Have you ever seen something so bad that you have to see it at best, or cannot look away at worst? That's a good preview of this Patriots-Steelers tilt live this Thursday night. Two good defenses sure, but two bottom-five scoring and bottom-10 YPG offenses. Never mind that the two quarterbacks who started the year for these two teams, Mac Jones and Kenny Pickett, are out for differing reasons.
Nevertheless, Pittsburgh and Mike Tomlin, mastering the art of doing the bare minimum to stay afloat over .500, ran into the bi/tri-annual loss to a team they had no business losing to in the form of the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. Now at 7-5, and with a stretch of Bengals, Seahawks, and Ravens to end the season, this is a must-win game if they want to raise a banner for another > .500 season, the new standard in the Steel City.
For New England, the offense continues to be anemic, wasting another stout outing by the Patriots' defense on Sunday. Since the Colts game, they've allowed just 26 total points against them, the Giants, and the Chargers, the best in the NFL over that stretch. However, the offense has only put up half of that in three games. Not the worst thing in the long term, but for the time being, it's incredibly frustrating. Now, against a stout defense led by T.J. Watt, Alex Highsmith, and Minkah Fitzpatrick, just how bad will things get offensively for the Patriots and Bailey Zappe?
Date: Thursday, December 7
Start Time: 8:15 EST
Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Stadium: Heinz Field (I'll never call it the new thing, I promise you)
TV Info: Amazon Prime, Twitch, and Fox for those in-market (Al Michaels and Kirk Herbstreit on the call)
Patriots Uniform Info: White Tops, Blue Pants (Steelers wearing Color Rush Black and Gold)
Players Already Ruled Out Before Thursday
Pittsburgh Steelers: Kenny Pickett (QB), James Pierre (CB)
New England Patriots: Pop Douglas (WR), Kayshon Boutte (WR), Rhamondre Stevenson (RB), Shaun Wade (CB)
Updated as of 5:30 EST December 6
When you think of this current iteration of the Steelers defense, you should think of pressure, elite play off the edge with some intriguing pieces in between, inconsistent corner play, but elite safety play. Now, the Steelers did make some much-needed upgrades at cornerback by drafting Joey Porter Jr at No. 32 overall, but Patrick Peterson has been wildly inconsistent, and Levi Wallace's play has come under great scrutiny by Steeler fans. Back to Porter, his snap count has increased exponentially from the beginning of the season to now, and he's having an excellent rookie season. One thing to note though, which was a big concern for me during the draft process, is that he's very grabby in coverage. There have been several plays this year where he's gotten away with blatant holds, but hey, if they aren't calling it, why should he stop?
Moving up to the defensive front, T.J. Watt is the be-all-end-all for this team. After breaking the Steelers' all-time sack record this year, there's a non-zero chance he could pass the 100-sack plateau by year's end, currently sitting at 91.5. Mike Tomlin recently declared him "The best defensive player on the planet" and while I won't go that far since Aaron Donald still plays professional football, he's been at or near the top of the sack leaders list every season for the last five years and plays with an insane motor. His running mate Alex Highsmith isn't too shabby himself, but Watt is having another excellent campaign.
Another thing to note about this Steelers defense is that they've just played two games all season with Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, and Cam Heyward all on the field at once; Week 1 and last Sunday. Oddly enough, they're 0-2 in those games, giving up 54 combined points to the 49ers and Cardinals, but having that trio of guys out there is better than the alternative. Fitzpatrick is a consensus top 'free' safety every year, and Heyward is back to where he typically is, getting back to his usual snap count numbers over the last two weeks. Guys like Keanu Benton, Larry Ogunjobi, and Patriots icon Elandon Roberts are worth mentioning as well. Outside of the Chiefs, this might be the best in-conference defense the Patriots have drawn all season.
Not that the outlook with the Pittsburgh offense was worthwhile with Kenny Pickett in, it might have well as been in comparison to Mitch Trubisky, who the Patriots drew the last time these two teams played. The advantage for Pittsburgh this year is that Matt Canada, the much-maligned offensive coordinator of the Steelers, was fired just weeks ago. Why Mike Tomlin decided to keep him around after last year feels like a good question, but this isn't the time or place.
As for what you saw from the veteran QB against the Cardinals, he made some good throws, but it felt like they were calling a lot of simple, basic, and short concepts, which the Cardinals caught up on. That allowed Jonathan Gannon to load up the box and force Trubisky to beat them, and he couldn't. I have zero reason to believe the Patriots won't deploy a similar game plan if the Steelers decide not to push things downfield.
