3TFO: Steelers @ Patriots, Week 9
Two traditional AFC powerhouses enter their Week 9 matchup in less-than-familiar fashion as the Pittsburgh Steelers were certainly expected to have more than two wins at this point of the season while the New England Patriots are no strangers being in first place at 6-2, but doing so with subpar play from quarterback Tom Brady is foreign territory. The Steelers showed signs of life with two straight wins after an 0-4 start, but a disappointing loss to the Oakland Raiders last week has them in must-win status this weekend. The Patriots come in with a two-game lead in the AFC East, but it hsan’t been easy this season with six of their eight games being decided by one score and the aforementioned rare struggles in the passing game.
While the stakes may not be as high as their recent showdowns over the last 10 years, the week’s game is of utmost importance to either save Pittsburgh’s season or push New England to a comfortable 7-2 record heading into their bye week before a challenging second-half schedule.
Here’s a look at the key matchups for the game.
Patriots Running Game vs. Steelers Run Defense
It used to be a yearly tradition to see the Steelers among the league’s most stout run defenses, but they’re among the worst in the league in both raw numbers and our individual grading. It starts up front where Steve McClendon is the only one of the four defensive linemen with at least 200 snaps grades in the positive against the run at +2.9 while defensive ends Brett Keisel (-1.1), Cameron Heyward (-2.0), and Ziggy Hood (-3.1) have failed to make a positive impact. It’s a similar struggle in the middle where inside linebackers Lawrence Timmons (-3.9 run def) and Vince Williams (-7.7 run def) ran 36th and 47th respectively among 51 qualifiers at the position, while outside linebackers Lamarr Woodley and Jason Worilds have also been below average.
On the other side, the Patriots offensive line has taken a step back from their usual strong work in the run game as last year’s top run blocking center, Ryan Wendell, has been inconsistent on his way to a +0.6 grade. They’ve shown well on the left side, however, where LG Logan Mankins has lived up to his mauling ways at +5.6 to tie for fifth among guards while LT Nate Solder has emerged as one of the league’s best tackles and his +6.8 run block grade is tops at the position. The Patriots run a variety of zone and man schemes in the run game and they’ll certainly challenge one of Pittsburgh’s biggest weaknesses.
Steelers Passing Game vs. Patriots Pass Defense
Given the inconsistency of the Steelers’ running game, the ball will be in QB Ben Roethlisberger’s hands against a stout Patriots pass defense. Roethlisberger has had an uneven season at +4.2 overall, but he’s still Pittsburgh’s best chance of winning. He’ll be throwing to wide receiver Antonio Brown, our No. 3 WR at +13.1 overall No. 11 in Yards per Route Run at 2.20. As the Steelers’ clear top weapon, he’ll likely be matched up with top Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib who is expected to return this weekend from injury. New England has uncharacteristically moved their cornerbacks around this season with Talib generally drawing the most difficult assignments. He’s the eighth ranked cornerback at +8.2 overall on the season while his 0.81 Yards per Cover Snap also ranks eighth in the league. Talib has certainly led the way, but it’s been a team effort in New England’s back seven as they’re the only team to have a positive grade in our cumulative pass coverage grades while pulling a negative cumulative pass rush grade.
Chandler Jones vs. Kelvin Beachum
It rare to highlight two players coming off poor games, but Jones is the Patriots’ most important pass rusher while Beachum has been forced to play left tackle after a rash of injuries up front for the Steelers. Jones is second among 4-3 defensive ends with eight sacks, but as always, they don’t tell the entire story as many came in clean up or coverage situations. In his second year in the league, Jones has shown more than capable of getting after the passer, but the Patriots can use a bit more from his 32nd-ranked -3.8 pass rush grade. Beachum took over at left tackle in Week 6 and has since sandwiched two rough performances around one positive outing. Last week he surrendered two sacks, a hit, and five hurries in the Steelers’ losing effort. He was the clear weak link on an otherwise average performance up front for Pittsburgh, so he’ll be looking to bounce back against New England’s most dangerous pass rusher.
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