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Steelers vs. Patriots Preview: The fan vs. the analyst

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The Pittsburgh Steelers and Patriots square off in Week 15, and there is so much to discuss it is ridiculous.

NFL: AFC Championship-Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

For those that have been around for the duration of my time as a writer, the main thing people know about me is that the majority of my work is done as a film analyst. Rarely do I get to truthfully express my thoughts as a fan on this website.

Since it’s Steelers-Patriots week and my hatred knows no bounds for the team led by Darth Hoodie, I thought this would be a great time to get my thoughts out, both from the perspective of a fan and analyst.

Fan

I’ve been waiting for this week ever since the moment the Steelers were knocked out of the playoffs by Brady and Chris Hogan, of all guys. I’m more than tired of losing to this team every single time, and it almost feels like Pittsburgh never even has a legitimate chance. Most of the games end as blowouts, and fans are stuck in the game’s aftermath mainly with the wishful thought, “What if the Patriots never existed?”

I feel like this is how Chiefs’ fans feel about the Steelers. They’re able to overcome tons of obstacles and beat some of the toughest NFL teams, but they’re just never able to get over that matchup. What the Steelers are to the Chiefs, is what the Patriots are to the Steelers.

Brady and the hooded mastermind are the Steelers’ kryptonite, but these two—plus their star-studded, absolute matchup nightmare, Rob Gronkowski, represent the recipe for a bad day for Steelers Nation. In 2010, rookie Gronk had three TDs coming into the matchup vs. the Steelers, and he doubled that in his breakout performance against the Black-and-gold, helping lead them to a 39-26 victory.

So what’s to say this one will be any different?

I don’t know, but even without Ryan Shazier, this team still has something about them. This team has character that’s been building since the 2014 playoff loss to the Ravens in the wildcard. No team in the NFL has more motivation than this team.

The Steelers - particularly Ben Roethlisberger - didn’t take too kindly to Julian Edelman’s words towards the Steelers leading up to the AFC Championship game. The death of Dan Rooney a few months afterwards was one that struck this team greatly. Ben would not have been here if weren’t for Dan shifting the conversation towards him during the 2004 draft, and I have to believe that has remained on his mind since his passing.

I also have to believe the Steelers know Ryan Shazier wouldn’t want to see them come up short. The Steelers’ aspirations have been building for many years, and, with the shot Edelman took at the organization, plus Dan’s death and the reminder of how any given snap could be your last with the injury to Shazier, you can bet this team is going to fight for every single inch.

They’ve been doing that ever since the Colts game. No matter the circumstance, no matter the team, no matter how far they’re down, they’re not out. The foot of Chris Boswell has been key, but so has the play of their offense which, oddly enough, was being carried greatly by the defense in the beginning of the season.

I don’t know—the fan in me wants to believe this team will pull out the “W” based on what we’ve seen during the past few weeks and how motivated they’re clearly going to be. But the fan in me also realizes this Patriots’ offense is better than that of any of the Steelers’ recent opponents.

I want to believe, but history tells me I’ll only be disappointed. Nevertheless, I have to believe history will be rewritten on Sunday.

Analyst

The Ravens put up 38-points against this defense...

I can’t count the amount of times they got beat along the edge on those stretch zone plays where the linebackers simply didn’t have enough lateral range. The Steelers miss Shazier badly, and L.J. Fort, the only guy who’s looked athletic enough to be the Mack linebacker, was scarcely even playing.

I’m honestly afraid of the Patriots coming out and running the ball out of the gate, more than their passing attack. Then, as soon as they establish play-action passing, getting the linebackers to commit early, there’s Gronkowski running up the seam. The Steelers cannot allow the Patriots to get their run game going. They absolutely have to somehow make them one-dimensional.

Watch for the checkdowns on Sunday. Expect Dion Lewis, or James White, to be heavily involved. The Ravens had their way with this defense by checking it down, so you’ve got to expect the Patriots to test Pittsburgh early in that regard.

As for their tight end, yeah this simply is not going to be easy without Shazier. The only option the team might have is having T.J. Watt follow him, and always play on his side of the formation. He’s the best natural athlete and cover player the Steelers have without Shazier, so I have to think a combo of him chipping at the line and one of the two safeties being on Gronkowski are going to be the game plan Sunday.

Brandin Cooks is going to be huge test for the cornerbacks. The Steelers’ cornerbacks have had trouble with double-moves, and it’s still somewhat of a problem. I bet the Steelers have made this a point of emphasis this week, given the speed threat that Cooks brings to the table. What I like about Artie Burns matching up on him, though, is that he’s got plenty of speed to stay with him, and I think it could be similar to the matchup he had earlier this season with Tyreek Hill.

The Steelers’ defensive front must get interior pressure. In particular, Cameron Heyward and Javon Hargrave. This duo must force Brady off his spot enough to stall a few drives. If the defense can hold the Pats to field goals, I think this team has a great opportunity.

As for this Steelers’ offense, Roethlisberger has to play as well, if not better, than he did last week, for the Steelers to win. He generally has had his struggles vs. the Patriots, but unlike past matchups, I believe his offensive line will be able to give him plenty of time to throw.

The Patriots do not have any marquee pass rushers that can really win 1-on-1 matchups. This could make a big difference and allow Ben plenty of time to improvise and find his guys downfield for chunk plays.

In the AFC Championship Game last January, the Patriots didn’t need to stop Le’Veon Bell because he had a groin injury, the severity of which was not disclosed prior to the game, and he finished with only six carries for 20-yards. But this time around, New England won’t be as fortunate.

Antonio Brown is going to face a bracket. Whether it’s Gilmore or Butler, expect Devin McCourty to be shaded towards No. 84’s side of the field at all times. This is going to put more pressure on guys like Martavis Bryant, Jesse James, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Eli Rogers to beat single coverage. I don’t know who the Pats will have on Brown but, if it’s Gilmore, expect Ben to target Bryant vs. Butler.

I believe this game will come down to two offenses in an absolute shootout, and the defense which comes up with the most stops will be the difference. That’s provided the Steelers - who have been very streaky in the red zone - can finish drives with touchdowns instead of field goals versus the No. 1 red-zone defense in the league.

That’s going to be paramount in this game.

Conclusion

I have no clue who wins this game, but the odds of the Patriots winning are greater. It’s hard to account for the motivation factor, but you have to believe the Steelers will be the most motivated team during this game.

It might go either way. Whether as a fan or analyst, there is an argument for each side. History is on the Patriot’s side, but history is the past, whereas there’s nothing more important than what’s standing before the Steelers right now.