New England Patriots (5-1) at Pittsburgh Steelers (4-2)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, Heinz Field. TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Tracy Wolfson.
SERIES HISTORY: 25th regular-season meeting. Steelers lead series, 14-10, but the Patriots have won five of the past seven, including the 2015 season opener in New England. The Steelers are 10-6 in regular-season games in Pittsburgh, but the Steelers are 1-2 at home against the Patriots in the playoffs, including two losses in AFC championship games following the 2001 and 2004 seasons.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Numbers don’t matter for the Pittsburgh Steelers — this is not the same scheme without Ben Roethlisberger at the controls. Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams become the lead dogs for the Steelers, who will pound on first and second down while occasionally unleashing Landry Jones in a play-action attack.
Bell said the key to this week is finding some success in the first quarter, which will not only fuel the Heinz Field faithful but breed confidence in Jones.
“I think he has a lot of good things that he can bring to the table,” Bell said. “We’ve just got to, as a whole entire offense, help him out and get him comfortable and get him confident in himself, and that’s when he really will start striking.”
Coverage of elite tight ends remains a weak spot for the Steelers’ defense, and that’s a downer considering the stats Martellus Bennett and All-Pro Rob Gronkowski are capable of stamping on this defense.
Head coach Mike Tomlin said the Steelers are not locking in on stopping QB Tom Brady, who has 782 yards and seven touchdowns in two games since his suspension ended. That’s because the Steelers’ run defense was overwhelmed last week and a familiar face, RB LeGarrette Blount, represents the type of powerful, downhill back that has dented the Steelers’ defense.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler vs. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Butler’s first game as defensive coordinator was against Brady and the Patriots and it did not go well. Brady was 25 for 32 for 288 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions in a 28-21 Patriots win in last year’s season opener. Butler has been a part of Steelers’ staffs that have done better against Brady. In 2011, the Patriots scored just 17 points in a loss at Heinz Field. In that game, the Steelers sacked Brady five times and limited the Patriots to 213 total yards. Butler will need to coax more out of his pass rushers if he’s going to limit Brady again. The Steelers have just eight sacks in the first six games.
–Steelers offensive line vs. Patriots defensive line. The Steelers will look to lean on their veteran offensive line with backup Landry Jones getting the start, and they might have some success against a Patriots team that ranks 28th in the league in rush defense. The Steelers have invested lots of money in long-term contracts for center Maurkice Pouncey, guard David DeCastro and tackle Marcus Gilbert, and they’ll get their chance to earn this week in what should be a run-heavy game plan.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell. Since returning from a three-game suspension, Bell is averaging a league-leading 146.7 yards from scrimmage per game. Bell has lined up as a traditional running back, a slot receiver and a wideout. But this is a game where the Steelers could lean heavily on Bell as a traditional halfback. With backup quarterback Landry Jones making his first start of the season in place an injured Ben Roethlisberger, Bell will get a heavy workload and should get more than 20 carries in a game for the first time this season. When Roethlisberger is healthy, Bell can be a difference-maker in the passing game, perhaps as much as the running game. But with Jones at quarterback, Bell will settle into a more one-dimensional role against the Patriots, who are 28th in the league against the run.
FAST FACTS: The Patriots average 24.7 points in four regular-season starts by Tom Brady at Heinz Field, compared to 36.7 per game against Pittsburgh in games at Gillette Stadium. … With his next TD, Rob Gronkowski will tie Stanley Morgan’s franchise record with 68 touchdowns.
PREDICTION: With Ben Roethlisberger the Steelers might warrant the favorite label, but without him, this isn’t a fair fight. The Steelers will need every break to stay with a driven Tom Brady and the juggernaut Patriots’ offense.