One of the most anticipated games of the season looked like a potential AFC Championship Game preview right up until Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger limped off to the sidelines last week in Miami. The gun-slinging signal-caller is expected to miss the next four to six weeks after undergoing surgery as a result of a knee injury and that’s one reason why this week’s marquee matchup has some of the luster taken off of it.
Backup Landry Jones is expected to start for Pittsburgh and has proven to be a big step down from Big Ben in past seasons. There’s still some reason for optimism even with the change at quarterback though, as the team still has the terrific duo of Le’Veon Bell at running back and the speedy Antonio Brown at wideout making life difficult for any defense. Also providing a boost is the return of linebacker Ryan Shazier, who will play a big role in trying to pull off the upset against one of the best offenses in the league.
The Patriots enter the week much healthier than their AFC North foe and have been clicking at an impressive pace on both sides of the ball ever since Tom Brady returned under center. Their last outing showed what the team was capable of in a thrashing the Cincinnati Bengals as the two-tight end look of Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett looked borderline unstoppable. As much as the offense is drawing the attention of those around the league however, the defense has been just as good and rank second in the league in points allowed.
Pittsburgh does hold a slight 14-10 lead in the overall series with New England and won the last meeting at Heinz Field. The Patriots have closed the gap quite a bit in the Brady/Bill Belichick era though, winning six of the last eight and two straight.
New England at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 23 at 4:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Patriots -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Big Ben’s Backup
Steelers Nation realizes that Ben Roethlisberger being out for the next month or so probably doesn’t sink their playoff hopes but it does put a hamper on short-term success. Landry Jones came into several games last season and started two more as a result of injuries so this is nothing new for him, but his numbers haven’t been great in the small sample size. Having a solid ground game to balance with a productive receiving corps means the pressure isn’t all on the former Oklahoma Sooner to get things going but how Jones plays will certainly be the difference in a surprising upset and a home blowout to the best team in the conference right now.
2. Slowing the Two Tight Ends
With both finally healthy and roaring to go, we saw just how dangerous the combo of Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett were to stop last week as the former racked up 162 yards and a score and the latter hauled in five catches for nearly a first down each time. Those two are a tough matchup to guard given their size and speed and simply having them in the game at the same time allows other options like tailback James White or wide receiver Julian Edelman to pick apart the resulting holes in the coverage. Pittsburgh has some athletic linebackers like Ryan Shazier and Jarvis Jones that might be able to do a few things against the two tight ends but it will take a group effort to slow them down. It will be interesting to see what head coach Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Keith Butler come up with scheme-wise to throw a new look at Tom Brady and company when they drop back to pass.
3. Between the Tackles
Sunday marks the first time LeGarrette Blount will be back in Pittsburgh as a visitor. He was a certainly an interesting part of the Steelers’ offense up until they released him back in 2014 but he’s really come into his own as a member of the Patriots. In fact, it’s not hard to see him having a career year given all of the other weapons on offense and he’s started 2016 strong with six scores in six games. The reason he was expendable at the time was in part because of the presence of Le”veon Bell, who is still close with his old backfield mate. Despite missing games earlier in the year, Bell has been good in his return and he’ll play a big role in establishing the offense on against a stingy Pats defense.
It really is disappointing that Pittsburgh does not enter this game at full strength. Even if they were going to miss players like Cameron Heyward, and have Ryan Shazier banged up, you would expect them to still have a shot if Ben Roethlisberger was under center. Without Big Ben however, that’s a steep hill for the Steelers’ offense to climb to keep the team in the game, even with potential pro bowlers at receiver and running back.
Perhaps Landry Jones can surprise everybody with his play and get the home crowd into things to make life miserable for Tom Brady behind an offensive line that has played better than expected. Even with all the injuries, the Steelers are still probably the stiffest competition New England has faced since Brady returned to the lineup and both offensive and defensive schemes are difficult to plan against. We’ve seen stranger things happen on a Sunday afternoon so don’t completely rule out a win from the home team and there’s probably a reason why those in Las Vegas believe this is a much closer game than conventional wisdom would suggest.
But the Patriots are still the Patriots. The Brady revenge tour has gotten off to a remarkable start and should only continue to get better as he gets more practice time and game reps. Just as surprising has been how good the New England defense has been despite some offseason re-tooling. The pass rush will play a key role in making life miserable for the new starting quarterback and head coach Bill Belichick likely has plans for just about every possibility.
Both teams might start out a little slow as they feel each other out but in the end you expect the AFC’s top team to reaffirm that they’re a Super Bowl contender and take a big step toward home-field advantage in the playoffs in this one.
Prediction: Patriots 34, Steelers 20
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)