The Pittsburgh Steelers are hosting the New England Patriots this afternoon in a contest in which they are nearly universally expected to lose quite handily. They are home underdogs by more than a touchdown for the first time in over two decades without the services of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and few, it seems, are willing to grant them a fighter’s chance.
But it has to be said that the defense has not allowed more than 16 points in any game at home this season, and is averaging 14.33 points allowed in three Heinz Field showings. Granted, none of their three previous home opponents are offensive juggernauts, as the Patriots legitimately are, and this will be by far their greatest challenge.
The defense has even given up big chunks of yardage in the receiving game and still kept the scoreboard low. They allowed over 350 yards through the air in Week Two, but held their opponent to 16 points. The reason for this was the fact that they were able to take care of business in the red zone.
And that is going to be one of the major keys today, and something to watch for, because we know that New England is going to get more than its fair share of yardage. But as long as they can hold the Patriots to mostly field goals, rather than touchdowns, maybe even get a takeaway or two, then they can stay in this game.
Offensively, we’re obviously going to be expecting to see a heavy workload from running back Le’Veon Bell, and that has only been made all the more likely by the fact that his backup, DeAngelo Williams, is going to miss this game with a knee injury.
With that in mind, it would not surprise me at all if we see fullback Roosevelt Nix multiply his four snaps from last week by four or five times today. Last week was his first game back, and the Steelers did not run the ball much, a fact that they acknowledged after the game, so they will be hungry to establish the run today.
Other than Bell finding success, and the offensive line holding things together, the single biggest correlation to a strong offensive performance is going to be whether or not quarterback Landry Jones and wide receiver Antonio Brown will be on the same page and connecting well. Brown did have a good game in Jones’ one full start last year.
Flipping back over to the defense, as I wrote about in more detail today, getting pressure up the middle is going to have to be the key on that side of the ball, as it’s been the best correlator of success facing Tom Brady over the years.
Let’s not overlook Jordan Berry, who is coming off his worst performance of the season so far. But he has previously played an important role in keeping the Steelers ahead in the field position battle. On a day on which points might be harder to come by without Roethlisberger, Berry will only be more important.