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Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by CarMax: Shootout with the Steelers

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Each Wednesday Bill Belichick holds his midweek press conference in the media work room at Gillette Stadium, one in which he explains exactly why that coming weekend’s opponent is so capable of beating his Patriots.

Given the run of success Belichick and Tom Brady have had over the last 17 years, many of those scouting reports have been overly optimistic regarding the opposition.

This week, though, Belichick’s heaping of praise on Pittsburgh in advance of Sunday afternoon’s big AFC Showdown between the Patriots (10-3) and Steelers (11-2) at Heinz Field is very much justified.

Mike Tomlin’s team sports some of the most talented players in the game today in the Killer Bs trio of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown.

The two-time Super Bowl winner Roethlisberger has shaken off a sluggish start and is coming off a game in which threw for 506 yards in the win over Baltimore.

Bell leads the NFL with 1,105 yards rush while also ranking ninth in the league with 75 receptions. He has nine total touchdowns.

Brown leads the NFL with 99 catches and 1,509 yards. He has nine touchdowns.

“Those two guys are both fabulous players on the same team, very hard to defend – Brown and Bell – just dynamic players that have the ability to do so many things, do them so well consistently,” Belichick raved of the star playmakers. “They’re there every week. They make big plays every week. Two thirds of the offense with two guys – that’s a lot of offense.”

A follow-up question about Brown really got Belichick rolling with the praise, that isn’t exaggerated this week in the way it usually is.

“Everything opens up everything, so they can do it all. They have great skill players,” Belichick continued. “They can run the ball. They can throw it, throw it long, throw it short, run after the catch, extend plays. Everybody is involved – tight ends, receivers, backs, multiple receivers, a very experienced offensive line, big offensive line. Just keep going. We'll be here all day. There’s no real weakness on that offensive unit. They can’t come all on the field at the same time. Whichever ones they put out there are good. Whichever ones they take off and put out there the next play, they're good, too.”

Clearly the Patriots banged-up, undermanned defense has a major challenge this week, just six days after a sluggish performance in the loss to the Dolphins.

But New England also has its own offensive stars and potential for big play on offense. Brady and Rob Gronkowski have dominated the Steelers defense over the years.

So it is that all week long ESPN, NFL Network and entire world of sports media has been hyping up what could be the NFL’s game of the year.

It’s a contest that will include the best coach, quarterback, running back, wide receiver in the game today.

The winner will have the inside track for the No. 1 see in the AFC playoff picture and a leg up on the road to Super Bowl LII.

In a year filled with too many injuries and negative stories around the NFL, Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh has the potential to bring the kind of exciting, competitive, meaningful football that should entertain fans everywhere.

It’s a true showdown. It could be a shootout. Hopefully, it lives up to the hype.

Heading into the biggest game of the season to date, here are some keys to latest battle in the rivalry between the Steelers and the Patriots.

Brady-to-Gronk – Gronkowski was very much missed last week in Miami but returns from suspension in time to take on a Steelers defense he has owned over the years. The tight end has eight touchdowns in five games against Pittsburgh, including two three-score games. Last we saw Gronkowski he was taking it to the Bills for 147 yards in Buffalo. After a week off he should be more than ready to do just as much damage or more at Heinz. That will clearly benefit Brady coming off his worst game in years, though he also has his own long history of impressive play against Pittsburgh. Brady has notched a passer rating over 100 in seven straight games against the Steelers, recording 22 touchdowns and zero interceptions in those games that date back to 2007. He has a 10-2 record overall against Pittsburgh. The Patriots passing attack should be back in Pittsburgh against the Steelers zone schemes that have once again been prevalent despite offseason talk of going to more man looks in preparation for this very battle with New England. Sure Pittsburgh has the No. 4 pass defense in the league and could be getting veteran cornerback Joe Haden back. But it may not enough for Brady, Gronkowski and the rest of the Patriots playmakers.

No hitter – Brady practiced all week for the first time in a month. That’s the good news. The bad news is that since he’s been listed on the injury report with an Achilles problem the Patriots quarterback hasn’t played nearly as well as earlier in the year. Brady has also been hit a lot over the last month and that could be contributing to his somewhat fading production. There is no doubt that some of the hits he’s taken in recent weeks from the Dolphins and Bills have taken their toll and very much affected the game. This week Brady and the Patriots offensive line – which will continue to have a backup at right tackle with Marcus Cannon (ankle) now on IR – face a versatile Steelers pass rush that’s No. 2 in the NFL in sacks per pass play. Defensive end Cameron Heyward is having a career year with nine sacks. Rookie T.J. Watt has chipped in with six. Overall the Steelers have 41 sacks, with four guys with at least five. New England’s line has been too inconsistent in its pass protection this fall. If that’s an issue again on Sunday it could derail Brady’s usual high output against Pittsburgh.

