Steelers Opponent Preview: The New England Patriots

Vince Williams practicing wearing Ryan Shazier’s jersey. Photo via

I found myself highly reluctant to write this preview because, unlike Mike Tomlin, I am perfectly happy averting my gaze from the elephant in the room. But needs must as the devil drives, which is actually a pretty appropriate expression for this week, and here it is.

First off, let’s look at the record, because although I’m not going to take the time to look it up I’m betting it’s been a pretty long time since the Steelers had a better record than the Patriots at this point in the season:

  • Pittsburgh: 11-2
  • New England: 10-3

The unfortunate thing, of course, is that the record doesn’t make a bit of difference if the Steelers lose on Sunday. If they win, it’s another story, of course. So let’s take a look at the usual indicators and see whether the chances look reasonable. As usual, numbers come from Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus. We will begin with defense to get it over with. Luckily the Patriots’ D is nothing to write home about either:


  • Team Defense (for the FO metric of DVOA, lower is better for defenses:) New England: 12.8%—No. 30. Pittsburgh: -5.5%—No. 11 (PIT dropped from No. 5 last week—NE from No. 28.)
  • Passing Defense: New England—No. 24; Pittsburgh—No. 10
  • Rushing Defense: New England—No. 32; Pittsburgh—No. 16

Defensive Lines:

  • Run Blocking: New England—No. 31; Pittsburgh—No. 10
  • Pass Protection: New England—No. 17; Pittsburgh—No. 3
  • Sacks: NE 30, (No. 19) PIT 41 (No. 2)

What is interesting about all of this is that once again I cut and pasted the info from a previous post, in this case Cincinnati. New England was, as you might suspect, worse than Cincinnati in every category, but mostly not substantially worse.

I’ve seen it posited that Pittsburgh is a defense on the way down and New England is a defense on the way up. This may be true—it has certainly been true of Pittsburgh with the losses of Joe Haden and especially of Ryan Shazier—but New England is not, as far as these numbers would indicate, anyhow, making substantial progress. The Steelers put up 39 points on the best defense in the league, according to Football Outsiders. The only other team that is even close is Jacksonville. (Jacksonville and Baltimore are -19.5% and -19.2% respectively. The next closest is Philadelphia, at -12.3%.) Miami, the defense that just beat the crap out of Tom Brady, has a DVOA of 7.6%, which raises them from No. 27 to No. 25.

It’s perhaps unwise to read too much into this, as Miami is a team New England has, strangely, struggled to beat in Florida. Nonetheless it is interesting…


  • Team Offense (higher DVOA is better): New England: 25.1%—No. 1; Pittsburgh: 38.6%—No. 5. (For contrast, CIN is -5.6%, BAL -5.8%. So we can’t really take comfort in the defense’s showing against their offenses. Not at all. On the other hand the Miami offense is -16.1%, which is No. 27. So there’s that.)
  • Passing Offense: New England: 48.1%—No. 1. 0.9%; Pittsburgh: 35.1%—No. 7
  • Rushing Offense: New England: 3.6%—No. 6; Pittsburgh: -1.7%—No. 10.

I’ll just throw out here that PIT is ranked No. 6 in strength of schedule (in terms of the defenses played)—NE is ranked No. 29. Meaning that they have played perilously close to the easiest schedule in the league in terms of the defenses they have faced, and PIT has played one of the most difficult. I keep hearing how easy the Steelers’ schedule is this year, but FO doesn’t think so…

Offensive Lines:

  • Run Blocking: New England: No. 2; Pittsburgh: No. 8
  • Pass Protection: New England: No. 13; Pittsburgh No. 1

Tom Brady has been sacked 29 times, Ben Roethlisberger 19. The “adjusted sack rate” (sacks + intentional grounding penalties per pass attempt, adjusted for down, distance, and opponent) is 3.5% for the Steelers, 6.2% for the Patriots.

On to the Pro Football Focus numbers. As usual I’ll look at how they view the matchups between players. First let’s look at the New England defense, because a lot of our hope for this game is based on the Steelers putting up a ton of points:

Not too surprisingly, even the best of the NE defensive players are only graded as “above average.” Three of the four are DBs—CB Stephon Gilmore, FS Duron Harmon, and SS Patrick Chung (84.3, 83.4, and 80.8 respectively) and DT Malcom Brown (80.1.) Not a single one of their linebackers are rated above 50 (well into the “poor” category.) Of course, I’m not expecting the Steelers’ LBs to look very promising either. Unfortunately, all of their DBs are at least “average”, with Malcom Butler graded at 78.6 and slot corner Jonathan Jones at 77.8. DT Lawrence Guy is graded at 73.5.

The Killer Bees’ ratings still look great, with Brown an elite 93.7. Ben’s grade went up slightly, from 86.6 to 86.9, although his position rank actually dropped to No. 5. Bell has now made it into the “above average” category with a grade of 82.2 (he was in the “average” category for a lot of the year.) The next best player after Brown is David DeCastro, who at the elite grade of 91.1 is still their top guard in the league. However, the rest of the interior has dropped steadily in PFF’s estimation, with Pouncey grading at 66.1 and Foster at probably a career low of 49.4. (Both B.J. Finney and Matt Feiler grade considerably better.)

