Patriots’ keys to victory over the Steelers
When: Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
Where: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh
TV, radio: CBS, WBZ-FM 98.5
When the Steelers run
Jaylen Samuels has been thrust into a semi-starring role in a Pittsburgh offense missing its top two tailbacks in Le’Veon Bell and James Connor. The rookie played nearly every skill position and was highly productive in college but asking him to be a full-time back at this level might be a bit much. He could eventually be the rare change-of-pace back known more for his size and strength than his quickness and escapability. Samuels (6 feet, 225 pounds) lacks an explosive first step but will build speed and if he’s allowed to gain steam, he’ll run some guys over. Samuels consistently gives second and third efforts and he’ll likely be used in platoon with former Patriots back Stevan Ridley. The 5-11, 220-pound Ridley is a north-south runner who will flash a little shake and bake in the open field but no longer possesses the requisite speed to crack home runs. The Steeler offensive line can brawl with the best of them but this group can also play the finesse game, too. The tone is set by 6-4, 304-pound center Maurkice Pouncey. The veteran has a solid blend of size, strength, and smarts. He gets off the ball — and his initial block — quickly and reaches the second level in a flash. Right guard David DeCastro (6-5, 316 pounds) makes all the right moves. He’s a solid tactician but also powerful enough to just push people around. Ramon Foster (6-5, 328 pounds) is a big ol’ backyard brawler. Foster is relentless and will stick with and punish his guy until the play us over.
Rushing yards per game
Pittsburgh offense: 89.0 (29th)
New England defense: 113.0 (15th)
When the Steelers pass
Ben Roethlisberger is a big, bad man with a big-time arm. The 6-5, 240-pound quarterback (why yes, he does look like a defensive end) can — and will attempt — every throw known to man. Roethlisberger can deliver precise passes whether he’s stepping up, flatfooted, or while on the run. Doesn’t matter. He’s extremely sure of himself and that confidence can cut both ways. Roethlisberger will get into grooves and carry his club for long stretches of games (and seasons) but also will make some flummoxing throws (because he’s gotten away with them in the past) that derail games (and seasons). Big Ben is not mobile in the traditional sense (though he’ll run a little) but he’s really adept at extending plays by using his surprisingly quick feet and not-so-surprising strength. He’s also extraordinarily tough and will stand tall in the pocket until the last possible millisecond, delivering strikes right before getting decked. The Steelers have a great receiving tandem in Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster. Brown’s initial quickness, incredible acceleration, and indescribably good hands make him the gold standard at the position. The 6-1, 215-pound Smith-Schuster is a handful. He’s strong, speedy, and savvy. He’s a great route runner but also instinctive enough to break them off and come back to bail out his QB. He has great body control and always gets those tootsies down inbounds. Tight end Vance McDonald is having a breakout year. He’s a reliable receiver with good power after the catch.
Passing yards per game
Pittsburgh offense: 319.1 (Second)
New England defense: 259.5 (23d)
When the Patriots run
Running room was hard to come by in the Sunshine State and space will be even tighter in the Steel City. Sony Michel will get the first opportunity to try and find some creases in the curtain. Michel is a patient and powerful runner. When the 5-11, 220-pounder finds the holes, he’ll find his rhythm and his confidence. Michel has the shiftiness to make defenders miss and the lower-body strength to break tackles. Rex Burkhead is a versatile back who runs low and hard. He’s still getting his game legs back after missing most of the season and likely will see his touches continue to increase. James White has excellent lateral moves and his ability to fluidly change speeds can freeze defenders as he scoots on by. New England’s offensive line will face its biggest challenge to date. Pittsburgh’s front seven is a fearsome and physical lot. It starts at the nose with Javon Hargrave. The 6-2, 305-pounder has brawn and burst. He can anchor, rag-doll, and redirect. He’s surrounded by Cameron Heyward on the left and Stephon Tuitt on the right. Heyward is durable and destructive. He can slide, rag-doll, and set the edge. Tuitt is your prototypical stack and shedder. He has the strength to anchor and the athleticism to pursue. Inside linebackers Jon Bostic and Vince Williams are instinctive swarmers. Bostic slides behind the line and attacks running lanes with violence. Williams is rarely out of place. On the outside, T.J. Watt can set the edge with excellent lateral movement and burst to the ball.
Rushing yards per game
New England offense: 118.2 (16th)
Pittsburgh defense: 96.9 (Sixth)
When the Patriots pass
Tom Brady has always looked right at home in Pittsburgh and with the way he’s been spinning it lately, that should continue. Brady has his full complement of pass catchers available and getting them all involved will be imperative. Brady’s ability to rapidly process information and release the ball quickly to the best mismatch will be needed against a defense that will get after him from every which way. Up front, Javon Hargrave has ridiculous nimbleness for a man his size. His quickness and girth often prevents quarterbacks from stepping up in the pocket. Off the edge, T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree are relentless. Watt might lack an explosive first step but he more than makes up for it with his closing burst. Dupree uses myriad moves and power to crash the pocket. Brady has the weapons to counterattack this rush. Julian Edelman’s quickness, Rob Gronkowski’s size, and James White’s hands all will be deployed to keep things moving. If the Steelers dedicate guys to address those three in the box, then it will open things up for some deep shots to Josh Gordon and Chris Hogan. The Steelers secondary has struggled at times but they have playmakers. Corners Joe Haden (he’s long been a sticky standout), Coty Sensabaugh (he’s athletic and twitchy), and Mike Hilton (he’s good in the slot) are solid. Safeties Sean Davis (he’s always around the ball), Morgan Burnett (he’s instinctive), and Terrell Edmunds (he’s a thumper) work well together.
Passing yards per game
New England offense: 278.8 (Seventh)
Pittsburgh defense: 233.9 (12th)
Steelers’ key player: JuJu Smith-Schuster
Smith-Schuster showed right away he is comfortable sharing the spotlight with Antonio Brown rather than living in his shadow. He is a threat on every route because of his speed and after-the-catch ability.
How he beats you: With fearlessness and attitude. Smith-Schuster will go over the middle and fight for every ball. He also has the body control and fancy footwork to make the tough catches on the sideline.
How to shut him down: By mugging him at the line. And mugging later, for that matter. He has trouble recovering from press coverage, so this will disrupt his timing with Ben Roethlisberger.
Steelers’ keys to victory
1.) Gone, gone, gone: Mike Tomlin’s club must put its three-game skid — and their recent history against the Patriots — in the rearview. This game against this team is all that really matters.
2.) Mr. Roboto: Ben Roethlisberger has to be sharp — particularly in the red zone. Taking unnecessary risks will haunt you against opportunistic teams. Take the safe route to stay in it for the long haul.
3.) Renegade: T.J. Watt must dominate. He has the skills to set the edge against the run and crush the pocket. His teammates feed off his energy, so he has to bring it all game long.
Patriots’ keys to victory
1.) The Best of Times: Bury those Miami memories and move on — you can’t let the stunning loss to the Dolphins carryover and lead to another loss. Conjure up the good feelings of past trips here.
2.) Show Me the Way: The offensive line must create space for Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead, and James White to move the ball on the ground. Striking a balance is essential to success.
3.) Having a Ball: Get the ball to Rob Gronkowski. The tight end is coming off his best game and has traditionally thrived against Pittsburgh’s scheme. Feed him until they stop him.
PREDICTION: Patriots 34, Steelers 24