INSIDE SLANT: The time has come. It is the annual Patriots Steelers game. The Steelers are not a division opponent, but they might as well be. Bill Belichick said the past does not matter and he is only focused on this game. But the Pats must be confident knowing that karma works in their favor in Pittsburgh. Last year, the Pats took a three point lead late in the game - only to have JuJu Smith-Schuster make a long catch and run. The Steelers thought they had won when Roethlisberger threw what appeared to be a game-winning touchdown pass to Jesse James. Then, something happened and it was ruled that James didn't survive the ground. Incomplete pass. Fans at Heinz Field were stunned. The Pats had new life. Two plays later, Roethlisberger threw an interception. Never before had a stadium gone from such elation to despair.
This is a tough game to predict because the Steelers have lost three games in a row. Each game was a heartbreaking loss. The Steelers are motivated because they likely need to win one of their next two games to win the AFC North. On the other hand, the Pats are 3-4 on the road and have lost to four teams who have been either mediocre or bad this season. The challenge for the Pats will be the Steelers two really good receivers in Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster who will the test the Pats secondary unlike any other group of receivers this season. The Pats must get more of a pass rush against the Steelers and show they can stop a top notch receiving core.
SERIES HISTORY: 27th meeting, Steelers lead series 14-12. The last time these two teams played was in 2017 when the Pats won 27-24. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have had great success against the Steelers. Belichick is 11-3 (with the Patriots) and Tom Brady is 11-2. The Pats have beaten the Steelers three times in the AFC Championship Game and each time they won the Super Bowl. The Pats are 4-1 against the Steelers in the playoffs including three playoff victories in the Brady-Belichick era. The Pats first home playoff win of the Bill Parcells era came against the Steelers in the 1996 season. Curtis Martin showed why he belonged in the Hall of Fame that day with 166 yards rushing on 19 carries. It was the Pats first home playoff game since 1978.
Bill Belichick on whether the Steelers have lost their confidence after three straight heartbreaking losses. "You can count on that. I think if you guys around competitive guys, you wouldn’t see that. So, I don’t really see that. I don’t give that any credibility at all. Competitive people compete. That’s what they do, and certainly that’s what the Steelers are. So, I’m sure we’ll get their best. I think they’ll get our best. We’ll see what happens."
Bill Belichick on the struggles of Stephen Gostkowski who missed two kicks Sunday in the loss to Miami: "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."
Bill Belichick on the Steelers wide receivers: "Yeah, you’re not going to get anybody better than these two guys, plus the quarterback. They’ve got a lot of other guys, too, but I mean, these two receivers are elite – elite elite."
Trey Flowers on how the team has responded to the Miami loss and how the defense will stop big running plays. "We are on to Pittsburgh. Past is in the past. Be more physical - be more fundamental and have more sound technique. Just make plays and make tackles - not allow extra yards."
BY THE NUMBERS:
22 - the number of combined catches by Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon against Miami. The Pats trio of pass catchers has never looked stronger. Gronkowski had his best game of the season Sunday with 8 catches, 107 yards and one touchdown. In six games against the Steelers, Gronkowski has 39 catches, 664 yards and eight touchdowns. Gronkowski has dominated the Steelers. Last year in the fourth quarter, the Steelers could not stop him.
189 - the number of rushing yards the Pats gave up to Miami. The Pats run defense must be better. The Pats will need to see more production out of Lawrence Guy, Malcom Brown and Trey Flowers. Flowers must get off his blocks when he is inside, which he failed to do on several of the Dolphins long runs Sunday.
177 - the number of combined catches by Steelers wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Antonio Brown. Pats must limit these receivers or they likely lose the game.
4 - the number of catches by Chris Hogan the past five games. He and Phillip Dorsett have almost disappeared from the Pats offense.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL:
Jason McCourty: McCourty struggled in space when he covered Dolphins WR Kenny Stills who had eight catches. Look for the Steelers to attack McCourty. The Pats could put McCourty inside and J.C. Jackson outside.
Lawrence Guy/Malcom Brown: The two defensive linemen must be more physical in the run game.
Sony Michel: Michel must run better than he did last week when he averaged less than three yards per carry.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Stephen Gostkowski: Gostkowski missed two kicks last week. He must rebound well in a hostile environment. Bill Belichick expressed full confidence in Gostkowski on Wednesday. Gostkowski has never been one to let bad games linger. He has amnesia, which is a great quality for any kicker.
GAME PLAN: Offensively, the Pats will need to protect well against the blitz schemes of the Steelers. The Steelers do a good job of getting pressure on the quarterback. The Steelers lead the league in sacks with 45. The Pats are tied for 29th with 24 sacks. The Steelers are strong inside with Bud Dupree and Sean Spence. Tom Brady will likely use play action fakes to draw the linebackers in and throw over the top. If the Steelers play zone with their signature zone blitz scheme, Brady will pick them apart. The Pats will likely attack the Steelers by hitting Julian Edelman in the middle of the field and throwing quick slants to Josh Gordon. The Pats hope that the Steelers cover Gronkowski with linebackers so they can hit Gronkowski for some big plays.
Defensively, it is simple. The Pats must stop wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Antonio Brown. Smith-Schuster is fast and Brown is physical. They are extremely tough to defend. Putting Gilmore on Smith-Schuster given his speed and doubling Brown with J.C. Jackson and Devin McCourty over the top must be the best way to go. Jackson should try to be physical with Brown at the line of scrimmage. The Pats must also stop James Connor who has been effective in place of Le'Veon Bell. Though, he is not nearly as good as Bell.
QUOTES ON GAME: James White on the Pats success against the Steelers: "History doesn’t matter. It’s just all about how we’re going to perform on this Sunday. So we’ve just got to have a good week of practice, come out ready to go from the start. They’re a good football team, good defensively, offensively and on special teams. It’s going to take everything we have so we’ve just got to go out there and bounce back."
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: WR Antonio Brown/JuJu Smith-Schuster v. CB Stephon Gilmore (Gilmore must take away one of the Steelers two wide receivers for the Pats to win).
RT Marcus Cannon v. DE Cameron Heyward (Cannon must block Heyward who has six sacks this season and 12.5 sacks last season).