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The AFC’s Matchup of the Year Looks Like a Shootout

The Patriots and Steelers have been on a collision course for weeks. Who wins the game that could determine playoff home-field advantage?

A photo collage of Steelers and Patriots, including Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin, Bill Belichick, and Tom Brady AP Images/Ringer illustration

It’s always comforting when a plan comes together. For weeks now, this Sunday’s Patriots-Steelers matchup has loomed on the schedule as the potential Game of the Year. Both teams have been at the top of the AFC for most of the fall, and this clash in Pittsburgh has long looked like it could determine home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Well, Week 15 is finally upon us, and the 11-2 Steelers will host the 10-3 Patriots in a battle for the all-important tiebreaker in the postseason standings.

To examine the most-anticipated game of the year, I thought it’d be best to get down to basics. Let’s dive deep into who’s going to win the marquee matchup of the regular season—and why.

When the Patriots Have the Ball

After looking excellent during the first half of the 2017 campaign, the Steelers’ defense has hit a snag over the past month. It’s allowed several of the league’s least-potent offenses to excel, prompting questions about the plausibility of Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl hopes. Packers quarterback Brett Hundley tossed three touchdowns in a 31-28 loss to the Steelers in Week 12; he’d thrown for two scores in his previous five games combined. Pittsburgh plummeted from fifth in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA to 11th after allowing 38 points and 413 total yards to the Ravens last week. This unit has fallen off in a big way.

Injuries certainly have played a role in that slide. The absence of linebacker Ryan Shazier, who remains hospitalized after going down with a scary spinal injury in Week 13, was obvious during last Sunday’s 39-38 win over Baltimore. Sean Spence and Vince Williams struggled to make plays in the ground game, and Alex Collins was left free to run amok. The Ravens running back carried the ball 18 times for 120 yards and added another 46 yards receiving. I’m sure the Steelers’ issues stopping running backs won’t be problematic against the Patriots, who barely use theirs at all.

Oh wait, they absolutely do. All three of New England’s premier backs (Dion Lewis, James White, and Rex Burkhead) have at least 100 snaps in the passing game this season. This is a deep, flexible trio of players, all of whom fill specific roles, but can also be interchangeable within the Pats offense. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels should lean on all three on Sunday, and I’d expect to see plenty of running back motion to the slot (and even out wide) to create mismatches with the Pittsburgh linebackers. The Steelers rank 29th in passing defense DVOA against running backs, and they face their toughest task in that regard this week.

While White and Burkhead derive a significant portion of their value from the passing game, Lewis could go without a catch this weekend and still roast the Steelers. The Ravens found a ton of success against Pittsburgh by lining up in heavy formations and simply pounding the ball. No team in the league lines up in 21 personnel (two backs, two receivers, and a tight end) more than the Patriots, who use it a ridiculous 27 percent of the time. New England’s run-pass splits out of that formation are nearly identical (52 percent run, 48 percent pass), and the Pats are more than happy to run the ball down an opposing defense’s throat.

Lewis is just as effective when working out of single-back sets. The play below is a basic misdirection concept that allows Tom Brady to subtly manipulate the defense by opening up to the left before getting the ball to Lewis on the right. That single turn puts the inside linebacker (Kiko Alonso) in a precarious spot, and the result is a 22-yard gain. The Patriots are going to do all they can schematically to torment the guys in the middle of the Steelers defense, especially since none have Shazier’s speed.

Dion Lewis

In addition to Shazier being out, the Steelers have also felt the absence of injured corner Joe Haden (fibula) on the left side of their defense. After making a terrific start against the Titans in Week 11, backup Coty Sensabaugh has had a tough few games. Packers receiver Davante Adams toasted Sensabaugh on a double move for a 55-yard touchdown in Week 12, and the Ravens hit wideout Chris Moore for a 30-yard score down the sideline last Sunday. Sensabaugh lines up almost exclusively on the left, meaning he’ll probably draw Chris Hogan as his assignment for a chunk of this matchup. Don’t be surprised, though, if Brandin Cooks gets a few downfield chances against Sensabaugh, too. I assume we’ll see a lot of Rob Gronkowski routes toward the corner and down the seam that hold the safety on his side while Hogan and Cooks go to work on deep digs and shots down the sideline. The best play designs force defenders to make a difficult choice; no team in football is better at drawing those up than New England.

The one area where Pittsburgh does have an advantage on defense is up front. Underrated Patriots right tackle Marcus Cannon is on IR with an ankle injury, and his replacement, LaAdrian Waddle, is nursing an ankle problem of his own. Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt should both have opportunities to work against replacement tackle Cameron Fleming, and that’s good news for the Steelers—because if they can’t bother Brady on Sunday, they’re going to be in for a long afternoon.

