With the 2019-20 NFL Season getting underway, the New England Patriots open up against their conference rival at home, the Pittsburgh Steelers. While both teams come in as possible candidates to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, they both also had significant off-season losses. This is a deep dive into the matchup between Pittsburgh and New England.
The last time these two teams played, it was the Steelers who snuck by with a 17-10 win in December of last season. Pittsburgh limited New England’s rushing attack of Sony Michel, James White and Rex Burkhead to 96 total yards, while the Steelers Jaylen Samuels ran 19 times for 142 yards of his own. While Samuels figures to have a smaller role this time around, the Patriots rushing attack has remained the same, with the addition of rookie Damien Harris.
Last 10 Matchups
Since 2007, the two teams have matched up 10, times with one game being in the playoffs in 2017. In those ten games, New England is 7-3, including five out of the last six wins.
With a win, New England will knock off one of the tougher opponents they have on the schedule. Facing each team of a weak AFC East twice, along with playing all of the teams from an even weaker NFC East, the Patriots schedule is favorable. A win against the Steelers would put them in a good position early in the season, especially considering they do not play another projected playoff opponent until late October.
While all teams would like to start the season on a good note, the Steelers may be even more desperate for a win. With a loaded AFC North, in which three teams have a realistic chance at winning the division, the Steelers will need all the big out-of-division wins they can get. Things won’t get much easier for Pittsburgh as they go up against a tough Seattle team in Week 2.
Steelers passing attack vs Patriots secondary
This has been a matchup over the years that has been dominated by the Steelers passing attack, regardless of the Patriots secondary. The main reason being that the Steelers usually have two star wide receivers that give any secondary in the league issues. The combinations of Mike Wallace/Antonio Brown, Brown/Emmanuel Sanders, and finally Brown/Juju Smith-Schuster were big reasons for the dominance. Paired with Le’Veon Bell in the backfield, this passing attack was lethal.
However, it’s a new year with new players. Brown is gone and the Steelers didn’t find anyone to really replace him. Donte Moncrief and James Washington will battle for the starting spot, but neither seems anywhere close to as talented as Brown was. James Connor replaced Bell nicely while he was holding out last year, but he is not the threat that Bell once was. Connor is serviceable, but he is not Bell.
As for the Patriots secondary, it is legit. Stephon Gilmore figures to at least contain Smith-Schuster, while a combination of JoeJuan Williams, JC Jackson, Jonathan Jones, and Jason McCourty look to lock down the other threats.
Advantage: Patriots Secondary
James Connor vs Patriots run defense
Last season, Connor was hurt for the matchup against the Patriots and Samuels took over. As for this season, New England has bolstered its defense including their linebackers and run-stuffers. While being a terrific fantasy player, the proof is in the stats that Connor may not be as good as the fantasy experts say. Last season Connor ranked 28th among qualified running backs in yards per carry (4.5). His longest rush of the season was only for 30 yards (T-70th in NFL), proving he will not beat the Patriots with explosiveness as we’ve seen in the past from players such as Kareem Hunt and Kenyan Drake.
Connor also was tied for third in the league in fumbles by running backs with four, something the Patriots defense has a history of feasting off of. With the return of Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Ja’Whaun Bentley, and the addition of Jamie Collins, the linebacking core is solidified.
If there is one thing that will help James Connor it would be the fantastic offensive line the Steelers put out. With one of the best offensive lines of the league, it makes life easier for any running back.
Steelers secondary vs Patriots passing game
This is a category that has simply been dominated by New England since Tom Brady came in at quarterback. The Steelers have not had an elite secondary in quite some time and nothing changes going into the 2019 season.
Pro Football Focus ranked the Pittsburgh’s secondary 28th where they only rank ahead of the Seattle’s post-Legion of Boom defense, the offense-first-defense-never Chiefs, San Francisco’s big-name, no-production secondary and the monstrosity that is the Buccaneers defense. Just having to cover Julian Edelman alone has been an issue. Throw in Josh Gordon and the issue gets bigger.
Brady has a history of picking apart this defense and has done it with ease. His quick release will keep the Pittsburgh pass-rushers from getting near him much of the game, and if the receivers are open, Brady won’t have to spend much time in the pocket.
Taking Rob Gronkowski out of the equation will surely be an advantage for the Steelers as he seemed to be at his best for games against Pittsburgh. New England has lost weapons, but the Steelers secondary may be too weak for that to matter.
Steelers linebackers vs Patriots running backs
The Patriots have not ran for 100 yards against the Steelers defense since 2016 when LaGarrette Blount ran for 127 yards by himself. Pittsburgh’s run defense has usually faired well against New England, partially because they usually carry athletic linebackers that much up well with New England’s rushing attack and partially because New England is able to pick them apart through the air with no need to run.
Now with New England’s attack featuring a fully healthy Sony Michel and James White along with newcomer Harris, the Patriots are primed to attack both on the ground and in the air. Even if they can’t get it done on the ground, look for the Patriots to use White as a receiver, or even Michel, who has been rumored to be getting used more in the passing game.
It’s a clean sweep for the Patriots by any objective standards; the Steelers simply do not match up well against New England and frankly, never have. There is a reason New England has dominated previous outings, and it is more matchup based than anything else. Similarly, how the Patriots struggle against run-heavy offenses and up-the-middle pass rushes, the Steelers struggle against good passing offenses with good secondaries.
Prediction: 31-20 New England
The last time New England raised a banner at home they got embarrassed by then-rookie Kareem Hunt and the Kansas City Chiefs. This year will tell a different tale, however. New England should win this game by two touchdowns. With well over a week to prepare, Bill Belichick and co. should have a solid game plan to take down Pittsburgh.