32, Arizona 20
Passing: Roethlisberger - 26/39, 361 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT
Rushing: Mendenhall - 13 carries, 32 yards, 0 TD
Receiving: Wallace - 3 rec, 118 yards, 1 TD
New England 20, Dallas 16 (Week 6, Arizona had week 7 bye)
Passing: Brady - 27/41, 289 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT
Rushing: Green-Ellis - 14 carries, 58 yards, 0 TD
Receiving: Gronkowski - 7 rec, 74 yards, 0 TD
All-Time Record vs. Arizona: 14-11 (1-3 Playoffs)
Last Five Meetings
Nov. 14, 2010 - New England 39, Pittsburgh 26
Nov. 30, 2008 - Pittsburgh 33, New England 10
Dec. 9, 2007 - New England 34, Pittsburgh 13
Sept. 25, 2005 - New England 23, Pittsburgh 20
Jan. 23, 2005 - New England 41, Pittsburgh 27
Offense (rank in NFL)
Pittsburgh: 383.3 yards/game (9th)
New England: 474.5 yards/game (1st)
Pittsburgh: 265.4 yards/game (9th)
New England: 350.5 yards/game (1st)
Pittsburgh: 117.9 yards/game (14th)
New England: 124 yards/game (t-10th)
Pittsburgh: 21.6 points/game (19th)
New England: 30.8 points/game (4th)
Pittsburgh: 279 yards/game (3rd)
New England: 423.7 yards/game (32nd)
Pittsburgh: 171.9 yards/game (1st)
New England: 322.2 yards/game (32nd)
Pittsburgh: 107.1 yards/game (12th)
New England: 101.5 yards/game (8th)
Pittsburgh: 17.4 points/game (3rd)
New England: 22.5 points/game (t-15th)
Hit the jump for a closer look at the New England Patriots
When you think of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, whether it is this year or over the past seven years, you think of one name at the top: Tom Brady. Listen, I hate Tom Brady as much as the next guy from Pittsburgh but no matter how bad you hate this guy you can’t deny that he is the best in the game.
So far this season Brady is putting up gaudy numbers. He is completing over 67% of his passes for an average of 350 yards per game. Per game. He already has over 2,163 yards and that includes him not even playing last week because the Patriots were on a bye. His 9.13 yard per attempt is a number that a quarterback would dram of throwing even if it was just one game. He’s thrown 16 touchdown passes and half as many interceptions. The weird thing is that the eight interceptions are a ton and I am shocked he even has that many.
In four of his six games this season Brady has thrown for over 300 yards and three of those times he threw for over 375 yards which included a 517 yard performance in the season opener against Miami. In only one game this season has Brady thrown less than two touchdown passes and has twice thrown for four.
In his career against Pittsburgh he absolutely owns them. I know that there are whispers that Brady is saying that he owns the Steelers and I can’t even get mad at this, because it is true. In five regular season contests against the Steelers Brady is 4-1 and has thrown for 1,680 yards and 12 touchdowns as opposed to only three interceptions. During those five games he has a 7.81 yards per attempt average. That is before you account in that Brady is 2-0 against the Steelers in the playoffs and even before you need to know that both of those games were AFC Championship games.
I usually go to Football Outsiders to break down the players because they do unreal work and give some good numbers to break down players and team performances. I actually didn’t want to go there for Tom Brady because I didn’t want to see how good he has been. The physical numbers are good and I knew the advanced metrics would be just as awesome. I went there anyways. Man.
Brady ranks third at Football Outsiders with a DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement. This gives the value of the quarterback's performance compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent and then translated into yardage) is 919 (unreal) and his DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average. This number represents value, per play, over an average quarterback in the same game situations. The more positive the DVOA rating, the better the player's performance. Negative DVOA represents below-average offense) is 44.7% which is good for second in the league, only behind Aaron Rodgers who is probably the MVP of the entire NFL.
