The New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers were once bitter rivals, going back-and-forth for AFC supremacy in the postseason.
Now, the Steelers are on the verge of missing the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time since the 1998-2000 seasons and for the first time since Ben Roethlisberger became the quarterback in 2004.
The defense has not played true to Steelers history, yielding big yards in the running game (121.8 yards per game) and nine rushing touchdowns this season, the fourth-highest total in the league through Week 8.
Despite all that, make no mistake; this team has been competitive. Three of the Steelers' five losses have come by a one-score margin. As such, they are still a dangerous team. Here's a scouting report on what to expect when the Steelers come to town.
How they got here: Four straight losses out of the gate sent the Steelers spinning out of control into the bye week. They pieced together two wins against the Jets and Ravens, with their defense finally turning in a pair of solid performances after allowing 27.5 points per game in their first four contests. Now, coming off a disappointing loss to the Raiders in which they nearly overcame an 18-point fourth-quarter deficit in what ended up being a three-point loss, the Steelers are searching for vindication.
Key cog, offense -- Antonio Brown, WR: The Steelers do not have prototype X-receivers, instead relying on smaller, quicker receivers with some speed like Antonio Brown. At 5'10" and 186 pounds, Brown isn't winning many jumpballs, and he doesn't use his size to separate from a jam, but he runs great routes, has great initial burst and quick feet to help him get off the line and in and out of his breaks, and has enough speed to get downfield. Brown has been the most reliable receiver on the team, catching 56 of 70 aimed passes in his direction (80 percent) and dropping just one.
Key cog, defense -- Lamarr Woodley, OLB: Coming out of Michigan in 2007, Woodley fell to the second round because he had been labeled as a "tweener" -- either a defensive end or an outside linebacker, depending on the scheme. The Steelers ended up with a pass-rusher who's been among the league's best, regardless of position, every year since entering the NFL. This year, he ranks second-best among 3-4 outside linebackers in pass-rushing productivity (17 hurries, five hits, five sacks), according to stats website Pro Football Focus. He has solid hand technique to keep blockers at bay, and burst to help him avoid blockers in the first place. His closing speed is also exceptional, and has helped him log nine forced fumbles in his career.
X-factor -- Jerricho Cotchery, WR: Cotchery is familiar with the Patriots from his time with the New York Jets from 2004-2010. He was sometimes the second option on those teams, but now, he is the Steelers' third option at wide receiver behind Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. Depending on whether cornerback Aqib Talib makes his return for the Patriots, Cotchery may end up matched up on either Logan Ryan, Kyle Arrington or Marquice Cole, perhaps some combination of the three.
Stats and notes:
- Notable injuries: linebackers Lawrence Timmons (hand) and Jarvis Jones (concussion) were the Steelers' only injury-related game-time decisions in Week 8, and both ultimately were active for the game. The Steelers are thin on the offensive line, having already lost center Maurkice Pouncey and tackle Levi Brown for the season.
- The Patriots have stayed afloat because they don't turn the ball over and they also create turnovers on defense. The Steelers have been the antithesis of the Patriots in both areas, with 14 giveaways among the eight highest totals in the league and five takeaways among the four lowest totals.
- The Steelers on first down have thrown the ball 116 times and have run the ball 80 times for a near 60-40 split. On third down, they have thrown the ball 78 times and have run the ball just 16 times, for a split closer to 83-17. Roethlisberger has been sacked or thrown an interception on 13 of those 78 pass plays, and the Steelers have converted 26 (one-third) for a first down.
- The Patriots seemed to fix their third quarter offensive woes against the Dolphins, but the Steelers have given up zero points in the third quarter of the past three games. Their average of 3.9 points per game allowed in the third quarter ranks tied for ninth-lowest in the NFL. Opponents have been successful throwing the ball against them in the third quarter, where they allow 68.3 percent completions. 8.8 yards per attempt and a 101.7 passer rating. Their run defense has been what's stepped up most in the third quarter, yielding just 2.8 yards per carry and one rushing touchdown.
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