The Pittsburgh Steelers are preparing to play their third playoff game, and it is their third rematch of the postseason. In the Wild Card round they sought revenge on the Miami Dolphins, and did. In the Divisional round they were out to prove their Week 4 win was no fluke, and did. Now they seek revenge again, but this time against the New England Patriots.
The Steelers and Patriots met in Week 7 of the regular season, with New England beating Pittsburgh 27-16 at Heinz Field, but there are a lot of changes on both rosters from that first meeting.
I was able to ask Rich Hill, editor of Pats Pulpit (SB Nation’s Patriots site) what the changes were in the Patriots lineup since that game, and his answer is here below.
“On offense, it's hard to talk about change without discussing Gronkowski, but I guess there are a few clear changes. WR Julian Edelman has been a different player since the Patriots bye in Week 9, and he finished the year with more yards from scrimmage from week 10 onward than any other receiver or tight end in the league. RB Dion Lewis has added another threat in the Patriots backfield, joining rushing touchdown champion RB LeGarrette Blount and elite receiving RB James White.
Possibly more important than any skill position change has been New England's consistency on the offensive line. The Patriots really haven't rotated their line and they've improved their communication and performance on a weekly basis. The line was pretty okay in the first half of the season, but they've been dominant late in the year.
On defense, the Patriots have evolved. Week 7 was CB Eric Rowe's first start with the team, while CB Logan Ryan has finally recovered after a slow start to the year (He finished the season ranked #12 in Pro Football Focus' cornerback rankings). Jamie Collins is no longer at linebacker and current starter, Kyle Van Noy, was still on the Lions. Edge defender Trey Flowers has ascended to the top of the team's depth chart after playing 4th string against the Steelers.
Players are a lot more confident on defense and it shows in the play calling. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia believes the team has the playbook down and the responsibilities locked up, and is allowing for more exotic blitzes and pressures to get after the quarterback.
New England challenged Landry Jones to lead 10+ play drives and tried to drop back into coverage, inviting Jones to throw. They won't sit back and let Roethlisberger pick them apart.”
Those are some big differences for the Patriots, mainly the loss of Rob Gronkowski, but when you look at the differences in the Steelers roster, there are some serious differences. Just take a look:
- Ben Roethlisberger at QB Sunday, not Landry Jones.
- Ryan Shazier is healthy, sat out the entire 1st quarter in Week 7 coming off a knee injury.
- Bud Dupree will be in the lineup.
- Eli Rogers, who was benched for the entire game, has become a steady presence in the passing game.
- Steelers run defense has improved tremendously throughout the 9-game winning streak, all without Cameron Heyward.
- James Harrison is now the starter at right OLB, not Jarvis Jones.
- Sean Davis is now the starting safety alongside Mike Mitchell, not Robert Golden.
- Steelers offensive line has been nothing short of dominating throughout the second half of the season.
I think you get the picture. In other words, this is an entirely different Steelers team than the one who was on the field in Week 7 at Heinz Field. There are differences on the New England side of the ball, but those are mainly in scheme or performance, not necessarily personnel.
Sure, the Patriots will be able to draw some conclusions from the Week 7 game, but not many when it comes to the players who will be on the field for the black and gold this Sunday. The Steelers are a much better, and healthier, team in the postseason, and it should make for a tremendous game.