If there is one thing that Brady does well it’s that he gets rid of the ball quickly. He has been sacked a little more this season (11 times) but in the past against the Steelers he rarely gets touched. He is very good at three step drop passing and never lets the Steelers rush get to him. He utilizes the tight ends well and knows where all his receivers are going to be. Go look at Tom Brady’s receivers over the years. Outside of Randy Moss and Wes Welker there hasn’t been a real big time guy for him to throw to yet he still gets the job done.
The stable of backs that the Patriots employ isn’t going to scare anyone but the thing is that they don’t need to scare anyone. With a quarterback like Tom Brady you don’t have to run for 200 yards a game to win, you just have to do enough to kept teams honest and be able to read the holes and take advantage of draws.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis is the number one back for the Patriots and so far this season he has done a pretty nice job. He leads all ball carries with 391 yards on 91 carries for a healthy 4.3 yard per carry average and he accounts for five of the six rushing touchdowns that the Patriots have.
There really isn’t anything that jumps out at you when you look at Green-Ellis on his game logs except for one game, a 27 carry, 136 yard, two touchdown performance against the Jets in early October. Other than that it has been around 50-70 yards of performance with a touchdown here and there. If the Patriots can take advantage of the Steelers on the ground they will but typically the Patriots will throw the ball and the running game will be the second thing that comes for them.
Green-Ellis actually stacks up pretty well according to Football Outsiders as they have him as the number five back in the NFL according to DYAR with a 101. That DYAR number is the exact same as Darren McFadden and a hair above Beanie Wells Ryan Mathews. Green-Ellis also ranks favorably with a 15.9% DVOA which is good for sixth among running backs. He hasn’t fumbled the football yet this season and actually has the best success rate (This number represents the player's consistency, measured by successful running plays (the definition of success being different based on down and distance) divided by total running plays) at 62%. That high success rate coupled with a high DVOA means that Green-Ellis is doing a nice job of not getting stuffed at the line and getting more yards than is required.
Outside of Green-Ellis the Patriots employ Dann Woodhead who is literally like five feet tall. He broke onto the scene last year as the do-it-all type of back after coming to the Patriots from the Jets. Last season he carried the ball just 97 times but went for 547 yards and five touchdowns. He also caught 34 passes for 379 yards and a touchdown so he was exactly what the Patriots look for in a guy that can catch the ball out of the backfield and can carry the football a little bit. This year he hasn’t been as productive as he has 30 carries for 122 yards and no touchdowns while only catching eight passes for 63 yards. His stats have slipped from last season but still would not surprised to see someone like this to go off the on the Steelers like Kevin Faulk usually does.
Stevan Ridley is also getting carries for the Patriots. Literally no idea who this guy is. Actually he is a rookie from LSU. He has carried the ball 28 times this season for 180 yards and a score. He gives them a healthy 6.4 yard per carry average and can be thought of in the same breath as Danny Woodhead.
As I talked about you aren’t going to see a big time back from New England but they are all the kinds of backs that can catch the ball out of the backfield and find the holes. Any one of them can hurt you and you can bet that Tom Brady is more than confident that if he throws it to them that they will make a catch so they have to be accounted for.
The Patriots have a history of just having a bunch of pretty good possession receivers and having a “receiver by committee” game plan where any of them could catch 10 balls for 150 yards and two touchdowns. That changed a little bit when they went with Randy Moss and he made the NFL his bitch but since Moss has been gone they have been missing that kind of receiver.
Let’s not kid anyone here, Wes Welker is the top receiver for the Patriots and is easily Tom Brady’s favorite target. Welker has been targeted a league-high 74 times and made 51 catches on those attempts with zero drops. He also is second in the league with 785 receiving yards and six touchdowns with 36 first down catches, also another category where he tops the league. So far this season there have only been two games where Welker has caught less than 100 yards and that was last week against in week six against Dallas (six catches, 45 yards) and week two against San Diego (seven catches, 81 yards). On the flip side he has three games with over 150 yards and a season high of 16 catches and 217 yards in a loss to the Bills. 16 catches in one game. Jesus.
