A side-by-side comparison of the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots with regard to talent at key offensive positions doesn’t reveal a glaring advantage for either team in their upcoming, Week-14 matchup on Sunday at Heinz Field. Tom Brady comes into the game as the NFL’s No. 1 quarterback in passing yardage with 3,865 yards. But Ben Roethlisberger is hot on his heels at No. 2 in passing yardage with 3,744 yards despite this season hardly being one of Ben’s better efforts as a pro. At wide receiver, while Antonio Brown leads the NFL pack with 1,509 yards, the Patriots counter with their dynamic duo of Brandin Cooks (924 yards) and Rob Gronkowski (849 yards). At running back, though, you’d have to give the edge to Pittsburgh, in view of Le’Veon Bell’s league-leading mark of 1,105 yards rushing, in addition to the substantial double-threat he poses as a receiver. The Pats’ Dion Lewis has compiled 607 yards rushing this season, but that mark places him a distant No. 22 among NFL running backs.
Defensively, New England has even less to crow about than Pittsburgh’s recently porous and injury-depleted unit. For example, consider that defensive end Trey Flowers, the Patriots’ sack leader with a total of six on the season, ranks No. 41 on the league’s overall sack list (including stats from Weeks 1 through 13). Meanwhile, safety Devin McCourty is currently the Pats’ leading tackler, ranking No. 34 in the NFL after Week 13. These standings certainly aren’t at a level that would strike fear into the hearts of a potent offense like the Steelers.
But the history of Steelers-Patriots matchups—particularly under the must-win pressures of playoff competition—gives New England an obvious and significant edge. The multitude of analysts populating Steelers Nation and BTSC comment threads have offered literally dozens of explanations as to why this unhappy circumstance exists—with more than a few of these analyses citing the need to fire Coach A, B or C.
What makes the Patriots so tough to beat?
At the end of the third quarter in Super Bowl 51 on February 5th at NRG Stadium in Houston, the Atlanta Falcons held a 28-9 advantage over the Patriots and, given the inability of New England to stop the Falcons’ offense or get their own offense on track, the NFL title game and Lombardi Trophy appeared to be safely in hand for the Falcons.
Yet somehow, and against all odds, the Patriots found a way to score 19 points in the fourth quarter to tie the game and send it into overtime, while their defense completely stifled Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ potent offense. Given the Patriots’ propensity for winning tightly-contested games, once the Big Dance had moved into overtime, almost nobody watching still believed the Falcons would emerge with the win.
This huge win epitomizes the level of discipline and consistency that the Patriots command as a team when the chips are down. Quite simply, the Pats have the NFL’s most impressive and diverse offensive system, usually triggered flawlessly by one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game. According to Football Outsiders, the Patriots currently lead the NFL in the all-important offensive categories of average yards gained per drive (38.63 yards) and average points scored per drive (2.64 points). What’s more, New England is the second best team in the NFL in terms of having the lowest percentage of turnovers per drive (.074). Their overall Drive Success Rate (DSR) so far this season is .761 compared to the Steelers’ .721.
Because the Patriots’ offense is so consistent in translating drives into points, this places tremendous pressure on their opponents, who typically find themselves down by 10 points or more before halftime. Thus, New England’s rivals face the difficult task of playing catch-up in the final 30 minutes with the league’s best offense.
Another key factor in the Patriots’ success is team discipline, particularly in avoiding costly turnovers and penalties. For the most part, you can forget about New England beating themselves—and only very rarely do you see Tom Brady pressured into strip-sack fumbles or interceptions. New England also has rock-solid special teams, featuring Stephen Gostkowski, one of the NFL’s most accurate and reliable placekickers who currently ranks No. 2 for the season in scoring with 130 points, one spot ahead of the Steelers’ Chris Boswell (122 points).
As much as Steelers fans hate to admit it, the Pats’ ability to remain NFL champions or perennial Super Bowl contenders during the past 15 years, despite fielding an ever-changing cast of players, is a testament to the prowess of head coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots’ front office. While New England certainly has had its share of talented players during this period, it’s not sheer talent which separates them from the pack. More than the abilities of their players, the Patriots succeed because they’ve developed a system that works regardless of the cast supporting Tom Brady—and one which No. 12 is uniquely qualified to implement. For this reason, New England’s offense has been virtually unstoppable regardless of their opposition. The Patriots also are one of the NFL’s best when it comes to breaking down and exploiting the weaknesses of their opponents. If your defense has any sore spots, Brady is sure to rub them raw during the course of a game.
On the other hand, the Steelers have been characterized by an uncanny ability to pull victory from the jaws of defeat this season. And in recent weeks, the much-anticipated Steelers’ offense has awakened to begin posting some eye-popping stats. So it’s time now to look at the Three Keys to a Pittsburgh victory over the pesky Patriots.
Key No. 1: Big Ben needs to shine again, as he did last week
The Steelers have rarely succeeded in stopping or even slowing down New England’s offense, so there’s no reason to expect they’ll start doing so on Sunday (especially given the team’s recent struggles containing relatively poor offenses such as Baltimore and Cincinnati). Quite plainly, there’s no way for Pittsburgh to win this game without a strong effort by No. 7. Roethlisberger must demonstrate not only that his offense can keep pace with Brady, but he also must be able to outgun the Patriots at crucial points in the game.
This means avoiding the stalled drives which have plagued the Steelers’ offense throughout the current season, allowing their opponents to keep the score close and forcing the Black-and-gold to rely on fourth-quarter heroics. You’re not going to beat New England with field goals unless you’ve already matched them with TDs. And if you miss red-zone opportunities or have one too many 3-and-outs, you’ll soon find yourself eating the Patriots’ dust.
Key No. 2: Eliminate turnovers
Turning the ball over to Brady and company is the quickest way to wind up on the short end of a lopsided score. Ben needs to be just as judicious with his throws this Sunday as he was in Week 13. Also, he can’t make the mistake of holding onto the ball too long in the pocket. Likewise, the Steelers’ running backs, receivers and kick returners must keep tight grips on the football at all times because New England’s defense might not be very good but they do know how to tackle the football.
Key No. 3: Ring the Bell!
A healthy Le’Veon Bell, something the Steelers lacked in the AFC Championship game early this year, could make a huge difference this time around. New England’s defense has become a fairly shaky unit these days, and Bell is the kind of back who could prove to be their worst nightmare. If No. 26 has a big game at Heinz Field on Sunday, the odds are quite good for the Steelers to send the Pats home with their second-straight loss. Furthermore, an effective running game would enable Pittsburgh to dominate possession and keep the ball out of Brady’s hands.