When the Steelers Have the Ball

It’s been less than a year since the Patriots shut down Pittsburgh’s offense in a 36-17 AFC championship game rout, but don’t expect the same result this weekend. Ben Roethlisberger will have his entire arsenal of playmakers at his disposal in Heinz Field, and that creates a few crucial differences for Pittsburgh this time around.

When the Steelers lost Le’Veon Bell to a groin injury in the first quarter of January’s AFC title game, they were instantly cooked. Bell’s exit meant that the Patriots were able to focus on Antonio Brown and not much else. Even for a receiver with superhuman talent like Brown, beating New England single-handedly is a tall order.

Bell’s presence won’t do much to alter how the Patriots game plan to stop Brown. Cornerback Malcolm Butler will likely spend most of the game checking Brown while a safety hovers over the top to his side. Some of Roethlisberger’s favorite throws come on timing routes to Brown outside the numbers that involve a vertical push (forcing a cornerback to respect the deep shot) and take advantage of space underneath, as Brown works back toward the ball. By sticking a safety on that side of the field, the Pats allow Butler to make defending that comeback route his no. 1 priority, and he can slightly trail Brown while the safety takes away the throw over the top. The Steelers still aren’t afraid to try this move even when Brown is bracketed, but the throw below amounts to a dangerous gamble.

Antonio Brown

The Patriots were free to shade a single-high safety to Brown’s side all game last January because they had no fear of what the Steelers’ other outside receivers could do. New England dared Roethlisberger to challenge the island corner matched up with the likes of Cobi Hamilton and Sammie Coates, each of whom reeled in a 30-yard reception and contributed virtually nothing else in that contest. From that perspective, the mere presence of wideouts Martavis Bryant (37 catches for 419 yards in 2017) and JuJu Smith-Schuster (37 for 585 yards) changes the complexion of this game. Bryant has had a quiet campaign by his standards, but his deep-ball prowess is well documented. And Smith-Schuster can threaten defenses vertically from the outside and the slot. If the Pats dare Pittsburgh’s other receivers to beat them, the Steelers are equipped to make them pay.

Given Roethlisberger’s array of receiving options, there’s a chance that New England will try to use a heavy dose of two-high looks. Pittsburgh would have a response to that as well. Bell is likely going to get at least 25 touches in this game regardless of how the Pats line up; if New England entices offensive coordinator Todd Haley with light boxes, that number could skyrocket. Bell has faced eight or more defenders in the box on only 19.8 percent of his carries this fall, the eighth-lowest rate in the NFL.

New England’s trio of backs presents a terrible matchup for the Steelers’ injury-depleted linebacking corps, and Bell is a similar sort of nightmare for the Patriots. New England ranks dead last in rushing defense DVOA and 21st in passing defense DVOA against running backs. Last week, Miami running back Kenyan Drake cooked the Pats to the tune of 193 yards from scrimmage; now, they have to deal with the most dangerous dual-threat back in football. It looks as if linebacker Kyle Van Noy will be back on the field after missing last week’s game with a calf injury, but the pairing of Van Noy and Elandon Roberts would seem to be woefully overmatched by Bell, both on the ground and through the air. The Steelers are going to do everything in their power to force those two to deal with Bell in space.

The final piece of this puzzle is Roethlisberger, who’s laid waste to defenses over the past month. Pittsburgh’s 35-year-old passer has thrown for 12 touchdowns in his past four games while hitting the 290-yard mark in each. What’s made Roethlisberger so dominant during this stretch is the Steelers’ ability to provide him with clean pockets. More than 76 percent of his dropbacks since Week 11 have come without pressure, according to Pro Football Focus, the best mark in the league in that span. Roethlisberger has thrown 10 touchdowns and just one interception in clean pockets during his past four games, and he’s posted a 111.3 passer rating on those throws. He has a chance to feast against the Patriots’ nonexistent pass rush.

Prediction

If there’s one prediction I feel comfortable making about the Game of the Year, it’s that we’re going to see a whole lot of points. Given the way the Steelers offense has been rolling of late, I think they deserve the slight edge. Both defenses will be tested on Sunday afternoon, but the talent advantage Pittsburgh has with its front four should allow the Steelers to make one or two key plays against Brady. On offense, Pittsburgh has a different group of players than the one that struggled against New England early in 2017, and it feels like the combination of Bell, Brown, and a red-hot Roethlisberger will be enough to help it squeak by at home.

No matter what happens, this one should make for appointment viewing. I have a feeling it won’t be the last time we see these teams play this season.