Welcome to Season 12, Episode 13 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious yet lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup . . .
Maybe you know this. I didn’t. The most combined points in an NFL game is 113, when Washington throttled the New York Giants, 72-41, on Nov. 27, 1966.
This one, I did know. The most combined points in a game between the Patriots and their opponent occurred on Nov. 3, 2013, when Tom Brady and friends dropped an absurd 610 total yards on the Pittsburgh Steelers in a 55-31 victory. That’s 86 total points for those of you without an abacus nearby.
How dominant was the Patriots’ offense? Aaron Dobson finished with 130 receiving yards, one of three New England pass catchers over 100. Yes, Aaron Dobson, whom we were lamenting just this past Sunday for being selected 17 picks before Chargers star Keenan Allen in the 2013 draft.
Anyway, nothing like that is happening this week, that’s for sure.
Patriots-Steelers games, particularly during the dynasty decades around here, have long been among the NFL’s most appealing matchups. Not this year, at least when it comes to offense, or “offense,” since what these teams do with the football does not qualify for use of the official definition.
The Steelers rank 26th in the NFL in total offense (294.9 yards per game) and 28th in points per game (16.0). Pittsburgh hinted at some progress in a 16-10 win over the Bengals in Week 12, racking up 421 total yards in its first game after uninspiring offensive coordinator Matt Canada was fired.
But the Steelers managed just 10 points — the third time this season they’ve had 10 on the nose, with two games scoring fewer than that — in last Sunday’s loss to the lowly Cardinals. Worse, starting quarterback Kenny Pickett suffered an ankle injury that required surgery, meaning Mitchell Trubisky — who has six touchdown passes and seven interceptions in 10 games since the start of the 2022 season — will get the start Thursday night.
The Steelers are the second coming of the Air Coryell Chargers compared to the Patriots. Last Sunday, in their 6-0 loss to the Chargers, the Patriots didn’t take a single snap in the red zone. They’ve scored 13 points over their last three games, rank 28th in the league in total offense (290.4 yards per game) and dead last in points (12.3 per game).
What else? Their best offensive player by far, running back Rhamondre Stevenson, injured his ankle against the Chargers and is expected to miss at least a few weeks. Their leader among wide receivers in receptions (37) and touchdowns (4) is Kendrick Bourne, who was lost for the season with a knee injury in Week 8. Quarterback Bailey Zappe, expected to make his second straight start in the place of malfunctioning incumbent Mac Jones, has completed 50 percent of his passes in five games this season and has not thrown a touchdown pass in 64 attempts.
Meanwhile, the Patriots’ defense ranks 16th in points allowed (21.2), but eighth in total yardage (310.5 per game), while the Steelers allow just 19.1 points per game, good for sixth in the NFL.
You know, points might be at a premium.
Kick it off, Ryland, and let’s get this one started . . .
Three players to watch other than the quarterbacks
T.J. Watt: The Steelers’ relentless edge rusher griped after the loss to the Cardinals that he has been the victim of “uneven officiating” this season. The Patriots’ best chance of keeping Watt in check this week might be to hope that the officials working this game read his comments and said to themselves, “I’ll show you uneven officiating, pal.” Referee-sanctioned holding is about the only way the Patriots linemen — who allowed five second-half sacks to the Chargers — will keep Watt from affecting the game.
Last Sunday, the Chargers’ Khalil Mack sacked Zappe twice, leapfrogging Watt for the league lead in sacks with 15. Watt, who had a half-sack (giving him 14), six tackles, two quarterback hits, and a pass defended against the Cardinals, has an excellent chance of seizing the lead back from Mack on Thursday night.
More worrisome than Watt’s knack for getting to the quarterback is what sometimes happens when he gets there. Zappe received modest praise for not committing any turnovers against the Chargers. That clean sheet is going to be harder to maintain against the Steelers. Watt has forced three fumbles this season and a staggering 26 in his seven-year career. Thursday night will be Watt’s 100th NFL game, which means he forces a fumble roughly every four games.
Zappe has to be on high alert, but he can’t panic and make risky throws, a la his benched predecessor. The Steelers’ secondary will give up yardage (227.3 per game, 19th in the league), but has 12 interceptions — tied with four other teams for most in the AFC — and a plus-10 turnover differential.
