Pregame stretch: Patriots at Steelers
New England Patriots (5-1) at Pittsburgh Steelers (4-2)
Heinz Field, 68,400
Sunday, 4:25 p.m., CBS
Announcers: Jeem Nantz and Pheel Seems
Annoyance factor: Ultimate. This is the second of two Nantz-Simms games before the bye, but there’s good news later in the year as it’s quite possible this is the last regular season game we’ll see the Gruesome Twosome (unless they do the Christmas afternoon game on NFL Network, talk about your lumps of coal). The Steelers will have two national games on FOX in the second half. Information from www.the506.com
Weather or not?: Partly cloudy, high 50’s. The heavy rains of Friday fell thankfully on an off weekend for Pitt. Information from www.weather.com
How they rank
New England offense: 7th passing, 7th rushing, 13th ppg
Pittsburgh defense: 30th passing, 13th rushing, 11th ppg
Pittsburgh offense: 8th passing, 15th rushing, 9th ppg
New England defense: 19th passing, 9th rushing, 2nd ppg
Sacks: New England 19th (11); Pittsburgh 28th (8)
Sacks allowed: New England 12th (12), Pittsburgh 9th (11)
Comment: You think the Steelers are a bend-but-don’t-break defense, man, the Patriots patented that. Also, Pittsburgh fell from 2nd in the league in rush defense to 13th after that anonymous dude from the Dolphins who you’ll never hear from again gashed them. In case you think Cam Heyward isn’t that valuable.
Referee: Craig Wrolstad
Competence factor: This is Round 2 with this crew this year as they worked the opener at Washington. For the year, this crew calls penalties just about 50-50 between home and visitor and average 12.6 assessed penalties per game for 117 yards, both below league averages. Information from www.footballzebras.com and www.pro-football-reference.com
The line: New England -7
Smarts say: We’re guessing Patriots -2 if Ben Roethlisberger is playing. The over/under of 47 means something like 27-20 New England (and we’re guessing many Steelers fans would consider a score like that a moral victory.) Information from www.dannysheridan.com and www.pregame.com
The last time: The 2015 NFL season opener featured the Steelers not covering Rob Gronkowski and the Patriots cheating within 10 minutes. You know, the usual. New England’s 28-21 win was not nearly as close as that score might indicate.
Key matchup: Steelers ????????? vs. Patriots TEs Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett
Because: Who in the wide, wide world of sports are the Steelers going to have cover Gronkowski this year? And once they figure that out, who in the wide, wide world of sports is going to cover Bennett? Consider that Bennett is second on the Pats in receptions and leads them in TDs. Yikes. Ryan Shazier returning to the lineup (should that actually happen) would be helpful, but Shazier being athletic enough to cover Gronk and actually covering Gronk are two different things. We’re guessing Justin Gilbert could be a surprisingly important player in this game in a Pittsburgh dime. Again, there’s the physical potential there to match up with a tight end, but…
+ Ben Roethlisberger is a great quarterback and one tough hombre, to borrow the phrase of the moment, between the whistles. But that does not carry over to how he behaves off the field when he’s injured. Ben is, to put it quite simply, a drama queen. There hasn’t been an injury invented yet that he can’t make sound like it’s worse. Several years ago, the Steelers announced that Ben had a broken rib. The next day, he casually dropped into conversation with a reporter that the rib could potentially puncture his heart and kill him. This week, Pittsburgh announced that Roethlisberger was having knee surgery to clean up some torn meniscus. That’s as routine a surgery as there is in football. It’s usually a 1-2 week injury. The Steelers, perhaps in a nod to their QB, issued a release making the procedure sound like heart surgery. But that was not enough. Again, Roethlisberger quickly went to a reporter to let him know this injury was worse than a usual meniscus tear and he could miss more time than expected. Of course, none of these theatrics that accompany every Roethlisberger injury are necessary. He just has to say, “I’m working hard to get back and as soon as the doctors clear me to play, I’ll be in the lineup.” The end. But you’ll never hear that from Ben.This is not even necessarily a criticism of Roethlisberger, he’s human, you take the good with the bad and the good far outweighs the bad in this instance. It’s more a plea for common sense among the media and fan base after the next Roethlisberger injury.
+ Roethlisberger’s replacement is Landry Jones. This is a reminder that Landry Jones is mostly terrible, but has proven he can be effective at times when he gets to prepare with and play with the Steelers’ first team offense. Jones led the Steelers to win over highly regarded Arizona last year, in case you’ve forgotten. This is also a reminder that there are very few NFL backup quarterbacks who are not terrible. Zach Mettenberger is most assuredly terrible and unfamiliar with Pittsburgh’s offense. Don’t wish for Zach Mettenberger.
+ Reports out of Pittsburgh this week say Bud Dupree likely will be ready to return soon from the injured reserve list. The fact that this is great and exciting news tells you all you need to know about the Steelers injury situation and the state of their linebacking corps.
+ As noted in our blog last week, the full extent of the damage from that Dolphins loss won’t be known until early January because it sure looks to us like Pittsburgh is heading for 9-7 and the AFC playoff bubble rather than a comfortable 10-6.
The pick: We CAN see this being a much better game than people imagine. We can NOT see Pittsburgh winning. With huge issues on both sides of the ball, special teams would likely be the best way for the Steelers to hang around. Expect Mike Tomlin to challenge his improved ST units to make big plays Sunday, rather than trying to devise any kind of gimmicky schemes to overcome the offensive and defensive injuries. Short of that…. Patriots 39-21.
Last week: We were smart enough to tell you exactly how the Dolphins could beat the Steelers but not smart enough to actually pick them to do it. We did have them covering, though, leaving us 3-3 straight up and 4-2 against the spread.