The 11-2 Pittsburgh Steelers will play the 10-3 New England Patriots at Heinz Field Sunday afternoon in a well-awaited for Week 15 conference matchup in what will likely decide the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Ahead of that game kicking off, there are several key storylines worth pointing out.
Below are what I consider to be the top five storylines for both teams ahead of the Sunday game that will kick off at 4:25 p.m. EST in Pittsburgh.
Patriots bleed own blood while Gronkless in Miami – Even without suspended tight end Rob Gronkowski the Patriots were expected to easily handle the Miami Dolphins on the road this past Monday night. That didn’t happen, however, as quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots wound up losing to the Dolphins 27-20. Dolphins quarterback Jay Cutler threw three touchdowns against the Patriots on his way to completing passes to eight different players. One of those players was running back Kenyan Drake, who led Miami in receiving yardage Monday night with 79 yards on five receptions. Drake also rushed for 114 yards against the Patriots. As for the Patriots offense, Brady and company failed to convert even one of their 11 third down opportunities Monday night against the Dolphins defense and that was a sight to see. Brady was also intercepted twice by Dolphins cornerback Xavier Howard Monday night and Miami turned both of those turnovers into points. The Dolphins registered two sacks of Brady in that game and were credited with six total quarterback hits. It marked just the third time this season that the Patriots have lost.
Killer B’s are buzzing – Over the course of their last four games the Steelers Killer B’s, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Chris Boswell, have all been on top of their induvial games. Roethlisberger has seemingly connected at will with Brown down the field and in key moments over the course of the last month while Bell has also been a key contributor in the passing game in between his many rushing attempts. In the Steelers last four games their offense has amassed 1,783 gross yards with Brown and Bell combining to register 1,220 (68.4%) of them. Additionally, Roethlisberger threw for 1,446 yards in those four games and that includes his 506-yard passing performance this past Sunday night against the Baltimore Ravens. If that’s not enough, Boswell made all 12 of his field goal attempts in the Steelers last four games and three of those were high-pressure, last-minute kicks to win games.
Inside redistribution possible – The Steelers didn’t have injured inside linebacker Ryan Shazier this past weekend against the Ravens and it was very noticeable. The Ravens offense moved the football very easily both on the ground and through the air against the Steelers defense Sunday night with Sean Spence and Arthur Moats playing most the snaps at inside linebacker in place of the injured Shazier. This past Tuesday, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin indicated during his weekly press conference that we could see a redistribution of snaps at Shazier’s position Sunday against the Patriots. Does that mean we’ll see L.J. Fort play more, or will Tomlin let Tyler Matakevich play the lion’s share of snaps this weekend now that he’s seemingly over the shoulder injury that prevented him playing against the Ravens?
Butler ready to man up? – Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler played quite a bit of zone coverage against the Patriots offense last season and Brady easily carved it up in addition to the limited usage of man coverage. In short, the Steelers defense had no answers for Brady last year and especially during the AFC Championship game. In what ultimately could be the first of two meetings between the Steelers and Patriots this coming Sunday, Butler will be expected to call on his defense to play more man coverage whether it be straight man, or matchup zone (pattern matching). Unlike in last year’s AFC Championship game, the Patriots will have Gronkowski on the field Sunday against the Steelers and he’s his team’s top receiver entering this contest. Brady, as you would expect, looks for Gronkowski on third downs quite extensively. If Butler’s unit can’t successfully play quite a bit of man coverage on Sunday, then Brady will likely have his way with the Pittsburgh defense once again.
Joe a go, or no? – Steelers cornerback Joe Haden was back on the practice field this week for the first time since suffering a fractured fibula during the team’s Week 10 game. Haden was listed as a limited practice participant all three days this week and that reportedly included him getting a share of first-team reps. Even so, Haden ended the week listed as questionable on the Steelers Friday injury report and even he now considers himself a game time decision for Sunday against the Patriots. The Steelers defense could really use Haden back on the field for their Sunday game against the Patriots and now we sit and wait to see if that ultimately happens. At worst, Haden should be back for the Steelers Week 16 road game against the Houston Texans but that might be one week too late when it comes to Pittsburgh hoping to get home field advantage throughout the playoffs.