WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN
The Patriots will have to contend with one of the league’s top run defenses. The Steelers entered Week 14 ranked eighth against the run and 11th in rushing yards allowed per play. They were also 10th in fewest rushes allowed, so opposing teams really haven’t tried to run it with regularity, not with linebackers Jon Bostic and Vince Williams leading a team-wide commitment to improve its tackling in 2018. The Patriots are as healthy as they’ve been all year at running back with Rex Burkhead returning to the lineup after missing more than half the season with a neck injury. He complements rookie Sony Michel, who has become New England’s No. 1 option in the run game, and occasional ball carrier James White. Health aside, it’ll be difficult to establish the run against this stout defense unless Michel can consistently pick up yards on the perimeter. The Patriots running game has been sporadic all season and is coming off one of its worst games last week in Miami.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS
After allowing fewer than 200 passing yards in four of five games, the Steelers suffered a second-half meltdown against the Chargers in which their early season problems in the secondary reared their ugly head. The hot streak may have been a bit of an aberration considering they faced Cleveland, Jacksonville and Denver. Which secondary shows up Sunday: the one that allowed six touchdown passes to Patrick Mahomes or the one that fueled Pittsburgh’s six-game win streak? The Patriots have had trouble getting the ball downfield, but Rob Gronkowski is coming off a big week in Miami and may be turning the corner. He has traditionally killed the Steelers, who have opted for zone coverages in the past before switching to more man-based schemes last year. Joe Haden covering Josh Gordon is a solid matchup, as is pass-rush specialist T.J. Watt against anybody at the line of scrimmage. If they keep Watt quiet, Tom Brady may have chances to make big plays.
WHEN THE STEELERS RUN
Pittsburgh’s run game took a major hit statistically when Le’Veon Bell decided not to sign his franchise tender in the offseason, leaving the Steelers without one of the league’s most durable, consistent backs. James Conner, a third-round pick in 2017, has filled in admirably, rushing for 909 yards in 12 games while scoring a remarkable 12 touchdowns, second only to Todd Gurley. But Conner is now dealing with an ankle sprain that forced him to miss Week 14. His status for Sunday is still up in the air. Without him, the Steelers would have to rely on a committee approach featuring Jaylen Samuels and possibly ex-Patriot Stevan Ridley. The Patriots are having problems stopping the run and just got carved up by Frank Gore in Miami but should be able to patch up the holes against Pittsburgh, unless Conner is back at close to 100 percent in time for Sunday.
WHEN THE STEELERS PASS
Not much has changed offensively for Pittsburgh, which continues to lean heavily on its passing game. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown have been as productive as ever, with Roethlisberger leading the NFL in passing yards through 13 weeks and Brown boasting a league-best 12 touchdowns. The emergence of JuJu Smith-Schuster, who had actually caught more passes for more yards than Brown through 12 games, gives Pittsburgh the league’s best one-two tandem at receiver. New England’s defense is inconsistent in the red zone but boasts the league’s third-highest interception rate through 12 games, and Roethlisberger is prone to mistake near the goal line. If the pass rush duo of Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise continues to set the tone up front, the Patriots will have opportunities to coax Roethlisberger (13 interceptions) into a costly error.
The Patriots have opted for more touchbacks on kickoffs in recent weeks and are coming off a superb effort against Miami that featured two blocked punts by Albert McClellan. Lack of discipline has been a factor with untimely penalties but no team is more penalized on special teams than Pittsburgh. The Steelers lack focus and haven’t been particularly good on either side of the ball. Kicker Chris Boswell has been a disaster both on extra points and field goals, and the Steelers remain one of only five teams to have allowed a punt return for a touchdown this season. In the meltdown against Los Angeles, the Steelers jumped offside on a missed field goal in the closing seconds and again on the second attempt, allowing Michael Badgley to kick a third time for the win.
A Steelers-Patriots matchup, no matter the year, is usually must-watch football, and there’s often something important on the line for both teams, namely playoff seeding. A year ago, the Patriots shocked Pittsburgh with a goal-line interception in the closing seconds, all but securing the No. 1 seed in the AFC. These gut-wrenching losses to New England are a common refrain for the Steelers, who have lost five in a row to their AFC rivals since 2011. There’s something to be said for historic coach-quarterback duos, and in a matchup of wits on the sideline, Mike Tomlin comes up woefully short against Bill Belichick, while Brady always seems to make one or two more plays than Roethlisberger. Heinz Field is a tough place to play, but the Patriots have managed to play well there. Pittsburgh is the more desperate team thanks to a three-game losing streak that has their playoff future in jeopardy. History says the Patriots will find a way but not much has gone according to form for either side this season.