Who ya got? Steelers-Patriots position-by-position breakdown

Which team has the better quarterback? Running backs? Receivers? Defense? And will it matter Sunday?

NFL: New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Thirteen of the last 15 Super Bowls have had a Manning, Brady or Roethlisberger as quarterback, and that’s just in the AFC, not including Eli’s two Super Bowl wins (over Brady).

With Peyton Manning retired, the path seemed pretty clear for either Brady or Roethlisberger to get back to the Super Bowl this season and, low and behold, the two face off in the biggest game of the season Sunday.

So who would you rather have under center?

And which team’s entire roster (and coaches) would you rather have this weekend?

Are the Patriots the better team? Yes, undoubtedly so. They have home field, they’ve lost just two games all year, and they have maybe the best playoff quarterback in NFL history leading their team. But the Patriots under Bill Belichick have always seemed like the sum playing greater than all of their parts. And so, let’s have a look at those parts.

This is a position-by-position look at which team fans should have more confidence in this weekend. In other words, spot-by-spot, who ya got?


NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots
Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

Both Brady and Roethlisberger are Hall of Famers. There is no debate about either’s place in history. But they have to play a game this weekend. While they aren’t actually facing each other — don’t be fooled by people who talk about “Brady’s record over Roethlisberger” when each faces the other team’s defense, not the other quarterback — it’s hard to look at Roethlisberger, on the road, and say “yeah I’ll take him over Brady at home.”

Brady averaged 296.2 yards with a 67.4 completion percentage and threw 28 touchdowns, despite missing four games this season, with just two interceptions in 432 pass attempts.

Roethlisberger averaged 272.8 yards with a 64.4 completion percentage, tossing 29 touchdowns in 14 games, while getting picked 13 times.

Brady played just five games at home this regular season, completing 71.4 percent of this throws with 10 scores and two picks. He wasn’t great in the Divisional round against Houston, though, hitting on just 18-of-38 for two scores, but two interceptions.

Roethlisberger, meanwhile, had a 59.4 completion percentage in eight games on the road this year, tossing just nine touchdowns while getting picked eight times. In the Divisional round at Kansas City, he was 20-of-31 with a pick.

Advantage: Patriots

Running Backs

NFL: New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Do we even need to?

Le’Veon Bell is on pace to break NFL records. He’s rushing at a Hall-of-Fame level right now, and that’s not hyperbole when you look at the players he’s being compared to.

New England’s best back, LeGarrette Blount, used to be his backup.

Now, Blount did rush for 1,161 yards and 18 touchdowns this season. Around the goal line, Blount would be your guy, but Dion Lewis actually got more carries in the Divisional game. Lewis came back from injury in Week 11 and since then, he and Blount have combined for 838 yards and seven scores. In that same timeframe, with one additional playoff game, Bell has 1,172 yards and eight scores.

I could make a case for picking DeAngelo Williams over either Patriots running back, but I don’t have to. Bell is there, and that’s all that matters.

Advantage: Steelers


NFL: New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

If at full strength, the Patriots pass catchers would be much tougher for the Steelers to defend, but the Patriots passing attack lacks the kind of indefensible threat they have when Rob Gronkowski is in the lineup.

Julian Edelman led the Pats with 98 catches on 159 targets, for 1,106 yards and three scores. Martellus Bennett stepped in for Gronk and caught 55 balls, including a team-best seven touchdowns, while running back James White snagged 60 balls on 86 targets, including five scores. Chris Hogan can stretch the field a little, averaging 17.9 yards per catch on 38 receptions this season.

All told, Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo threw 32 touchdown passes this season to nine different receivers, with five players catching four or more scores.

Antonio Brown, himself, caught 106 balls on 154 targets and had 12 touchdowns. Advantage, Steelers. But Bell caught 75 balls too, while rookie Eli Rogers had 48 catches on 66 targets, with three scores.

The Steelers receivers had 33 touchdown catches this year to 12 different receivers, but Brown was the only player with more than three. Without Gronk on the field, Brown is good enough on his own to put the Steelers ahead of the Pats, but with Rogers, Jesse James and Bell also catching balls, this is a big ‘Burgh plus.

Advantage: Steelers

Offensive Line

NFL: New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports




Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus ranked every team’s offensive line this season, and while the Steelers were graded out at 14th-best in the preseason, Monson ranked them 3rd in his end-of-season rankings.

“One of the most underrated stories of this season has been just how good the Pittsburgh offensive line has been,” Monson wrote. “Like Tennessee, there is no weakness on this unit, and Alejandro Villanueva — a player who had previously been that weak link — has upped his game dramatically and surrendered just one sack over the final 10 weeks of the season, all while crushing players at times in the run game.”

