PATRIOTS // STEELERS OVERVIEW
A few weeks ago, this game looked like a potential battle for home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, but with the Steelers stumbling to three straight losses and the Patriots going 2-2 across their last four games, this matchup suddenly takes on more desperate significance for each squad. With the Chiefs’ Thursday night loss this week, the Patriots can still clinch home field by winning out and hoping for a Kansas City loss in Seattle next week — but they can also lose their first round bye if they lose this game, and if the Texans win their final three. As for the Steelers: A fourth straight loss will put them at risk of falling out of the division lead altogether in the AFC North, with the 7-6 Ravens hot on their tails. A first-round bye is likely out reach at this point for the 7-5-1 Steelers, but a win here will keep them on track for a home game in the first round of the playoffs. This game opened with a modest Over/Under of 49.5 and was quickly bet up to 52.0. The Patriots opened as 1.5 point favorites on the road and currently sit at -2.5.
PATRIOTS PASS OFFENSE
Bear with me for a second.
In Week 12, the Broncos played the Steelers, and this was how we started the writeup of the Broncos’ passing attack (this is going somewhere; give it just a moment)…
The Steelers have been one of the tougher pass defenses in football this year, allowing the fourth fewest yards per pass attempt and ranking first in the NFL in sacks. Pittsburgh tries to make life difficult on quarterbacks by getting after them with constant pressure and taking away the short areas of the field — which can be an especially difficult setup for quarterbacks who prefer to throw the ball short, as can be attested to by the struggles in recent weeks of Blake Bortles and Cam Newton in this matchup. This is a poor setup for a quarterback in Case Keenum whose average intended air yards of 7.6 is the ninth lowest mark in the league. Keenum has recent yardage totals of 161 // 262 // 290 // 205.
The best yardage total by a wide receiver against the Steelers since Week 4 was 82 yards for A.J. Green — followed by 73 yards for Mohamed Sanu, 62 yards for Julio Jones, and 62 yards for Tyler Boyd. No other wide receiver against the Steelers has cracked even 60 yards since September.
Since that week, the Steelers have dropped to 10th in yards allowed per pass attempt, with the Broncos, Chargers, and Raiders absolutely hammering this defense over the middle of the field. In Week 12, Keenum connected with Courtland Sutton for only one catch for 14 yards (on four targets) on the perimeter, but he went 5-78-1 to tight ends while going 7-86-1 on a monstrous 12 targets to Emmanuel Sanders. The next week, Rivers went 6-110-1 to his three perimeter/downfield targets, while going 14-148-1 on a monstrous 19 targets to Keenan Allen. Last week, Derek Carr went 9-93-0 on targets to perimeter-primary receivers Jordy Nelson and Marcell Ateman, while flaming this team with 9-145-1 to tight ends and with 5-76-0 (on seven targets) to slot receiver Seth Roberts. On the year, the Steelers rank seventh in DVOA along the deep left sideline and 12th along the deep right sideline, but they rank sixth worst over the deep middle and 14th worst over the short middle. This is a great spot for both Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski, in a game in which the Patriots will have a tougher time looking to James White as an outlet (more on this below), but will be able to load up on targets to Edelman and Gronk against the Steelers’ aggressive pressure. In his games sharing the field with Gronk this year, Edelman has target counts of 9 // 7 // 10 // 5 // 8 // 12. Another eight to 12 targets should be in his range here. Gronk has seen recent target counts of 8 // 7 // 4 // 8. The Steelers have allowed the eighth most yards and the fifth most touchdowns to the tight end position — giving Gronk a decent shot at yardage-and-touchdown upside (to go with the slimmer-than-normal floor he has shown this year).
None of this is to say that Josh Gordon is incapable of succeeding in this spot himself, but he will have the toughest matchup of the bunch against Joe Haden, who has allowed a catch rate of only 58.9% on passes thrown into his coverage, and who has not allowed more than 73 receiving yards in a game this year. He has allowed only three touchdown passes all year and should shadow Gordon for much of this game. Gordon’s floor — with up-and-down target counts (12 // 5 // 3 // 9) and a tough matchup — is not guaranteed, but his ceiling remains intact in the one game on this slate that carries genuine shootout potential.
PATRIOTS RUN OFFENSE
The Steelers’ defense has been above-average against running backs this year across the board, facing the 12th fewest running back rush attempts in the league, allowing a solid 3.84 yards per carry to backs, and impressively allowing the second fewest receiving yards to running backs this year. This sets up poorly for the Patriots’ multi-headed backfield, which uses Sony Michel strictly in a yardage-and-touchdown role (only five catches all season), and which provides value for James White almost exclusively through the air (in games Michel has played, White has more catches than carries). The individual pieces in this backfield have also had their upside compromised by the return of Rex Burkhead (17 snaps last week) and by the recent touchdown binge that fullback James Develin has been on. Last week, Michel and White each played only 33 out of 81 snaps. Working in the favor of these guys is the potential back-and-forth nature of this game. Both can be bet on for yardage-and-touchdown upside (with White sure to be involved in the pass game), and each guy carries enough potential ceiling to matter — though neither carries enough floor right now to be considered safe in this game.
