Steelers Opponent Preview: The New England Patriots
Oh, the temptation. There were so many possibilities for the title of this article when referring to the opponent. In the end some remaining shreds of professionalism restrained me. I will try to continue to utilize them as I write about
The Great Satan. Oops—I mean the New England Patriots.
One can’t talk about the Patriots without first talking about their head coach. He didn’t show any particular signs of greatness during his tenure with the (old) Cleveland Browns. He was fired when the team moved to Baltimore after the 1995 season.
His next head coaching opportunity didn’t come until 2000, when he accepted the position with the New York Jets. He reneged a day later to take the proffered Patriots job, and has been there ever since, as Steeler fans know to their cost.
That is all I will say about Belichick, other than to point out that however dis-likeable he may be he’s a really good coach. Even when he’s apparently playing by the same rules as the rest of the league.
For instance, after Tom Brady went down in the first game of 2008 with a torn ACL Matt Cassel took over at quarterback. He won that game, as well as 10 of the subsequent 15 games. (One of those losses was of course to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Steelers.) The Week 2 game was Cassel’s first-ever NFL start in his four years in the league.
It was only sheer bad luck that their 11-5 record wasn’t good enough to get into the playoffs that year. (They were tied with the Miami Dolphins, but the Dolphins won the tie-breakers.) The Patriots were the only 11-win team since 1990 to not make the playoffs.
On the strength of that season Cassel received a lovely contract from the Kansas City Chiefs. He promptly demonstrated that without Belichick at the helm he wasn’t that great of a quarterback.
This season the Patriots won three of the four games during Tom Brady’s suspension despite starting the third-string quarterback for two of those, and despite injuries to some of their better offensive players. So you have to give credit where credit is due. Even if you have to do it through gritted teeth.
Tom Brady needs no introduction from me. The only thing I would say about him is, considering what I’ve just said about his head coach, it would have been really interesting to see him play for someone else. I would love to know how much is him and how much is the coaching and the system and the players he’s surrounded with.
That said, Brady has more than occasionally made chicken soup out of—well, let’s just say assorted unattractive chicken detritus. Once again you have to give the man his due. After all, the Matt Steel article in Scout.com which generated my Thursday rant used Brady as the touchstone for consistency in a QB. Which is only reasonable, considering his record.
What’s a bit more interesting to Steeler fans is who else is going to be out there on offense. Brady hasn’t always had a stellar offensive line, and this appears to be one of those years, as Football Outsiders has them ranked No. 23 at this point. They are better at pass blocking than run blocking (No. 16 at pass blocking, and No. 12 in sacks given up). It’s the run blocking which has, at least so far, dragged them down.
Since it’s always interesting to compare, PIT, despite starting the redoubtable Chris Hubbard at right tackle the past two weeks and B.J. Finney at left guard before that, is ranked No. 11. They are pretty equal in run and pass blocking, and are No. 9 in sacks given up (in the good sense.)
Brady has some formidable offensive weapons at his disposal, including all-world tight end (and Pittsburgh native) Rob Gronkowski. However, Gronkowski has struggled with injuries this season. He missed the first two games and only played 14 snaps in the third. Since then he is back to his usual load and usual production, and Pro Football Focus has him ranked No. 2 in the league, right behind Carolina’s Greg Olsen.
Annoyingly, the guy ranked No. 3 is Martellus Bennett, who now plays for, you guessed it, New England. So it’s unlikely that the need to defend two-tight-end sets featuring large, proficient tight ends is going to stop tomorrow. Admittedly, Bennett is listed as Questionable on the injury list as of Friday.
The Patriots aren’t so blessed at wide receiver. They have Danny Amendola and not a lot else. This is partially because of injuries—see below.
Their running game this season is ranked 7th in the league at the moment, and they are averaging 120 yards per game rushing. This is particularly interesting in light of the poor ranking for run blocking Football Outsiders gave their offensive line. It is also interesting when you note that their best rusher, according to PFF, is James White, ranked No. 31 in the league. Our old friend (and, apparently, Le’Veon Bell’s current friend) LeGarrette Blount is No. 39.
And on a “the enemy of my enemy is—well, perhaps not a friend, but given a temporary pass” note, Blount was just fined $9,115 for actions in last week’s Bengals game, along with two of his teammates, as reported by ESPN:
Blount’s fine was for unnecessary roughness, Edelman’s was a result of a facemask penalty, and Gronkowski’s was for taunting. On Thursday, Gronkowski told reporters he had not been aware of any fine.
Meanwhile, Blount kept a low profile this week as he politely declined media interviews in the aftermath of pushing Burfict after Burfict had stomped on his right leg following a goal-line run. Blount also had appeared to grab a hold of safety Shawn Williams’ facemask after the run.
Blount…wore a bandage over his lower right leg in the locker room this week…
In addition to the previously reported $75,000 fine for Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict, Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick was fined $9,115 for unnecessary roughness.
If only Blount had been the leg-stomper…
But to return to the subject, New England has seven rushing touchdowns, a total matched by the fumbles by their backs. They have only lost two of them, however.
As for the Patriots’ defense, they are not particularly highly-regarded this season, at least by Football Outsiders, who has them ranked at No. 21. They are on an upward trajectory, however, as they were ranked No. 24 the week before. The Steelers’ D took over that slot, which is hardly a shock given last week’s effort, or lack thereof.
Unfortunately for the Steelers, it is the NE pass defense which drops them (No. 29 in the league.) Their run defense is No. 7, which isn’t great news given the likelihood that the Steelers will rely more on the run than the pass.
Furthermore, DeAngelo Williams is out, meaning that pretty much the entire weight of the running game will rest with Le’Veon Bell. That’s how he (and probably a majority of Steeler fans) would want it, of course, but makes it even easier to shut down, unless Bell does indeed prove to be a transcendent talent and the O line plays the game of its life.
I might as well put in an injury note, despite the non-necessity of anything more to depress us. As of yesterday the injury list on Steelers.com, in which you can find the injuries for the Patriots and Steelers side by side, is about as lopsided as you can imagine. On the Steelers side there are no players listed as Questionable or Doubtful and six players listed as Out. That list includes DeAngelo Williams, Marcus Gilbert, Cameron Heyward, Markus Wheaton, and of course the crowning insult, if you will, Ben Roethlisberger. Of the seven the only one who isn’t a core player of some description is Cody Wallace.
Conversely the Patriots’ list has no one listed as Out or Doubtful, and nine players listed as Questionable (meaning in the new parlance they have a 50-50 chance of playing.) The only names I recognize on the list are Bennett, Julian Edelman, and Brandon Boldin. That is admittedly a big hit in the receiver department. And it is of course entirely possible that some of the other nine are critical players at their position. It’s just that they aren’t well-known critical players.
I don’t know about you all, but I’m penciling this one in as a loss and hoping I’ll be pleasantly surprised. After all, such upsets do happen, as we witnessed last Sunday. Not so much to the Ben-less Steelers, though.
So let’s just all keep chanting “Any Given Sunday,” at least until such point as it is clear that such hopes are futile. After all, if we see the Landry Jones of the Cardinals game last year, rather than the Landry Jones who got pulled from the playoff game in favor of a Ben Roethlisberger who was incapable of throwing the ball more than about 10 feet, there’s always a chance…