After losing each of their last three games, the Pittsburgh Steelers face plenty of questions heading into Sunday’s game against the visiting New England Patriots — especially on offense. After the unit averaged 32.8 points per contest during its six-game winning streak between weeks five and eleven, it scored just 22.7 points over the last three weeks. One of the reasons for the drop in productivity is the rise in turnovers.
While Pittsburgh on average gave the ball once a game during the win-streak, it has recently turned it over twice per contest. The question now becomes which of the two units will show up on Sunday against New England? In order to answer this question and preview the two teams’ upcoming meeting, Pats Pulpit spoke with Jeff Hartman, who covers the Steelers as the managing editor for our sister site Behind the Steel Curtain.
According to Jeff, a combination of untimely turnovers and questionable coaching decisions led to the back-to-back-to-back losses. However, he also pointed out that the Steelers are still a dangerous team if they can do two things — including taking care of the football. “If the Steelers protect the football, and have some semblance of a running game, they have a chance to beat any team in the NFL — including New England,” said Jeff.
“The issue with that is it has been a problem for them all season long,” he continued. “And with it not looking like James Conner will be back this week, [it] could be another long day at the office.” Conner, who has missed both practices this week because of an ankle injury, appears to be headed for inactivity — which would undeniably be a blow to the offense considering that he is its most all-around productive player.
“His burst, and therefore big play ability, is something Le’Veon Bell never had,” Jeff said about the 23-year old who was thrust into a starting role when Bell refused to sign his franchise tender sheet (a decision that has led to him sitting out the year. “Conner is a violent runner and tremendous after first contact. The offensive line does their job, combined with Conner’s explosiveness has been a great way for the team to succeed.”
In case Conner can’t go on Sunday — and it is looking increasingly likely that this will be the case — the Steelers offense will miss one of its best weapons. However, it still will be a potent unit mainly because of three men: quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Antonio Brown. All three are in the middle of tremendous seasons once again and have the ability to challenge any defense in the NFL.
So what do the Patriots need to do to limit the trio’s impact and the Steelers offense as a whole? “To slow down the Steelers’ offense you have to do two things,” Jeff said about the group — and it is two things New England struggled with mightily last week. “Stop the run, and tackle well. The Steelers are a team that relies on yards after the catch with players like JuJu Smith-Schuster, Antonio Brown and even Vance McDonald.”
“If you make Pittsburgh one-dimensional they will abandon the run and it becomes easy to predict what is coming next,” he continued about the sixth-most potent offense in the NFL when it comes to scoring (a group that averages 26.6 points a game over the season). “This is exactly what both the Jaguars and Broncos did in their games versus Pittsburgh, and is a blueprint for success against them.”
While the Jaguars were ultimately defeated, the Broncos beat the Steelers 24-17. In order for New England to achieve a similar result, the team has to both its run defense and its tackling — a big task when looking at last week’s game: the Patriots surrendered 189 yards on just 21 carries against the Miami Dolphins and also gave up a game-deciding, last second 69-yard catch-and-lateral-and-lateral-and-run.
“If you can’t stop the run, and don’t tackle the catch, the Steelers will have a field day,” Jeff said. Safe to say that New England needs to address both areas heading into its game against Pittsburgh and its talented offense.