fb-pixelWhy are the Steelers and Patriots, with equally abysmal offenses, so far apart? Skip to main content
patriots notebook

The Patriots’ and Steelers’ offense are equally abysmal. Why is Pittsburgh 7-5, and New England 2-10?

Bailey Zappe to start Thursday against Steelers
WATCH: Patriots-Steelers games used to be one of the NFL’s best matchups, but not this year. Boston.com sports reporter Khari Thompson has what to expect.

There’s been a lot of talk about how bad the Patriots’ offense is. New England is averaging a league-worst 12.3 points per game.

The problem has grown worse in recent weeks: The Patriots have scored a total of 13 points over their last three games. They were shut out by the Chargers, who are one of the league’s worst defenses in terms of yards allowed, for their fifth straight loss on Sunday.

The Steelers’ offense hasn’t been much better. They’re averaging only 4.5 more yards (294.9 per game) than the Patriots (290.4). Pittsburgh has 18 touchdowns on the year, only two more than New England.

Advertisement



The defenses have been comparable, as well. New England has given up 21.2 points per game, while Pittsburgh has given up 19.1.

So, how are the Steelers 7-5 with playoff hopes while the Patriots are near the bottom of the league at 2-10? Turnover differential has been a factor. Pittsburgh has been better at taking care of the football, especially in key situations. The Steelers are second in the league in turnover differential at plus-10. The Patriots are second to last at minus-9.

But there’s more to it than that, Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Wednesday.

The Steelers' Mike Tomlin and the Patriots' Bill Belichick share a respect as the two longest-tenured current head coaches in the NFL.Joe Sargent/Getty

“Turnovers are a big part of it. Each game is a little bit different with its own unique circumstances at the end of the game or whatever it is,” Belichick said. “But again, I think that’s where the balance of the team is. Sometimes you have to stop them, some times you have to make a kick, sometimes you have to block a kick, so they’re all a little bit different. There’s a series or two that leads up to that final series as well that also can be very important to the outcome.”

“So, I just say on balance that they’ve done a really good job in critical situations of making the plays that they need to make, whether those are defensive stops, kicks, or offensive production, to get the ball into the end zone or in field goal range. They play really good situational football. [Chris] Boswell is one of the best kickers in the game, so that’s a weapon for them. It’s important to have that player perform really well on the game-winning plays a lot of times. So, those are some of the things they do really well.”

Advertisement



Seven of the Patriots’ 10 losses, including the last four, have been by a touchdown or less. Turnovers have stung them at critical moments.

The Patriots did not score Sunday, but Bailey Zappe, who did not turn the ball over in his first start of the season, told reporters earlier this week that he anticipates starting on Thursday.

Praise for Steelers’ Watt

Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt has 14 sacks, second-most in the NFL, and is tied for sixth in the league in tackles for loss with 13. Belichick said Watt’s instincts, along with balance, leverage, and an ability to turn the corner on opposing tackles, are among the traits that set the linebacker apart.

The Patriots are hoping they don't hear T.J. Watt's footsteps in the backfield too often on Thursday. Jeffrey Dean/Associated Press

“It’s a very highly skilled talent that he has,” Belichick said. “So yeah, instincts are important. Speed is important. Strength and balance is important. The coordination of the hand and the footwork that he — you know the hand slap, his hand swipe, the dip, the way he does everything right at the point of contact with the tackle at the junction point is very, very good.

Advertisement



“He’s very hard to block. He knows what he’s doing and he knows how to give the tackle a very small surface to hit. He’s not the biggest guy, but he has enough balance and power to work through contact and not get rerouted or thrown off his rush lane. To get him off his rush path is very hard, he does a very good job of that. That helps everybody else.

“There’s a lot of plays that he himself doesn’t get the statistic for but his play leads to disruption by somebody else either inside or it could be [Alex] Highsmith on the other side or it could be a blitzing linebacker or whatever but he really restricts the width of the pocket and doesn’t give up scramble plays in doing that. It’s really good.”

Reiff not coming back

Belichick said he does not anticipate adding offensive lineman Riley Reiff to the 53-man roster.

Patriots tackle Riley Reiff will end up missing all but one game this season. John Amis/Associated Press

Reiff returned to practice on Nov. 15, which opened the 21-day window the Patriots had to add him to the roster. Players who aren’t activated within the window are placed on injured reserve for the remainder of the season if they aren’t released or traded.

“The player has a lot of flexibility and there’s a lot to like about him,” Belichick said. “Unfortunately he’s had three setbacks here. So, it’s just unfortunate.”


Khari Thompson can be reached at khari.thompson@globe.com.