Solving the New York Times crossword puzzle while simultaneously manning the wheel in rush-hour traffic is easier than figuring out this version of the Patriots. It’s probably less frustrating, too. The Patriots defense defies categorization. The offense seems slightly askew like a picture hanging on the wall you keep adjusting to no avail. The bedrock of the team’s success, situational football superiority, went haywire in horrifying fashion in an all-time loss to Miami last week.
It’s disorienting. But we’ll really know there is something flawed about this iteration of the Patriots if they don’t beat the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday at Heinz Field. Playing this opponent in this spot is a tailor-made bounce-back game and confidence booster for the Patriots. It’s one a Patriots team wins. Coming off the Miracle of Miami, the Steelers are the perfect antidote for the Patriots because they’re the anti-Patriots.
The Patriots maximize their talent, adjust their game plans to outfox opponents, and keep the distractions to a minimum. The Steelers annually fail to capitalize on arguably the league’s most talented roster. They stubbornly just do what they do against every team, believing their talent will carry the day; routinely make mistakes with the game on the line, and harm themselves with silly self-generated controversies and internal backbiting.
Pittsburgh’s brand is chaos and crises. They lurch from one to the next, whether it be Antonio Brown’s social media antics, Le’Veon Bell’s boycott of the season, or Ben Roethlisberger’s broadcasted critiques of teammates. It’s frustrating the way the Patriots muzzle and mute their players, but the Steelers are the unfiltered, undisciplined antithesis of that. Coincidentally or not, the gap in organizational approach is duplicated in head-to-head results. The Patriots are 11-3 against the Steelers, including the postseason, during the reign of Bill Belichick. The Patriots have won six of the seven meetings this decade and five straight.
The Patriots are the Lucy to Pittsburgh’s Charlie Brown, who dons a familiar black and gold ensemble. Tom Brady and Co., pull the football away from the hopeful Steelers who believe this time will be different. That was the case last year when Pittsburgh had the apparent game-winning touchdown catch by Jesse James wiped away because James didn’t “survive the ground” when he reached the ball across the goal line.
Once again, the Steelers have the talent advantage on paper but will be at a disadvantage against Belichick and Tom Brady.
When the NFL schedule came out many circled Sunday’s matchup as The Game of the Year in the AFC. Instead, it’s a game between two teams licking their wounds and in need of a reassuring result. The 7-5-1 Steelers have dropped three straight games, sandwiching late-game situational football failures in Denver and Oakland around blowing a 23-7 halftime lead at home to the Los Angeles Chargers. The Patriots (9-4) are coming off the most shocking loss of the Belichick Era and need a win to keep their home-field advantage hopes alive.
If there is one fellow contender the Patriots have gotten the best of during the reign of Brady and Belichick, it’s the Steelers. All three of Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl appearances and both their championships with Roethlisberger (2005 and 2008 seasons) came when they didn’t have to face the Patriots in the playoffs. The Patriots always beat the Steelers in games that really matter. Mike Tomlin is 2-7 vs. Belichick and 1-7 vs. Brady. One of Tomlin’s two wins against the Patriots came in 2008 when Brady was sidelined for the season with a torn ACL.
Brady reduces the Steel Curtain to chiffon — light, transparent, and easy to move out of the way. The Steelers play their zone defense and Brady gets the ball out before their pressure packages get there to shred him. Predictable and inevitable. Last year, the Steelers enjoyed success with man looks, but resorted to zone on the Patriots’ winning drive. In the last seven matchups, the Patriots are averaging 32.7 points per game.
Since Tomlin took over, Brady is 7-1. He has averaged 321.4 yards per game against the Tomlin Steelers, sporting a gaudy 122.7 passer rating. He has completed 70.9 percent of his passes and thrown 23 touchdowns and just one interception.
Pittsburgh’s problems with Brady have been more pronounced under Tomlin, but they pre-date him. As NFL Network’s Mike Giardi pointed out, Brady’s 113.0 career passer rating against Pittsburgh is the highest of any quarterback against an opponent since the 1970 NFL merger. In 13 games against them, he is 11-2 with 30 touchdown passes and four interceptions. The Steelers can’t stop Rob Gronkowski either. Gronk has 39 catches for 664 yards and eight touchdowns in six career contests.
It’s all set up for the Patriots to prevail.
Once again, the Steelers are squandering a wealth of talent. Both Pittsburgh’s offense and their defense rank in the top 10 in the NFL. The Steelers boast arguably the league’s most lethal receiving tandem, Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster. Their offensive line has allowed the third fewest sacks in the league despite having a quarterback who holds the ball for an eternity. Their defense leads the NFL in sacks.
The folks in Pittsburgh are growing frustrated with this team, angry about questionable clock management, killer turnovers, and empty sack numbers.
This is a typical Steelers team, tons of machismo, bravado, and aphorisms and not enough discretion and execution. A team’s personality often mirrors its quarterback’s. That’s true with Pittsburgh, where Roethlisberger’s lack of prudence permeates the team. Big Ben has a Hall of Fame-caliber resume. But he is Brett Favre Lite. His motto is sling it first, think it through later.
Don’t forget the Patriots clinched last year’s game when Roethlisberger faked a spike and got intercepted on an ill-advised, hero throw with the Steelers set up to send the game to overtime with a field goal.
Roethlisberger has turned over the ball 15 times this season. Only Kirk Cousins and rookie Sam Darnold have presented the football to the opposition more often. That’s a big part of the reason that Pittsburgh has a minus-eight turnover differential, the worst of any team in playoff position.
The Steelers are the polar opposite of the Patriots. It’s in their organizational DNA.
The Patriots are the nerds who always outwit the popular frat boys. If the Patriots are still the Patriots then the Steelers will resort to their familiar form as well — with a familiar result.
“It’s frustrating when you can’t beat anybody,” Roethlisberger told reporters in Pittsburgh. “It’s frustrating when you can’t beat the Raiders at Oakland. The Patriots are one of the best teams for a reason. We’re not the only team that has issues with them. They’re that good. The past is the past, though. We can only focus on this week.”
That sounded downright Belichickian.
The Steelers can do a good job sounding like the Patriots, but when it counts they rarely match their play.