It might not hold the same weight and attention that it once did, but Thursday’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots remains a big one on Thursday Night Football in Week 14.
Gone are the days of Tom Brady against Ben Roethlisberger, and other Hall of Fame names like Troy Polamalu, Rob Gronkowski, Richard Seymour, James Harrison, and more. In their place, guys like T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Kyle Dugger, Lawrence Guy, and more have stepped up in hopes of carrying on the tradition of the rivalry.
The two teams seem to be going in opposite directions this season, though. The Patriots come in at 2-10 and have a worse offense than the Steelers, which didn’t seem fathomable. The Steelers are 7-5 and in the thick of the AFC playoff race.
Both teams are significantly banged up entering the Week 14 matchup, so don’t expect a game that is easy on the eyes. It’ll be ugly football, which suits both head coaches, Mike Tomlin and Bill Belichick, just fine. Within that ugly football will be a handful of key matchups.
Below are my four key matchups to watch Thursday night.
Steelers’ DL Larry Ogunjobi vs. Patriots’ RG Sidy Sow
If there were ever a time for Larry Ogunjobi to really get going in the trenches for the Steelers, the matchup against Patriots’ rookie right guard Sidy Sow — especially in sub-package football — would be the time.
Entering Thursday’s game, Sow grades out at a 67.5 overall from Pro Football Focus, including a 69.9 as a run blocker and just a 57.6 in pass protection. He’s been charged with 13 pressures and two sacks allowed on the season. He’s much better moving forward in the run game and has had issues with more athletic, explosive defensive linemen in recent weeks.
That’s where Ogunjobi can come into play.
It hasn’t been a bad year for the veteran defensive tackle. He just hasn’t been as impactful as many were hoping. The stretch run here is a good time to make that impact, starting on Thursday night. Ogunjobi has 21 pressures and two sacks on the season, but he has just a 54.5 overall grade from PFF on the year, including a 49.5 against the run and a 55.2 rushing the passer.
Left guard Cole Strange and center David Andrews will have their hands full with Cameron Heyward and rookie Keeanu Benton. Ogunjobi needs to take advantage of a favorable matchup on the interior. It’s time.
Steelers’ IOL vs. Patriots DL Christian Barmore
The Patriots like to move their defensive linemen around in a four-man front, so there’s no telling what the matchups will be snap-to-snap Thursday night. That said, it’s paramount the Steelers have a handle on Christian Barmore every snap of the night.
So far, in 498 snaps, Barmore grades out at 76.1 from PFF. That includes a 61.3 against the run and an impressive 82.6 as a pass rusher. Barmore has 32 pressures on the season, including eight in the last three weeks. He has four sacks on the season.
At 6’5″, 315 pounds, Barmore moves extremely well for his size. He has great athleticism and explosion as well and can hold up against the run with good power, but really gets after the passer when asked to rush. He’s a real weapon for the Patriots on the interior, allowing them to do a number of things defensively in certain fronts.
With Steelers’ left guard Isaac Seumalo questionable Thursday night, center Mason Cole struggling to snap the ball properly, and right guard James Daniels quietly going about his work in a consistent manner, the Steelers will need the interior of the offensive line to step up, especially against Barmore. If Seumalo can’t go, Nate Herbig is the next man up.
Pittsburgh’s interior will have to set the tone quickly in the run game and must improve in pass protection. That starts against Barmore.
Patriots’ WR JuJu Smith-Schuster vs. Steelers’ DBs
It’s a homecoming for JuJu Smith-Schuster on Thursday night, and it might be a great opportunity for him.
The Patriots’ offense has been a disaster this season, and Smith-Schuster’s production in his first season of a three-year, $33 million deal has been hindered because of it. That could change Thursday night, especially with Pop Douglas ruled out, leading to more opportunities in the slot for Smith-Schuster.
New England isn’t going to stretch the field with Smith-Schuster, but there is an opportunity to make some plays after the catch against a Steelers’ secondary that has struggled to tackle this season. Of the 107 tackles the Steelers have missed this season, defensive backs such as Damontae Kazee, Patrick Peterson, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Joey Porter Jr., Levi Wallace, and Trenton Thompson have recorded 39 of those misses.
They haven’t exactly done a great job of tackling, especially in space.
Though Smith-Schuster has just 65 yards after the catch this season and hasn’t forced a single missed tackle on the year, he is very capable of making plays after the catch. He’s a hard, physical runner with the football in his hands, and he’s going to be juiced up in his return to Pittsburgh. The Steelers’ secondary cannot struggle to tackle him Thursday night.
Steelers’ TE Pat Freiermuth vs. Patriots’ MOF Defenders
When the Steelers’ offense was rolling in the Week 12 matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals just a few days after firing offensive coordinator Matt Canada, tight end Pat Freiermuth was a major part of it. Freiermuth had nine catches for a career-high 120 yards in the win over the Bengals. Then, last week against the Cardinals, he was largely invisible.
Freiermuth had just three catches for 29 yards in the loss, and his first touch didn’t come until under eight minutes into the second quarter.
That can’t happen Thursday night.
The Patriots have been pretty solid against tight ends this season. Last week, Los Angeles Chargers tight ends had just six receptions for 56 yards on ten targets. The two weeks prior to that, the Patriots allowed just three total receptions to tight ends in losses to the Indianapolis Colts and New York Giants.
In fact, all season long, the Patriots have allowed just 50 receptions on 70 targets to tight ends for 490 yards and just one touchdown. That touchdown came all the way back in Week Five against the New Orleans Saints. A lot of the great work the Patriots do in the middle of the field against tight ends is due to safeties Jabrill Peppers and Kyle Dugger, and linebackers Ja’Whaun Bentley and Jahlani Tavai.
Tavai has the highest coverage grade on the Patriots’ defense at 83.3 on the season, allowing just 15 receptions for 122 yards with one interception and three passes defensed on the year. Bentley has allowed just 25 receptions on the season for 292 yards and a touchdown, grading out at 64.8 in coverage.