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Previewing the Patriots vs. Steelers Matchup: Breaking Down the Key Matchups

When the Patriots run – Edge: Steelers

The Steelers defense looks rather ordinary on paper. It’s a unit that hasn’t excelled at any particular aspect other than the only one that matters: points allowed. That’s true of Pittsburgh’s run defense as the group ranks 22nd in the league, allowing 121 yards per game on the ground. The number improves only slightly when it comes to yards per carry as the Steelers allow 4.3 yards to rank 21st. However, there are reasons why those numbers could improve. Stalwart nose tackle Cameron Heyward recently returned to the lineup after missing more than two months after undergoing surgery on his injured groin. His return to form, coupled with Rhamondre Stevenson’s ankle injury, should allow the Steelers to contain a Patriots rushing attack that has been sporadic most of the season. Stevenson went down in the first quarter of the loss to the Chargers, leaving the running game in the hands of Ezekiel Elliott, who was dealing with a thigh injury of his own. That pair combined for 26 carries for 91 yards, which translates to a paltry 3.5-yard average. Other than a dynamic 39-yard dash on an end around from Tyquan Thornton, the Patriots struggled to run the ball against one of the worst run defenses in football. Things won’t get any easier on a short week in Pittsburgh against a defense coming off a subpar performance against the Cardinals.

When the Patriots pass – Edge: Steelers

Whether it’s Mac Jones or Bailey Zappe there hasn’t been much difference when it comes to the Patriots passing game. While Zappe did a better job of navigating the pocket and trying to extend plays, his passes were often off the mark and the results were exactly the same: no production. Expect Zappe to remain the starter but figuring out who will be involved in the passing game is difficult. Demario Douglas sat out the Chargers loss with a concussion, and getting him back on a short week might be tough. DeVante Parker led the team with four catches for 64 yards but that came on nine targets. Hunter Henry had three grabs but managed only 15 yards. Zappe will need to find some additional options among JuJu Smith-Schuster, Thornton or Jalen Reagor in order to make some plays downfield. The Steelers secondary has not been great, ranking 19th in both yards per game through the air (227.3) and yards per pass (6.6). Veteran Patrick Peterson has lost a step but still competes at one corner along with rookie Joey Porter Jr., Levi Wallace and Chandon Sullivan. Safeties Minkah Fitzpatrick, who recently returned to the lineup after missing a month, Damontae Kazee and Trenton Thompson round out the secondary. Any discussion of the Steelers pass defense has to include their talented pair of edge rushers T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith. That tandem has combined for 20 sacks with Watt once again dominating with 14 of them, although the former Defensive Player of the Year is dealing with an ankle injury suffered in the Cardinals loss. Containing the rush is paramount to any Patriots success through the air.

When the Steelers run – Edge: Patriots

Pittsburgh’s offense has been anemic over the course of the entire season. That led to the firing of offensive coordinator Matt Canada following a Week 11 loss to Cleveland. The Steelers responded with their first 400-yard performance on offense in 59 games in a win at Cincinnati the following week, but the group was held to just 10 points Sunday against Arizona. On paper the Steelers have a nice one-two punch at tailback with Najee Harris (661 yards, 4.2-yard average, 4 TDs) and Jaylen Warren (601 yards, 5.9-yard average, 3 TDs) but it hasn’t translated into much production. Meanwhile, the Patriots run defense continues to be a brick wall. The Chargers were the latest team to be stymied by the big guys up front as Lawrence Guy, Davon Godchaux, Anfernee Jennings, Christian Barmore, Ja’Whaun Bentley and Jahlani Tavai helped limit the dangerous Austin Ekeler to 18 yards on 14 carries. Pittsburgh will try to run, particularly with starting quarterback Kenny Pickett expected to miss a couple of games with an ankle injury that knocked him out of the Arizona game early. That won’t likely be a wise course of action against a Patriots front that ranks fourth in rushing yards allowed (88.7) and first in yards per carry (3.2). Harris and Warren aren’t likely to find much space in this one.

When the Steelers pass – Edge: Patriots

Mitchell Trubisky is expected to get the start Thursday night and the last time he faced the Patriots things didn’t go too well. Trubisky passed for just 168 yards with a touchdown and an interception in a 17-10 loss in Week 2 last season, and shortly thereafter he lost the starting job to Pickett. The Patriots secondary has enjoyed good results in recent weeks but truth be told the unit has been rather fortunate. The Chargers Justin Herbert passed for 212 yards and failed to put a touchdown on the board, but he was let down by his receivers, who dropped several catchable passes that could have resulted in sizable gains. Jonathan Jones was solid against the dangerous Keenan Allen, and Jalen Mills came up with a couple of nice plays to prevent completions as well, so it wasn’t all good fortune. Trubisky will try to use George Pickens and Diontae Johnson, as well as tight end Pat Freiermuth and both backs. When fully healthy that group is capable of making some plays, especially the dynamic Pickens, who leads the team with 44 catches for 748 yards for an impressive 17-yard average. But the production has been too sporadic all season as Canada was too dependent on the horizontal passing game and screens. Look for Trubisky to try to push it downfield more often, but given his erratic nature that could lead to some mistakes and opportunities for the Patriots secondary to make some plays.

Special Teams – Edge: Steelers

It’s hard to imagine things going much worse for the Patriots special teams in 2023. The latest blunders came in the rain against the Chargers, when a combination of some shaky punting from Bryce Baringer and poor coverage helped the visitors put points on the board. Baringer’s line drive led to a 34-yard return for Derius Davis that led to a field goal, and later Baringer’s 26-yard shank out of bounds at the 26 prevented the Patriots from pinning the Chargers deep in their end. The Steelers meanwhile have been solid in the kicking game with Chris Boswell. The veteran kicker missed for just the second time all season in the loss to the Cardinals but has still connected on 22 of 24 field goals and all 16 PATs. Pressley Harvin handles the punting duties and hasn’t been great with a 44.7-yard average and a net of 39.7. Anthony McFarland is dangerous returning kicks while Calvin Austin has been steady handling punts. The Patriots return game has been nonexistent since opening day, and Myles Bryant really struggled against the Chargers with a pair of subpar returns on punts where it appeared there were more yards to be had. Overall, it’s been a struggle in every aspect of special teams and until that changes it’s hard to give the Patriots the edge.

2023-12-05 13:00:58
#England #Patriots #Pittsburgh #Steelers

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