According to Football Outsiders Welker is the second best receiver in the game, only behind Mike Wallace, with a DYAR of 271 but only ranks eighth in terms of DVOA at 32.7%. Welker also has a catch rate of 68%. It should go without saying that Welker can take any catch and take it to the house. He plays out of the slot and while he might not stretch the field vertically that doesn’t mean he isn’t wildly effective with the ball in his hands. Ask Miami.
As I have touched on a little here but really have been saying for some time the Patriots just don’t care about having good receivers. Look down the receiving core and you see that. Deion Branch, Matthew Slater, Julian Edelman. For real? At the beginning of the season they also signed Chad Ochocinco which actually boggled my mind. It didn’t get me wondering because Ochojoko hasn’t been productive but I just don’t understand how many possession receivers you could possibly have on one team. Let’s not pretend like Ocho can stretch the field anymore and of those other receivers do you really see anyone else that can?
Branch has 26 catches for 369 yards and two touchdowns and Ochojoko only has nine catches for 136 yards and had a crucial drop in the Patriots lone loss to the Bills. Branch is also probably the fourth option on the team and he is really the only player that can come close to stretching the field.
Brady makes his living on throwing to the tight ends. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are his second and third options in the passing game and both of them have at least 27 catches. Gronk has 29 catches for 401 yards and five touchdowns and Hernandez has 27 catches for 289 yards and three touchdowns. Usually when teams go into two tight end sets you are more thinking run but what the Patriots can do is flex out of that and put both of them on the outside and really take advantage of matchup problems.
Gronkowski is ranked second by Football Outsiders with a 169 DYAR which only trails Jimmy Graham who is on another world right now for the Saints. Gronk also has the second best DVOA (57.1%) among tight ends and has a 76% catch rate which is pretty ridiculous. Hernandez isn’t as highly ranked as Gronk is but still posts a 46 DYAR which is good for 16th in the NFL but a much lower DVOA of 9.4% which is 23rd among qualified tight ends.
I don’t usually spend a lot of time on tight ends in preview but with this Patriots offense you don’t really treat them as tight ends as much as you would just consider them big receivers that sometimes line up in a three point stance. Last season Gronkowski caught three touchdown passes from Brady and racked up 72 yards on five catches. Not really sure how the Steelers are going to approach this whether they will use Ryan Mundy as a nickel or dime back to get a bigger player on him or if they are going to match up Troy Polamalu on him. It will be an interesting situation to see how Dick LeBeau decides to try and stop the tight ends, especially Gronkowski.
Sure Tom Brady might plant and throw with a lot of three step drops but there is one reason that he is successful is because he very rarely gets touched and can have as much time as he wants to pick apart teams and that includes the pressure happy Pittsburgh Steelers.
The offensive line from the Patriots doesn’t have anyone that is going to blow your mind with their play but they are all really sturdy guys that play the system and get the job done. With the Patriots throwing the ball around 55-60% of the time it is of the utmost importance that they give Brady time and not let him get hit.
The Pats line has given up 11 sacks this season and rank eighth in the league with an adjusted sack rate of 5.2% which gives sacks (plus intentional grounding penalties) per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent. The Steelers rank 24th in the league at 8% to give you some context of what the Pats have done this season as the NFL average is about 6.5%.
New England is kind of hit and miss on their running game but as I said before when talking about the running backs they don’t need to be great in that category. They rank 17th in the NFL with a power success of 60% (Percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown. Also includes runs on first-and-goal or second-and-goal from the two-yard line or closer.) but rank second in the league with a 15% stuffed percentage. The stuffed rank is Percentage of runs where the running back is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage.
The Pats also rank second in the entire league in adjusted line yards of 4.82. The ALY is formula takes all running back carries and assigns responsibility to the offensive line based on the following percentages:losses: 120% value, 0-4 yards: 100% value, 5-10 yards: 50% value, 11+ yards: 0% value. These numbers are then adjusted based on down, distance, situation, opponent, and the difference in rushing average between shotgun compared to standard formations.
