Both the Patriots and the Steelers are coming off last-second losses heading into Sunday evening’s meeting between the two teams in Pittsburgh.
In fact the Steelers have lost three games in a row, putting the team’s playoff positioning heading down the home stretch a bit in doubt.
Given the recent Steelers struggles, and New England’s history of handling itself quite well in matchups in this series, there is a reason for the Patriots to be confident heading into Heinz Field.
But Bill Belichick made it quite clear in his Wednesday press conference that he sees Sunday’s game as a major test for his squad that’s both looking to bounce back from a shocking and continue to work toward locking down a postseason bye.
“We’re onto these Steelers. It looks pretty much like it usually looks with Pittsburgh, I’d say,” Belichick said to open his presser. “They’re leading the league in red area, big passing stats, two great receivers, top of the league in rushing defense, lead the league in sacks, good in kickoff coverage – just a solid team all the way around. Very explosive, make a lot of big plays, dangerous from any point in the field. It’s always a great environment there. So, this will be a big challenge for us on the road against a good football team that does a lot of things well. So, a lot of respect for the Steelers. This will be a good football game.”
The familiar look is in part due to continuity in the coaching ranks and schemes that the Steelers utilize, for better or worse.
“[Defensive coordinator Keith] Butler’s been there five years, [Mike] Tomlin’s been there 13 or whatever it is,” Belichick said before going on to note the offense is familiar, too, despite a new coordinator. “It’s pretty similar. I mean, Randy’s [Fichtner] been there for like 11 years, nine as the quarterback coach. So, I think he and [Ben] Roethlisberger obviously have a good feel for each other, and certainly the passing game. They’re very, very proficient.”
Beyond the familiar feel Belichick sees as he prepares for Pittsburgh, here are some of the other key takeaways from the coach’s big mid-week presser.
“These two receivers are elite – elite elite”: Second-year receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster leads the Steelers with 91 catches for 1,234 yards, including six touchdowns. All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown is right behind him with 86 catches for 1,063 yards and a team-best 12 touchdown receptions.
It’s about as good a one-two punch at the receiver position as you’ll find in the NFL and a major challenge for a Patriots secondary that struggled a bit last Sunday in Miami.
“You’re not going to get anybody better than these two guys, plus the quarterback,” Belichick said. “They’ve got a lot of other guys, too, but I mean, these two receivers are elite – elite elite.”
Smith-Schuster had 58 catches for 917 yards and seven touchdowns a year ago as a second-round rookie and has certainly taken his game to the next level in his sophomore campaign.
“He’s a dynamic player, tremendous player – great with the ball in his hands, great hands, makes some spectacular catches, hard to tackle, so he’s very good,” Belichick added.
Ben still big: Roethlisberger is in the midst of an impressive season in which he’s throwing the ball as much as ever. He leads the NFL in attempts and is second in both completions and yards. He’s thrown 28 touchdowns, but has also tossed 13 interceptions. He’s battling a rib injury suffered in last weekend’s loss in Oakland, but Belichick is expecting nothing less than Big Ben’s best – which includes the ability to shake off pass rushers and extend plays.
“He’s as good as anybody at that, and he’s strong, he can stand in the pocket, stiff-arms defenders, throws the ball,” Belichick said. “He’s got great length himself to be able to see over practically everything, he’s got a tremendous arm, can deliver with no wind-up or step into the throw – he can just flat-foot it and fire it 50, 60 yards downfield. So, he’s got great poise, great patience, he knows how long he can wait, and usually a lot of times he waits right until the bitter end and then delivers the ball, and a lot of times, like on the 97-yard touchdown pass to Smith-Schuster, he held it right to the last second, got nailed just as he released the ball and it’s a 97-yard touchdown pass. You know, that’s the kind of thing he does. He hangs in there until the last second and makes those throws. He’s tough. He’s really tough. We have a lot of respect for him.”
In the running: One running back the Patriots know they won’t have to deal with is veteran All-Pro star Le’Veon Bell, who’s sitting out the season in a contract dispute. James Conner has filled in more than admirably, leading Pittsburgh with 909 yards and 12 scores on 201 rushing attempts, while adding a Bell-like 52 catches for 467 yards and another score.
But Conner missed last week with an ankle injury and is a major question mark for the Steelers offense. If he can’t go, Pittsburgh could turn to old friend Steven Ridley or versatile rookie fifth-round pick Jaylen Samuels. Both have carried the ball exactly 23 times this season for identical 2.6-yard averages.
Samuel is unique in that he was listed as a tight end at the combine after playing just about every position on the field for the N.C. State offense last season. He’s shown that athletic ability with 14 catches for 118 yards and two scores in limited action this season.
“He’s been an every-down player for them,” Belichick said of Samuels’ fill-in role. “He played a lot of different positions at N.C. State. They used him as a slot receiver, tight end, running back, a little bit of fullback. So, he did a lot of different things, very athletic guy, good in the passing game, good with the ball in his hands. He’s a guy they try to get the ball to and they put him in a lot of different spots.”
If Conner is healthy enough to play against New England, he’s a lot for the defense to deal with.
“He’s a very tough runner, physical, breaks a lot of tackles, runs hard,” Belichick said. “He’s a tough player to tackle. His playing strength, his balance, is good in the passing game, catches the ball well, gets upfield. He doesn’t spend a lot of time going sideways. He finds space, he gets into the defense and is hard to tackle, so he’s done a really good job for them. Good vision, excellent, excellent runner with good power, good hands. He’s had a very productive year.”