Ezekiel Elliott: The Zeke Experience has mostly been a good one, wouldn’t you say? Sure, he’s lost a step and is on his way to losing another, but he’s still a savvy runner who can get 2½ yards on third and 2, accepted his role as Stevenson’s backup/complement, and seems to be an excellent teammate. He could have helped a quality team. Instead, he’s stranded here, and demonstrating the tenets of how to be a professional.
We should find out Thursday against the Steelers’ 22nd-ranked run defense (121.0 yards per game) whether Elliott — who has 429 rushing yards at 3.8 per carry and has added 24 catches for 154 yards — is more effective with a heavier workload. He had a season high in attempts (17) against the Chargers, finishing with 52 rushing yards. Considering that backup Ty Montgomery has just three carries this season, Elliott should have his first 20-plus-carry day since the Cowboys’ win over the Rams in Week 5 last season, when he ran 22 times for 78 yards.
Bryce Baringer: One huge reason the Patriots lost to the Chargers was because they overwhelmingly lost the battle of field position. Chargers punter JK Scott placed seven of his eight kicks inside the 20, leaving the Patriots with an average starting field position at their 17-yard line. The Chargers, meanwhile, had an average starting field position at their 37 — it’s actually a tremendous credit to the Patriots’ defense that they held them to 6 points. Baringer wasn’t terrible, booming one punt 70 yards, but he landed just three of his seven punts inside the 20, shanking one for just 26 yards. The Patriots need the rookie sixth-round pick to be better Thursday. In a related note, let’s hope this is the last time we ever have to discuss a punter as a key to the game here.
Grievance of the week
I spare you the usual diatribe about the state of the Patriots, since it’s well-worn territory at this point, and instead gripe about something tangentially related to their best chance to improve.
It’s annoying and misguided to suggest that a certain player will be a bust in the NFL because players at his position from his college haven’t fared well in the past.
It happened with Ohio State quarterbacks until C.J. Stroud came along, as if there had been some sort of Curse of Art Schlichter.
And it’s happening now to some degree with North Carolina’s Drake Maye, in part because ex-Tar Heel Trubisky didn’t work out as the No. 2 overall pick by the Bears in 2017.
(Fine, they probably should have taken Pat Mahomes’s freewheeling kid from Texas Tech.)
Players don’t fail in the NFL because they played a certain position at a certain college. They fail for a thousand other reasons, primarily that it’s extremely difficult to succeed in the NFL, especially at quarterback.
If whoever is running the Patriots draft come April 2024 determines that Maye or Caleb Williams or another prospect can be a franchise quarterback, go get him. It doesn’t matter if he went to North Carolina, Southern Cal, or South Central Louisiana State University. It’s about what he can be as a player, not which fight song he heard on Saturdays.
The Patriots and Steelers have met 34 times. The Patriots have won 18 of those games (four in the playoffs), the Steelers 16 (one in the playoffs). But only once in their mutual histories have they played on a Thursday. That was eight years and an NFL lifetime ago, a 28-21 season-opening victory by the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots on Sept. 10, 2015.
Brady, whose part was still being rewritten in Roger Goodell’s Deflategate script, was as sharp as ever, completing 25 of 32 passes for 288 yards and four touchdowns — all to tight ends. Rob Gronkowski had three touchdowns among his five receptions for 94 yards. The other tight end might require a couple of guesses.
It was Scott Chandler, who caught a 1-yard pass for a TD early in the third quarter. Chandler had just 23 catches that season, the last of his NFL career. He’s 38 years old now, and I’ll hear arguments that he’d have been more useful than Mike Gesicki this season.
Prediction, or how did the Steelers not know what they had in Mike Vrabel? . . .
First, I’ve got the Patriots scoring a touchdown. Not on offense. That would be ridiculous. Let’s give J.C. Jackson a pick-6 on a Trubisky mallard. So if you’re scoring at home, the Patriots’ defense will outscore the Patriots’ offense, and it will surprise exactly no one.
But the Patriots’ losing streak will extend to six games. George Pickens (44 catches, 748 yards, 3 TDs) will find the end zone once, just to deliver the unnecessary reminder that the Steelers took him two picks after the Patriots took end-around specialist Tyquan Thornton in the 2022 draft.
The Steelers will get their remaining points on a couple of Chris Boswell field goals. Remember all those decades when the Patriots had a placekicker they could trust? And a quarterback . . . and receivers . . . and offensive linemen . . . and a coach . . . Steelers 13, Patriots 7.