Like the Steelers the Patriots are more successful running the ball to the right side of the line than the left and even better than running it up the middle. When the Pats run to the right they have an ALY of 4.97 which is good for fourth in the league but they dip as they go towards the left side of the line which includes a 4.47 ALY running up the middle and a 4.84 ALY running to the left side. While that ALY is higher on the left side they only rank 10th in the league among teams that run successfully to the right.
Overall the Patriots run the football 42% of the time up the middle and/or between the guards as opposed to 30% to the right side and 27% to the left side. Those do not round out to an even 100% due to some carries that are not categorized as having a direction according to Football Outsiders.
If there is one thing that the Patriots are not good at it would be playing defense. I mean you saw those numbers at the top didn’t you? They are dead last in the NFL in yards per game given up and their secondary has been brutal.
Sure, looking at yards given up is a pretty standard way to evaluate defenses and it probably isn’t the best way but really any way you slice it the Patriots defense just isn’t that good. Overall by the standard numbers the Patriots are dead last. According to Football Outsiders the Patriots rank 28th in the league with a 16.8% DVOA. That is not very good. Remember that positive DVOA means more yards so you want to have a negative number as a defense. That number for the Patriots just isn’t that good.
When you break down the advanced numbers a little more you see that the Patriots just aren’t covering the pass very well. They rank 30th in pass defense DVOA with a 27.3% number and only rank ahead of Arizona and Indianapolis who the Steelers faired pretty well against throwing the football. The Pats rush defense ranks out much better but they are still only 21st in the league with a 0.3% DVOA.
In terms of the running game the Pats are giving up 4.21 ALY which is 22nd overall on the league but they have been pretty successful stuffing the run for little or no gain. They rank 12th in the league with a 21% stuffed percentage and they have an even 50% power success against them which is good for eighth in the league. The Patriots don’t really get after the quarterback as they have sacked the quarterback only 10 times and have an adjusted sack rate (which gives sacks (plus intentional grounding penalties) per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent) of only 4.8% which is 29th in the league and only ahead of Tennessee, Kansas City and Buffalo. Kansas City and Buffalo have only combined for 11 sacks this season. I am not going to tell you that the Patriots can’t get after the quarterback because that is what we thought last season and they gave Ben a ton of problems, but I don’t think this defense is quite as good as they were last season.
I think it is pretty easy to look at the Patriots and know who is the best player on the field for them. Last season Jerod Mayo had an outstanding campaign with a team-high 175 tackles and two sacks. He had 114 solo tackles which is just an unreal number of tackles. This season Mayo has been hampered with a knee injury as he has only played in four games this season. Mayo has had only one game with double-digit tackles and does not yet have a sack. He is still a monster and the Steelers offensive lineman should know where he is and try to move him out of the way, if that is possible. Surely the bummed knee is going to hurt Mayo and while I never like to see players hurt this is positive for the Steelers.
Without Mayo leading the way it is a couple of defensive backs that lead in tackles with Devin McCourty having 38 total tackles and Patrick Chung chipping in 37 tackles. All told the top three tackles are defensive backs and the first linebacker to show up on the defensive tackle leaders is Gary Guyton with 29 tackles.
Defensive end Andre Carter has a team-high 2.5 sacks this season and what might seem concerning is that he has two of those sacks in the Patriots last game against the Cowboys. Not really sure what to make of that since it was really a one-time thing but he does have almost 70 sacks in his career so it would be nice to keep Ben from getting hit.
If there is one guy that is a staple of the New England defense it’s Vince Wilfork. Much like Casey Hampton he isn’t going to garner a lot of talk and attention because he doesn’t make a lot of tackles and might be good for a sack or so in the season but this guy is a run stopping monster. What is actually interesting is that Wilfork already has two interceptions and almost scored a touchdown this season.