Monson tabbed guards Ramon foster and David DeCastro as the unit’s strongest, lauding the reserves, as well.

The Patriots line was pegged as the 18th-best in preseason, but finished the year ranked 10th, per PFF.

Advantage: Steelers

Defensive Front

Oct 23, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman (11)is  tackled after a catch by Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons (94) during the fourth quarter at Heinz Field. New England won 27-16. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

It’s worth noting that these rankings aren’t in a vacuum, as the offensive lines won’t be facing each other, they’ll be facing the opposing defensive front seven.

Michael Renner of PFF ranked those and didn’t look too favorably at either unit. The Steelers ranked 16th in the NFL, while the Patriots ranked 18th. Per Renner:

If one could summarize the Steelers’ front-seven in two words, they would be: missed tackles. They have the talent to play much better than the 16th-best front-seven any given week, but they struggle mightily finishing plays at times.

Reiner specifically pointed out Ryan Shazier’s 21 missed tackles, fourth-most at linebacker, and Stephon Tuitt’s 12 missed tackles, the most of any interior lineman in the league.

It’s interesting to see the Patriots ranked so low, as they allowed just 88.6 yards per game, third-best in the league. Renner tabbed their 24th-place ranking in pass rushing as the reason for the low overall score.

Look, Bud Dupree has come on, and James Harrison is playing like he’s 28, not 38, but we’re still talking about Harrison as the unit’s best player, which is kind of a problem for the Steelers in this game.

Advantage: Patriots, slightly

Defensive Backs

NFL: New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

This isn’t really close. PFF’s Matt Claassen ranked that position group, and while the Steelers finished the season 11th — up from a preseason slot of 22nd — the Patriots finished 3rd, with two All-Pro caliber players in safety Devin McCourty and cornerback Malcolm Butler. William Gay was the best player in the secondary for the Steelers, and Mike Mitchell had a nice year, but it wasn’t enough, and it may not be enough on Sunday.

Advantage: Patriots

Special Teams

NFL: AFC Divisional-Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Football Outsiders ranked all the special teams units by how many points each team gets from field goals, extra points, kickoffs, punts and return yards. The Patriots ranked seventh in their rankings, while the Steelers finished 16th, exactly the league average.

The Steelers attempted 28 field goals all season, making 24, then had six on six tries last week against KC to qualify for the AFC title game. The Patriots had 27 makes on 32 attempts, and Stephen Gostkowski did miss three extra points this year.

New England stands out in other aspects, like a 42.8 net punt average, eighth-best in the NFL, while the Steelers averaged 41.0 net yards per punt, ranked 18th. The Steelers were 17th in the league in kick return average, while the Patriots were 27th, but neither unit was in the top half of the league. The Steelers throw Antonio Brown back to return punts, but it hasn’t mattered much this season, as they’ve averaged just 8.4 yards per punt return, 16th in the NFL, while the Patriots average just 6.9 per return, 25th in the league.

Don’t expect the return game to play too much of a factor this weekend. Although, the Steelers have the ninth-worst punt return coverage and third-worst kick return coverage, allowing 9.6 yards per punt return and 24.8 yards per kick return, while the Patriots have the second-best punt return average (5.0) and third-best kick return rate (19.3).

Sorry, Chris Boswell.

Advantage: Patriots


NFL: AFC Divisional-Houston Texans at New England Patriots
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Tomlin has coached 160 regular season games, winning 103, and has the 21st-best winning percentage in NFL history — the 13th-best of anyone to coach 100 games. Tomlin has coached 13 playoff games in his 10 years, winning eight, and has one Super Bowl win and two AFC titles.

Bill Belichick has coached 352 regular season games, winning 237, and has the 11th-best winning percentage in NFL history — the fifth-best of anyone to coach 100 games. Belichick has coached 34 playoff games in his 22 years, winning 24, and has four Super Bowl wins and six AFC titles.

In New England, Belichick has won 201 of his 272 games and has only lost nine times in 32 playoff games.

Advantage: Patriots


If you’re adding up the sum of those parts, the Patriots have an edge, however slight. The big advantage, of course, will be home field.

The Patriots are 8-4 in conference championship games and 5-1 at home. The Steelers are 8-7 all-time in this round, but just four of those have come on the road. They are 2-2 in those games.

The Steelers are also 2-2 on the road in the playoffs under Tomlin. Under Belichick, the Patriots are 16-3 in the playoffs at home.

Advantage: … yeah. You got it.