Steelers Opponent Preview: The New England Patriots
Although I used the more traditional name for Sunday’s opponent, it’s highly unlikely that anyone has forgotten the more informal sobriquet bestowed upon them by Mike Tomlin last Sunday evening. And whether Mike Tomlin actually thinks of the Patriots as constitutionally different than all the other teams or not, I would venture to guess Steeler Nation does. Many believe the Pats robbed the Steelers of two Super Bowl appearances.
I looked up the final scores of those two AFC Championship games, and discovered the 2001 game was won 24—17 by New England, and the 2004 game by a score of 41-27. I don’t know whether this merely indicates that Belichick got better at utilizing the information as he went along, or whether it’s a conspiracy theory sort of thing, but there is no doubt Belichick had video materials for both games. How much difference it made is up for debate.
And although both those incidents were before Tomlin’s time, he certainly feels that “strange things” happen in Foxboro, including the infamous headset problems that would mysteriously clear up when an NFL official was nearby. At any rate, as the picture heading Homer’s post clearly indicates, there is no love lost between Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger. I’m guessing there isn’t much love lost between Mike Tomlin and Bill Belichick either.
But on to Sunday’s matchup. This game is yet another repeat of an earlier-season opponent. Hopefully the fact that the Steelers beat the Chiefs by 29 points in Week 4 at Heinz Field but only by two points at Arrowhead in the playoffs isn’t predictive, because the Steelers lost (by 11 points) to the Patriots in Week 7. That was, of course, the Landry Jones-led Steelers. So let’s take a quick look at how Landry looked in that game.
Jones was 29 of 47 for a 61.7 completion percentage. He threw one TD and one INT, and garnered a QB rating of 76.6. Not great but not awful. This was at Heinz Field. Let’s compare this to Ben’s road stats this season. I’m going to excise the Week 3 game against the Eagles, as that was such a huge outlier, and also remove the Week 9 road loss to the Ravens in which Ben came back far too fast from a knee injury. Besides, Ben’s stats, as demonstrated in one of my Roethlisberger Rust articles, are abysmal the first week he returns after an injury. To recap, his completion percentage averages 59.5, QB rating is 72.3, and his TD/INT ratio is 8/10.
So, removing those two games and averaging his other 2016 road games, including last Sunday’s, his average completion percentage was 62.9 (vs. a season average of 64.4). The QB rating was an average of 84.8 (vs. 95.4 for the season.) And his TD/INT ratio was 8/7 (compared to 29/13 for the whole season.) This is certainly nothing like his stats if you remove the road games, but is better than I thought it might be.
So now let’s look at Tom Brady. Before looking at his stats I suspected that his home/road splits were much less obvious than Ben’s, and that is of course the case. In fact, I don’t suppose you should really call them “splits” at all. His QB rating varies much more according to opponent than it does according to where the game is played. And of course he had a career year this season. His QB rating averaged 112.2, with a 67,4 completion percentage and a 28/2 TD to INT ratio. The only regular season game in which his passer rating was less than about 90 (okay, the Jets game was 89.2) was the game against Buffalo in Week 16. In that game he garnered a 68.2 passer rating. These figures are astonishing.
Happily, the post-season hasn’t gone as well. Against Houston Brady had a 68.6 passer rating, threw as many interceptions (two) as he did during his whole (12-game) regular season, and had an abysmal completion percentage of 47.4. Despite some distinctly less-than-optimal games from Ben, the worst completion percentage he posted in 17 games was 51.1 (in the post-injury Ravens game.) It’s worth remembering that 20 of the Patriots’ 34 points last Sunday were due to a rushing touchdown, a kick return for a touchdown, and two field goals.
One might question whether the Steelers defense is capable of applying the same sort of pressure as the Houston defense did. The Texans had two sacks and three tackles for loss, along with two interceptions. Although Football Outsiders ranked Houston’s defense as No. 7 in the league by the end of the season, with PIT coming in at No. 11, no team in the league had more sacks than the Steelers from Week 10 onwards. The poor showing early in the season, when Keith Butler was minimizing the pass rush and diverting resources to help out the young defensive backs, definitely pulled down the total. Before the game began in Week 10 the Steelers had 13 sacks on the season. They ended with 38—in other words, 25 of their sacks came in the last seven games.
Interestingly, if you look at Football Outsiders’ Weighted Defense stat, which counts later games more heavily than early ones, the Steelers move up to No. 7 and Houston moves down to No. 8.
Before the Kansas City game I would have worried a good deal more about Dion Lewis, the guy who took back a kick return for a touchdown against Houston. After all, the Steelers’ special teams were looking pretty unimpressive. It might be due to so many core ST players being in and out (in some cases, just out) of the lineup due to injuries, but nobody cares about that. But I certainly feel happier about LEli’s after the PIT special teams shut down Tyreek Hill.
If you didn’t catch it, watch Tunch Ilkin’s Chalk Talk for this week. He shows all of the kickoffs except the first unsuccessful squib kick, and notes that it wasn’t the notably speedy Sammie Coates or Darrius Heyward-Bey who made it to Hill first (mostly well short of the 15-yard line.) No, it was 250-lb. linebacker Vince Williams. Whatever Danny Smith said to the guys on special teams, they played like their hair was on fire. It bodes well for Sunday’s game.