While the pass offense has been far from ideal for Yinzer Nation, the running attack has been excellent over the last month, averaging 165 yards a game and hitting at least 130 yards since Week 9. The answer to their massive gains in the run game doesn't lie with either Najee Harris or Jaylen Warren, but rather with offensive tackle and first-round pick Broderick Jones, one of my favorite outright prospects in this last draft. A raw tackle for sure, but the tools for him to be a bookend mainstay for the next decade are right in front of him. As far as his run game wins from this Sunday, this was the most definitive. Great stuff here sealing off the defender so Harris could cut back inside for big yardage.
While guys like George Pickens and Pat Freiermuth jump out as pass catchers to keep an eye on, Diontae Johnson has made headlines recently for all the wrong reasons. There was a report that he and Fitzpatrick had to be physically separated some weeks ago in an incident. Then, during the most recent Steelers-Bengals tilt, Johnson was out there showing negative hustle on a fumble drill which was recovered by Cincinnati. Also, the fact he celebrated a garbage-time touchdown against Arizona last week was peak Steeler Way behavior, you almost have to respect it. The Standard is the Standard after all.
The final note here is as an official Darnell Washington propagandist, please use him.
New England Patriots
This defense continuing to be as nails as they have been for the last month is the only reason these Patriots games have been nail-biters. To call this run defense unreal specifically would be an understatement. They can add Austin Ekeler's name to the list of backs they've erased from memory this season after he was held to 18 (Eighteen, 8+10, 9x2) yards on 14 carries on Sunday. It hasn't won them games, but to see this team be an elite run-stopping unit after years of being the opposite in a post-Vince Wilfork world is an incredible sight.
Another Charger weapon that was put in the Steiner Recliner was Keenan Allen. This is courtesy of Jonathan Jones, who had one of the best games of his career on Sunday and was as sticky in man coverage as he's ever been. Smart money would suggest he'll not draw George Pickens due to the size difference (5'10 to 6'3), but Jones should be up for a good matchup with either Diontae Johnson or Allen Robinson. On a side note, congrats are in order for No. 31, as he was named the Patriots nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award.
Circling back to the run game now, the Patriots did all of that against the Chargers without Deatrich Wise, who was back at practice on Tuesday and should hopefully be a full go tomorrow night.
The big news coming into this Steelers game is the health of Rhamondre Stevenson, who went down after a hip-drop tackle early in the Chargers game and unsurprisingly didn't return. Should he not be active, the Patriots are down to Zeke, who's been fine this year. Ty Montgomery, who has single-digit touches on the year. And Jamychal Hasty, who hasn't played a down for the Patriots yet since they picked him up. Pair that with the fact Pop Douglas is still not practicing, things could get ugly quickly in Pittsburgh.
The big worry for me is the likely matchup of Mike Onwenu vs. T.J. Watt. By any metric you want to use, he got beaten up badly by Khalil Mack just days ago and now has to face the guy right behind him in the sack leader race. Sure, Onwenu is going to get help on occasion, but Watt is going to get his, it's just a matter of how timely his big plays are. That and simply keeping Bailey Zappe upright, who seems to feel good going into this one.
Points Spread: PIT -6 (-110) | NE -6 (-110)
Moneyline: PIT (-295) | NE (+240)
Over/Under: O 30.5 (-104) | U 30.5 (-118)
Lines via FanDuel as of Tuesday December 5
You see O/U's like this in Iowa games, not the NFL. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Anyway, I like the Steelers both ways and the under. Ride that gravy train until it derails.
Also, since it is a TNF game; the fact that we have ZERO (0) knowledge of what Al Michaels has on the slip in this day and age is an insult. We know he has multiple parlays going at any given time, show 'em on the lower third and enhance the viewing experience.
I can promise you one thing, this will be a football game tomorrow night. I can't guarantee it'll be good, I can't guarantee it'll be bad. Just that two teams will be playing in a 60,000-plus-seat stadium in a major metropolitan area. Much like last week, this is another team in the Patriots' path that can ill-afford a loss, coming right on the heels of one. I wouldn't expect much of either offense in this one, but the Steelers have the edge with the skill positions guys, and that should put them over the top on the road to 9-8. Also, Al Michaels WILL leave the booth before the end of the third quarter, I can feel it in my bones.
Final Score: Pittsburgh Steelers 17, New England Patriots 7
Also, with no Patriots Chargers film review with the short layoff this week, here are the three stars from that game.
Gaffney's Three Stars from Patriots-Chargers
3rd Star - Jahlani Tavai (8 Tackles, 1 TFL)
2nd Star - Mack Wilson (4 Tackles, 1 PBU)
1st Star - Jonathan Jones (Held Keenan Allen to 2 Catches for 24 Yards on 4 Man Coverage Snaps)
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