The Patriots defeated the Steelers by a 27-16 score back in Week 7. The Steelers lost their franchise QB, Ben Roethlisberger, to an injury in the 2nd quarter of the Steelers Week 6 loss to the Miami Dolphins. The Patriots will be the heavy favorites in this game, with the game being at Gillette Stadium and the Patriots already winning a road game in Pittsburgh. Brady is 5-1 against Mike Tomlin’s Steelers, most of those games being Brady putting up big numbers on the Steelers defense. The lone loss was on the road, where the offense was uncharacteristically sluggish against an aging Steelers defense back in 2011.
Slot receiver Eli Rogers has emerged as a reliable target: The 2nd year receiver out of Louisville has developed into a strong middle of the field target for the Steelers. Rogers was inactive in the Patriots win over the Steelers back in Week 7, which allowed the Patriots to zero in on Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown for the game. The Patriots will match up CB Logan Ryan in the slot against Rogers, which should make for a fun match-up given how well Ryan has played of late. While Bell and Brown get a ton of praise for what they do, the Steelers success on drives could depend on how well Rogers plays on 3rd downs.
Le’Veon Bell is the Steelers’ top playmaker: The Steelers best offensive weapon is not Roethlisberger or Brown, but rather Le’Veon Bell. The Patriots held Bell to 81 yards rushing on 21 carries and 149 YFS on 31 touches, both of which were very good rate stats defensively. Bell has accumulated 337 rushing yards in his two postseason games. The Patriots are the best run defense left standing, and it will be paramount for the Patriots to limit Bell’s effectiveness and put the game in Roethlisberger’s hands because...
Ben Roethlisberger is having a bad season: The Steelers QB, who I had as a top 5 player at his position, has been terrible in 2016. Even though the Steelers have won 9 straight games, their offense has been carried by Le’Veon Bell over that stretch. Bell’s historic rushing output has been great for the Steelers in terms of moving the ball, but Roethlisberger has struggled with turnovers and finishing drives. The Steelers QB likes to take chances with his All-Pro caliber arm strength, something the Patriots can take advantage of. The Patriots will likely be keeping two safeties deep and playing a good amount of Cover 2 to take away the big plays and make Roethlisberger dink and dunk his way down the field. The Patriots defense will have to be patient because Roethlisberger will make mistakes and give you that turnover-worthy throw at least once per drive.
ED James Harrison still can get it done: I’m not sure if Harrison has gotten tips from Brady about how to stave off Father Time, but Harrison has found a way to still play at a high level at 38 years old. In the Steelers vs. Chiefs broadcast, I believe Cris Collinsworth commented that Harrison spends $350,000 a year to keep his body in shape to play football. Harrison has been a major force defensively for the Steelers in their playoff run, good enough for the Patriots to keep a close eye on. The Patriots have done a good job of handling Harrison for the most part in their previous matchups, although for a 6’8” Nate Solder could be a potential match-up issue on the edge every few plays.
Steelers still play a lot of zone and still love to blitz: Brady has made a living crushing zone defenses like the Steelers. Brady has a career 127.5 passer rating against the Steelers under Mike Tomlin, including a 123.4 rating in the Patriots win in Week 7. The Steelers have a young and inexperienced secondary playing against a veteran receiving corps on the road. While the Patriots don’t have Rob Gronkowski this time around, they do have a relatively healthy football team. The Steelers are not going to be able to pressure Brady as well as the Texans did, and if Brady has time to throw he’s going to carve up the Steelers zones.
Another area that Brady excels at is against the blitz. The Steelers love to blitz their inside linebackers Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier in the A-Gaps to create mismatches. With how much success the Texans had using Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney in that capacity, I expect them to try to dial up similar pressure packages. However, the Steelers aren’t nearly as good on the back-end as they are in the Front 7. With too many easy match-ups for Brady to exploit, the Steelers blitzes will more often result in less defenders in coverage and a chance to make plays on offense.
Conclusion: Even with Ben Roethlisberger playing in the AFCCG, the Patriots should have no trouble dispatching the Steelers at home. While Roethlisberger is a playoff-tested QB with two Super Bowl rings to show for it, he is the weak link to their offense plus the Patriots can scheme out the impact of both Brown and Bell since they have game tape from this season as a reference. At the end of the day, it isn’t offensive teams that have beaten the Patriots in the postseason, it’s been defensive teams like the Broncos and Ravens. In a potential shootout, the better defense is going to be the one that wins the game and the Patriots have a better defense than the Steelers. If you’re feeling lucky, take the Patriots and the over.