So I suppose I should stop talking about the Houston defense and talk about the Patriot’s defense instead. For the past month at least I’ve been reading about how underrated they are, so let’s check it out. To return to our friends at Football Outsiders, they rank the NE defense at No. 16. However, the Weighted Defense moves them up to No. 11. They are ranked only 23rd against the pass but are No. 4 against the run, again according to FO.
One other interesting nugget I gleaned from FO is their ranking of the schedule for each team. According to their metric, the Steelers played the 10th most difficult schedule in the league, as judged by the offensive ranking of the opponents. The Patriots played the 32nd most difficult. In other words, they had the easiest schedule in the entire league in terms of the offenses they were up against. The playoffs didn’t change from that standpoint for NE, as Houston was ranked No. 30 offensively. (In case you’re curious, Miami was ranked 14th and Kansas City 13th.)
I’m not really going to spend any time on the New England offense. We know they are good, despite the lack of Rob Gronkowski. I’m more interested in defensive numbers, so here are some. And just for kicks I’ll throw in the numbers for Miami, Kansas City, and Pittsburgh. I’ll list best to worst in each category:
- Sacks: 38—PIT; 34—NE; 33—MIA; 31—HOU; 28—KC
- Interceptions: 18—KC; 16—MIA; 13—PIT and NE; 11—HOU
- Forced Fumbles/Recoveries: 19/15—KC; 19/10—NE; 18/10—PIT; 17/10—MIA; 8/6—HOU.
The main takeaway for me is how well the Patriots’ defense has done in shutting down the run. Again, let’s look at the five teams. I’m going to note their season average rushing yards given up and where this ranks. The number in parenthesis is how many yards the team gave up to PIT (or, more specifically, to L. Bell) in the postseason. The numbers in brackets are how many yards NE/HOU gave up to each other:
- NE: 88.6 YPG—No. 3 
- HOU: 99.7 YPG—No. 12 
- PIT: 100.0 YPG—No. 13
- KC: 120.4 YPG—No. 26 (170)
- MIA: 140.4 YPG—No. 30 (167)
I thought it would be interesting to look at are how well NE did against an “elite” rusher. LaMar Miller, the back for Houston, had a pretty nice season, but he’s no Le’Veon Bell. For that matter, 18 of the 92 yards gained against NE were on a Brock Osweiler run.)
Since mid-season (since it seems to me a reasonable place to start, when guys have gotten into a rhythm and all) Miller only topped 100 yards twice—in Week 11 against Oakland (104) and Week 14 against the Colts (107.) He only had 57 yards against San Diego (now LAC, I suppose,) 63 yards against Jacksonville (in 22 attempts,) and a miserable 22 yards on 14 attempts vs. Green Bay.
During this same time period Bell, after a rough start, has produced the following:
Five games over 100 yards (146, 120, 118, 236, and 122). The only time after Week 10 he didn’t have at least a 100 yards was Week 15 @ CIN. He still rushed for 93 yards on 23 attempts, a 4.0 average. Admittedly the Baltimore and Dallas games were bad (32 and 57 yards) but as we know it was after that the Steelers seemed to really commit to the running game.
To return to the New England defense, here are the backs they have played (besides, of course, Bell and Miller). I’m beginning once again after mid-season:
- Week 9: Bye
- Week 10: Loss to Seahawks. The backs were C.J. Prosise and Christine Michael. Prosise managed 66 yards on 17 carries, Michael 22 yards on five carries.
- Week 11: Win against 49ers. The back was Carlos Hyde (86 yards on 19 carries.) Colin Kaepernick also had four carries for 32 yards.
- Week 12: Win against Jets. Backs were Bills Powell (8 carries, 38 yards) and Matt Forte (13 carries, 27 yards.)
- Week 13: Win against LA Rams. The back was Todd Gurley (11 for 28 yards.)
- Week 14: Win against Ravens. Kenneth Dixon was 11 for 39—Terrence West was two for 2 yards.
- Week 15: Win against Denver. Rushers: Justin Forsett gained 37 yards on 10 carries. Two other anonymous backs gained 21 yards on seven carries.
- Week 16: A phenomenally lopsided win over the Jets. Powell gained 60 yards on 15 carries, and three other backs combined for 44 yards on 13 carries.
- Week 17: Win against Miami. Jay Ajayi gained 59 yards on 16 carries. Three other backs gained 16 yards on 7 carries.
And of course the Steelers played Miami the following week and held Ajayi to 33 yards on 16 carries.
That’s all I’ve got to say. Try as they may, there is no way the Steelers defense is going to shut down the Patriots’ offense, although they can hopefully neutralize the running game at least. But as we all know the outcome is almost certainly going to depend on two things—can Bell get a reasonable number of yards, some of which end up in the end zone, and can Ben play like the guy we’ve seen rather less frequently than we would have liked this year? You know, Transcendent Ben? If so, I really like the Steelers’ chances. If he plays like Bad Road Ben, it’s going to be a long afternoon followed by a gray, faceless winter.