I don’t anticipate him doing that against the Steelers but you never know. He has eight years of experience and he is 6’2 and 325 pounds so he is not an easy human to move.
A lot of people, myself included, has talked about how bad this defense is and how easy it is to throw against and while that might be correct there is one key point that we all need to remember: they don’t need to be great. The Patriots are going to score a lot of points on offense and they do it pretty quickly. There is a reason that there are high passing yards against the Pats secondary and that is partially due to the fact that the Patriots are always ahead so the other team is going to throw the ball more. Granted the secondary still isn’t that good but you still have to give some consideration t the fact that they get thrown on a good bit. Also you have to understand that they don’t need to be great. When the Ravens won the Super Bowl that defense had to be great because Trent Dilfer and that offense wasn’t going to give you much. This is the exact opposite of that situation.
-This is probably going to turn into a game of who is going to outscore who. Before this season it was pretty hard to envision the Steelers being able to go score for score with the Patriots but this season I think they are a little more prepared to do that. The emergence of Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders is going to give the Steelers the added dimension of players that can catch the ball and then make something happen after they catch it. No word yet on Hines Ward but from what I have been reading it doesn’t look good for him playing so that is going to hurt the receiving core but not as bad as it did last season. If you remember Ward went out of the game early last season and the Steelers went way down hill and only scored three points in the first half. This season they have great depth and we haven’t even really seen what Jerricho Cotchery could do and this could be his time to get some reps and do what Hines Ward has done.
-I also think that in terms of offense Heath Miller can have a big impact on this game. You have to think that the Patriots are going to try to bracket coverage on Mike Wallace to try and hold him in check and if they do that they are going to be rolling a safety over the top. With the safeties focused on not getting burnt over the top by Wallace, Sanders and Brown that is going to leave Heath Miller matched up on linebackers in the middle of the field. I will take that every day of the week. If the offensive line can give Ben some time that will let Heath get out into some patterns and that is good. The offense has been using Miller a little more the past couple of weeks and hopefully that can continue.
-All this talk about passing the football and rightfully so, but the key to the game might be the running game for each team. I am not saying that the Steelers need to run for 150 yards (I wouldn’t mind if they did) but I just mean being good enough in the running game where the Patriots have to respect them and give Ben the ability to use the play action to freeze the linebackers so that the receiver can get behind them and into the soft spots. On the same subject it will be important for the Steelers to shut down anything that the Patriots do on the ground. We know that Tom Brady can make it rain through the air but if he has any resemblance of a running game then that could spell sure disaster for the Steelers. I know that Brady has the Steelers number and even if they do stop the run they could still get beat pretty easily but it would make it a whole hell of a lot easier to beat a one dimensional Patriots team than one that can both run and pass effectively.
-A key member of this game that maybe nobody is really touching on is the play of Lawrence Timmons. James Harrison is out of the game and Timmons might have to stay on the outside so he is going to be pretty much doing what Harrison did last season. Last year Harrison did not rush the passer as much as he did getting into pass coverage and I feel pretty comfortable with Timmons doing that, especially against the tight ends of the Patriots who can hurt you. Timmons is the most athletic player on the Steelers roster and even thought he hasn’t played well at all this year he still can make things happen. I know a lot of people are going to talk about the inside linebackers and the secondary but if the Steelers win it is most likely going to be because Timmons had a really nice game. I don’t just mean that he has to have a nice game covering tight ends and playing the run, which is important, but he has to get in Brady’s face.