STEELERS PASS OFFENSE
The Patriots have been one of the tougher wide receiver matchups this season, with the second lowest catch rate allowed in the league, and with a YAC/R mark that is 4.8% lower than the league average. This has led to the Patriots ranking eighth in yards allowed per pass attempt while allowing the 12th fewest receiving yards to wideouts. As the Patriots have shown multiple times this year, they are capable of isolating and slowing down top receivers, with notable stat lines against them of:
:: Adam Thielen — 5-28-1
:: Stefon Diggs — 5-49-0
:: Davante Adams — 6-40-1
:: DeAndre Hopkins — 8-78-0
Of course, one side effect of the aggressive, man-heavy approach the Patriots take to coverage is that they can get burned at times as well, both by lesser passing attacks (Kenny Stills went 8-135-1 last week // Corey Davis went 7-125-1 earlier this year), and by the elite receivers that this team is looking to isolate (Tyreek Hill went 7-142-3 in this matchup).
Adding another layer of intrigue to this spot — from a DFS perspective — is the fact that Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster are both priced near the top of the slate, but neither has produced top-of-the-slate scores on a regular basis, with one guy usually popping off at the expense of the other. On the year, JuJu has three slate-breaking scores, but he has also posted four games that would wreck your roster at his price. AB has posted only one wreck-your-roster score (with three or four others that have been borderline in that range), but he has also justified his salary only twice on the year. None of this is to say that these guys have to be avoided, as this is a likely shootout with both guys sure to be heavily involved; but this is to say that it has become a guessing game between the two — and “guessing right” is still no guarantee that a slate-breaking score shows up. Both guys are strong tourney plays for the upside, but neither has produced consistently enough to be considered in cash games.
Behind these guys, Vance McDonald has not topped even 50 yards in seven consecutive games (including several games with strong tight end matchups), though he does carry some low-floor upside against a Patriots team that has allowed the fifth most tight end touchdowns, while ranking middle of the pack in receptions and yards to the position.
Wrapping up this passing attack behind the alpha duo of AB/JuJu is a collection of low-floor, low-ceiling options in Ryan Switzer, James Washington, and Jesse James. These three guys are nothing more than bet-on-broken-play options.
STEELERS RUN OFFENSE
The Patriots have been far below-average against running backs this year, allowing 4.76 yards per carry and the sixth most receiving yards to the position. As always: the Patriots have an ability to tighten up against the run near the goal line, as they are coming off back-to-back seasons of the fewest running back rushing touchdowns allowed, and they have allowed the third fewest this year — but with this team playing such tight coverage against wide receivers and using bigger linebackers who are often unable to hang with running backs in coverage, this team has faced the fourth most running back targets on the year — creating a strong setup for pass-first back Jaylen Samuels, who stepped right into the lead-back role for this team last week, playing 80% of the snaps and touching the ball 18 times. Samuels gave up a scoring look to ground-and-pounder Stevan Ridley, but he also saw one scoring look of his own that he failed to convert — strengthening his upside in this spot. In a likely back-and-forth affair in which the Steelers (number one in the NFL in pass play rate) will almost certainly look to win through the air, Samuels should be locked into another heavy snap share, with somewhere in the range of 10 to 15 carries and five to nine catches a clear expectation. With the Steelers running only 60 plays last week, there is room for Samuels’ role to grow from there. On the season, the Steelers rank fifth in plays per game (66.2), while the fast-paced Patriots have allowed the 12th most plays per game.
As of Thursday, there are still whispers out of Pittsburgh that James Conner could play this week without practicing (if Conner is cleared to play fully, he will — obviously — step right back into his 20 to 25 touch role, and will become one of the higher floor/ceiling backs on the slate), but for now it seems likely that we get at least one more week of Samuels in the lead.
The Patriots spread the ball around too much to be considered truly “safe” in any week — but with the Steelers doing a great job against pass catching backs and perimeter wideouts (while playing strong run defense along the way), there is a solid chance that both Edelman and Gronk see a spike in work this week, keeping each guy very much in play. Gronk’s floor is lower than the tight ends priced around him, but the ceiling remains intact; Edelman’s chances of popping off for a big game are lower than the wideouts priced around him, but his chances of failing this week are also much lower, making him an intriguing play on a difficult week for guaranteed points. Tom Brady is also a solid option this week, in the type of setup that often leads to the Patriots putting the ball in his hands and letting him win the game for them. Behind these guys, James White, Sony Michel, and Josh Gordon are all in play for their upside in tourneys, though none carry a particularly safe floor this week.
On the Steelers’ side, Samuels unsurprisingly stands out once again — and while his upside may prove to be a bit capped with his smaller ground-game role, it has been proven time and again over the years that this “Steelers #1 RB role” is worth a lot more in salary than Samuels’ current price, as he joins a long list that includes DeAngelo Williams, Fitzgerald Toussaint, and James Conner posting numbers while filling in for Le’Veon Bell.
As for the (rest of the) passing attack of the Steelers: I am a fan of the upside on JuJu and AB, though the price-considered uncertainty may keep me away from them myself. Both guys are very much in play this week, but neither is a lock-and-load option. Vance is a tourney consideration for his upside in this spot — though nothing is certain in his non-guaranteed role. Ben Roethlisberger is very much in play as well, as the Steelers are all but certain to put the ball in his hands, and to allow him to rack up as many points as he can.