PFF is still not enamored of any receiver/TE etc. not named Antonio Brown, although JuJu is not shown in the lineup. Nor is Vance McDonald. If McDonald can play he grades out at 77.3, considerably better than Jesse James, and JuJu’s 73.3 is better than any of the other receivers, by a good bit. However, McDonald still didn’t practice at all yesterday with the shoulder injury, so he seems unlikely to play.

Now let’s give New England the ball and see what PFF thinks. (Actually, I would say the best strategy for this game would be to give New England the ball as little as possible…)

According to PFF, the middle of the O-line is very good. The lowest grade for the three is LG Joe Thuney, whose grade of 80.0 ranks him No. 13 among guards. Center David Andrews (84.4) is their 4th-ranked center. The tackles are both considered “below average,” although LT Nate Solder is just barely below, at 69.0.

Tom Brady is, unsurprisingly, their best-graded offensive player, at an elite 93.3, No. 1 in the league for quarterbacks. The next best is Rob Gronkowski, who at 88.1 is No. 2 in the league for tight ends. Of course, if the NFL really cared about stuff like player safety and fairness, he wouldn’t be playing, but he is, so any DB who happens to get an interception off of him had better be wearing their steel-lined helmet. RB (and former Pitt star) Dion Lewis, who unfortunately is back in the lineup, grades at 87.9. The rest of the receivers are “average” or below, with Brandin Cooks grading the best at 78.3.

Opposing them is a something less than elite defense. The two best-graded players are close, though, with Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt (88.8 and 88.2 respectively) leading the pack. Javon Hargrave is edging ever closer to the “above average” line, with a grade of 79.9 this week. T.J. Watt’s grade has risen as well, to 77.5, and Artie Burns and Robert Golden are also quite respectable, at 74.8 and 74.7 respectively. PFF must know something we don’t, because they don’t have Mitchell on the roster. Assuming he plays, (and he isn’t on the injury report,) he grades a pedestrian 62.4, considerably lower than William Gay’s 69.7. Sometimes you wonder what they are looking at.

Sean Davis has fallen steadily in their estimation, with the lowest grade on the team for a starter—38.7. Bud Dupree and Coty Sensabaugh aren’t a great deal better—or Arthur Moats, for that matter. Mike Hilton comes in on passing downs, and he’s the best CB on the roster according to PFF, grading at 78.3. If you want some really bad news, Sean Spence’s grade last week was 29.1.

But let’s look on the bright side. Having to reorganize the entire middle of the field on a short week was not going to show the replacements at their best, especially when one of them was signed a few days earlier after sitting on a couch for two months. Let us hope for better things on Sunday.

As for the injury report, the New England one is meaningless, with Bill Belichick’s usual trick of listing half the roster as “limited” in practice. The main ones of interest, Tom Brady and Brandin Cooks, were full participants. As far as I can tell we can expect to see everyone except the odd backup lineman. We can only hope that they aren’t at their best this weekend. It won’t be for lack of preparation if they aren’t. I’m grateful they have a short week, and pretty pessimistic about it making a difference. Which doesn’t mean I’m convinced the Steelers won’t win, although Ed Bouchette thinks they are going to get destroyed. (Actually, I think the word he used was “killed.”) He’s been wrong before, though… So prove him wrong, guys, and Go Stillers!


  • This week, my first favorite team (the Steelers) and my second favorite team (anyone playing the Patriots) converge to stomp the Patriots, I hope!

    I live in New England and this was a saying I came up with in response to so called Patriot fans who would say “I’m a Patriots fan but my second favorite team is………”. When your a Steeler fan, there is no second favorite! Heck, for me there isn’t even a second sport.

    Thanks for this summary of both teams stats, strengths and weaknesses. If I were to turn on local sports, all I would be hearing is all the reasons there isn’t even a reason to play this game. I guess we’ll show up and see how it goes, especially since the Steelers will be by far the best team the Patriots have played all year and they haven’t been all that impressive.


    • Oh, I like the Panthers as well, but they’re a distant second. I would really enjoy a Steelers-Panthers Super Bowl, but there’s no question I’d want the Steelers to win it.


    • cold_old_steelers_fan

      I used to cheer for the Vikes partly because it is the closest NFL team but mostly because Bud Grant was a legend in Winnipeg before he went over to the Vikings. I still have a bit of a soft spot for them but nothing serious.


  • Here is the scenario for the rest of the season based on the outcome of the game:

    Steelers Defeat Patriots: Jacksonville loses:

    Steelers clinch #1 seed in playoffs

    Steelers Defeat Patriots: Jacksonville wins:

    Steelers own #1 seed in playoffs. Must win 1 more game or Jax lose one of last 2 to clinch #1

    Steelers Lose to Patriots: Jacksonville wins:

    Steelers have to win out and hope for Pats to lose 1 of last 2 for #1 seed.
    Steelers must win out to ensure #2 seed minimum and 1st round bye
    Jacksonville must win out and have Steelers lose 1 of last 2 to capture #2, with Steelers as #3

    Steelers Lose to Patriots: Jacksonville loses:

    Steelers have to win out and hope for Pats to lose 1 of last 2 for #1 seed.
    Steelers must win 1 of last 2 to ensure #2 seed

    I think that does it. Amazingly, Jacksonville still has a chance to grab the #1, #2, or #3 seeds, depending on how the steelers and patriots play.


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