-Pressure is going to be key. I know that last year the Steelers didn’t blitz very much and Tom Brady helped out to by getting rid of the ball a ton of times in under three seconds but given the opportunity the Steelers need to get into his face and knock him around. Brady does not like to get hit and for the most part he doesn’t. His line does a pretty nice job of keeping him clean and most of the time he could eat a steak dinner with the time he has to survey the field and make a pass. The Steelers need to get some sacks but even if they don’t they just need to bump him around and make him feel uncomfortable. I don’t mean late hits and taking flags, I just mean that if he throws and you are around just continue and give him a shoulder or a little brush just to let him know you are there and maybe that starts to creep into his mind that he might not have as much time as he thinks. To be quite honest I think that in the Patriots first offensive series if they have a chance to get a real good shot on Brady they should take it. I don’t mean give him a cheap shot or try to injure him because I never want to see that kind of stuff happen and I don’t want it to be dirty, but if Brady lets go of a ball and you can get there in another step or two and give him a good, hard, clean shot then you take it. I don’t care about the flag, take the hit and let him know you are going to be there all day. With Brady in the pocket it is all about getting him out of his comfort zone and there is no better way to set a tone than to give him a good, hard, lick to start things off. It might not matter in the first or second quarter, but getting around him will pay off later in the game.
-This will be the first time all season that the Steelers will start the same offensive line for consecutive games. We are in week eight and this is the first time that the line will be the same. Unreal. That being said I think keeping Ben clean is of the utmost importance. Last week the Steelers did a really nice job of keeping Ben upright and giving him time to make plays down the field and if they do that on Sunday they are going to have some success throwing the football. Like I said getting the run game going will be nice but that might be the case of having to throw to set up the run. I know we can talk about the line having to be good every week but when you are playing a game where you need to score a lot of touchdowns you can’t be letting a guy hit Ben on the blindside and possibly causing a turnover.
-I guess the one big question for me is if Dick LeBeau is going to make some changes from the past or if he is going to keep trying the same things to try and get a win against Tom Brady. The Patriots are 6-1 against the Steelers when Tom Brady starts and there were whispers that Brady was telling his teammates that when they go against the Steelers to not worry about it because he got the game. You can get mad about him saying that but he is 100% right. He owns the Steelers and if you want to say he owns Dick LeBeau you are probably right on that count too. The Steelers have pretty much stayed true to form against the Patriots in the past and it hasn’t worked. They have frequently had to drop off players into coverage and haven’t blitzed as much and when the offensive lineman outnumber the number of people you are sending that isn’t going to work a vast majority of the time. I think with the talk this week of Dick LeBeau being owned by Brady and the Patriots he is going to come up with something or at the very least. The Steelers have tried to stick with what they do but it just hasn’t worked. I would like to think that they will change and try some other things against the Patriots but you never know. I have hopes.
-It will be interesting to see what the Steelers do with Ike Taylor. Taylor is the best cover guy the Steelers have, by far, and you would think that he would be a prime target to match up with Wes Welker all over the field. Mike Tomlin came out and said that wasn’t going to be the case but I think that might just be lip service. It doesn’t make sense to waste Taylor on the outside covering receivers that aren’t going to be big threats when he can cover the most productive and thrown to receiver in the league this year. Sure, Welker plays in the slot and Taylor rarely goes in there but I think this is the exception. Welker is a small guy so I think he can be physical with him and throw him off his routes. I think it needs to be done but we shall see.
-No doubt that Heinz Field is going to be rocking. This is the first huge home game of the season and you know how people from Pittsburgh feel about the Patriots. While Heinz is never going to be confused for a stadium that gets outrageously loud I have been there where the stands were shaking and it was as loud as Three Rivers. If the crowd gets into the game early and the Steelers go punch for punch with the Pats then I think this could really turn in the Steelers favor. I will say this, I wouldn’t want to be the Patriots and be down a score late in the third when Renegade comes on. That place will be off the hook if that happens.
PREDICTION – All week I have been saying that I have a pretty good feeling about this game. Don’t ask me why because I won’t be able to tell you but I don’t think that the Patriots are as good as they have been in years past and the Steelers are a much deeper team on offense so it will give them a chance to hand in there if this becomes an offensive shootout. I know I pick the Steelers every week and that is going to continue, mainly because of my good feeling. Steelers 31, Patriots 28