Stop B…? -- Under Belichick the Patriots generally like to take away an opponent’s top weapon. It’s a theory that’s worked well more often than not over the years. The problem with Pittsburgh is figuring out whether Bell or Brown is the Steelers top playmaker. Bell is a workhorse, but is averaging just 3.9 yards per carry and a mere 7.7 per catch. He doesn’t have a run longer than 27 yards. He’s going to get his touches and is likely to finish the game with more than 100 yards of offense almost regardless of what an undermanned, struggling Patriots front seven does. So, it’s probably more important that New England finds a way to keep Brown from going off. The receiver is coming off a 200-yard performance and four straight 100-yard games through the air. He’s had a catch of 30 yards or longer in eight different games this fall. He’ll likely see a lot of Malcolm Butler and some safety help over the top, a matchup New England has used in the past. Given the way New England has played the run and opposing backs this year, Bell is probably going to get his to some degree. It is what it is. But if Brown gets going too it could be a long evening for the defense.

Run some – Brady and Gronkowski should lead the passing attack. But few teams win with no running game at all, which is what the Patriots had last week Miami with just 25 yards on the ground. During the team’s eight-game winning streak the offense had found some balance, including consecutive 190-plus-yard efforts. On paper the Steelers have the NFL’s No. 9 rush defense, but the unit lost Ryan Shazier and isn’t the same up front. Dion Lewis and Co. need to get something going on the ground early in Pittsburgh to balance out the attack, help out the pass protection and make life easier on Brady.

Complementary angles – As much as the superstars on the field Sunday afternoon will go a long way toward deciding the game, some of the two teams’ complementary figures could play big roles. Beyond Brown, Roethlisberger may have his deepest crop of weapons in years with tight end Jesse James, rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (hamstring, questionable) and Martavis Bryant. That will test the Patriots depth in the secondary, with guys like Jonathan Jones and Eric Rowe getting a chance to shine.

*Health check – *As is the case each week, the health of each team will have a dramatic effect on the game. There is no question that the absence of Trey Flowers (rib, questionable) and Kyle Van Noy (calf, questionable) was huge last week in Miami. If those two return to the edge of the defense, it would be a boost to both the run defense and the pass rush. If not, look out. For the Steelers, getting Smith-Schuster (hamstring, questionable) and veteran cornerback Haden (fibula, questionable) on the field certainly deepens the Pittsburgh talent on both sides of the ball. And seeing how the Patriots fare up front against Bell without veteran defensive tackle Alan Branch (knee, out) will be worth watching for an already very much questionable run defense that ranks 24th in the NFL.

Prediction: *History was a reason to worry about previous road games this season in Denver and Miami. This time, New England’s third straight road game, is to a place the Patriots have had plenty of comfortable success over the years. Sure on paper it’s a tough spot as the third road game coming off a short week after Monday night in Miami to face one of the best teams in football. But Belichick’s Patriots have very much had the advantage over Tomlin’s Steelers regardless of location over the years. The advantage on the sidelines – both in terms of head coaches and coordinator adjustments – has seemingly been a big one for New England. The Steelers are a good team with tons of talent on offense that’s found a way to win lots of close games this year. They deserve credit for that. They deserve to be feared just a bit. But the Patriots are a different team with Gronkowski in the mix. That should help get them off to a faster start and get the job done in the red zone, two big keys. Pittsburgh is going to score. They will not go down without a fight. And the game could very much be in question in the second half and fourth quarter. But in the end it’s hard to bet against the Patriots – they are favored in the game – against Pittsburgh. New England will move the ball well and make just enough plays on defense – or Roethlisberger and Co. will make just enough mistakes – for the Patriots win. Something in the range of a *35-31 Patriots win would make sense and would certainly make for an entertaining game for all the football world to enjoy. It would also give New England the tiebreaker for the No. 1 seed heading into the final two weeks of the regular season.

What do you think about our keys and prediction? Let us know with a comment below!

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