Top-three Week 15 matchups in Patriots vs. Steelers

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As time runs out on the 2017 NFL season, there remains a lack of quality possible contenders among the second-tier of AFC playoff spots. Squads with little sizzle look set to battle it out for the final few postseason tickets. With that being the case, all eyes once again turn to annual conference powerhouses Patriots and Steelers.

Even Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was willing to look ahead to the matchup weeks in advance, an unusual move for someone in his profession, and even predicted a rematch. Tomlin pointed out the obvious in that "everyone in America knows" this is one of the biggest games of the season.

The long-time Pittsburgh coach isn't wrong; the results of this game will not only have a say in who earns the No. 1 seed in the AFC but can also serve as a litmus test for where these two teams stand as they head to the postseason. The Patriots are coming off a big upset loss the Dolphins, while the Steelers earned a big win over the division-rival Ravens. With both teams looking for a crucial victory in Week 15, these three matchups will go a long way into deciding who controls the AFC playoff picture.

Ryan Shazier's absence


In one of the most unfortunate moments of the season, the Steelers lost Ryan Shazier to a frightening spine injury during a Week 13 Monday night win over the Bengals. Shazier has officially been placed on Injured Reserve.

It's hard to overstate the impact of Shazier on the Pittsburgh defense, even when simply looking at how often he was on the field. From Weeks 1 to 12, Shazier went out for a whopping 98.9 percent of the team's defensive snaps. He was the anchor, the linchpin and the rock of the Steelers stop unit. Over the last two weeks with him largely absent, Pittsburgh has allowed 29 points per game after ceding 17.5 in the first 12 weeks of the season.

Shazier's absence showed up like a bright burning light on Sunday night against the Ravens, as Alex Collins ran all over Pittsburgh. Collins consistently eluded the first tackle attempt by the Steelers replacements at linebacker like Sean Spence and Arthur Moats, who both saw their playing time on the inside bump up. Collins gained an average of 5.82 rushing yards after defenders closed within one yard of him, the fourth-highest mark among running backs who had double-digit carries in Week 14.

The Patriots have one of the most elusive running backs in the NFL on their side. Dion Lewis averages a whopping 4.84 yards gained after defenders close within a yard of him this season, ranking third among backs with 80-plus carries. Along with the versatile Rex Burkhead, Lewis could be in position to exploit a suddenly vulnerable Steelers front seven, unfortunately, dealing with the absence of its defensive rock Ryan Shazier.

Tom Brady vs. the Steelers pass rush


Tom Brady struggled on Monday night against the Dolphins, there's no getting around it. Coming into Week 14, Brady led all relevant quarterbacks with a 100.9 passer rating under pressure this season and a sterling 8:1 touchdown to interception ratio. Against the Dolphins, Brady under pressure on over 30 percent of his throws against Miami and completed just six of those attempts. Far worse, Brady faced the blitz on 17 of his throws and completed just six with a passer rating of 39.1, the third-lowest among quarterbacks in Week 14.

The Steelers rank 10th in the NFL with a 29.1 percent pressure rate on the season. In terms of overall pressures, Pittsburgh's best rushers are down linemen Cameron Heyward (36) and Stephon Tuitt (27). However, among players with 100-plus pass rush attempts, rookie T.J. Watt leads the team with a 12.5 percent pressure rate. He could be an x-factor in this contest. Watt takes most of his snaps from the right side of the Steelers defense and New England allows a 20.5 pressure rate on the left side of their offensive line, the sixth-highest among all teams this season.

Pittsburgh will need Watt and their pressure unit to step up in Week 15, as recent history tells us their zone-heavy coverage concepts are just no match for the Patriots and Tom Brady. Last season in their playoff matchup, Brady and Chris Hogan utterly destroyed their zone defense. Brady threw just 2.4 percent of his passes into tight windows against Pittsburgh in that playoff win and Hogan racked up over 180 yards and scored a pair of touchdowns while averaging 4.0 yards of separation. In order to avoid another carving, the Steelers pass rush needs to show up.

The fruitless task of slowing down Antonio Brown


Over the last four games, Antonio Brown leads the NFL with 39 catches, 627 yards and six touchdowns. The always dominant receiver is in peak form right now and it even has him earning some buzz as a possible MVP candidate. He would be the first wide receiver ever to win the award.

Bill Belichick is known for taking away the opposing team's top threat but hasn't found much success doing so with Brown. Over their last two regular season meetings, the All-Pro wideout averaged eight catches for 119.5 yards. He caught seven passes for 77 yards in their playoff duel last season.

In addition to him being generally unstoppable, Brown thrives in two areas where the Patriots struggle defensively. Brown leads all wide receivers with 229 yards gained along the boundary (within one yard of the line of scrimmage) this season. He and DeAndre Hopkins have been noticeably head and shoulders above the crowd operating in close quarters on the sideline this year. They are the only players with double-digit catches and over 80 yards gained on targets along the boundary.

The Patriots may struggle to defend the toe-dragging master on Sunday. Opposing quarterbacks have targeted New England 26 times along the boundary and they've allowed the sixth-highest catch rate in the league.

Top-six catch rates allowed on the boundary
Washington Redskins - 48 percent
Oakland Raiders - 44.1 percent
Houston Texans - 43.3 percent
Los Angeles Rams - 42.8 percent
Green Bay Packers - 38.5 percent
New England Patriots - 36.8 percent
NFL Average - 28 percent

New England has deployed press coverage on 36 percent of their pass defense plays this season, the fifth-highest rate in the league this season (NFL average - 26.6 percent). Teams have tried to press Brown all season to no avail. He's faced press coverage on 49.4 percent of his targets in 2017. Only Hopkins (51 percent) and Marvin Jones (54.3 percent) have been pressed more this year.

Naturally, this has done nothing to slow down the MVP candidate. Brown averages 2.34 yards of separation when facing press coverage, besting the 1.87 NFL average among wideouts with at least 10-plus targets when pressed. Bump and run coverage doesn't stop Brown from making big plays, either. He averages 18.5 yards per reception when pressed and leads all wideouts with 795 yards gained against those coverages this year. It will be a tall order to slow down Brown in this spot as the wideout builds on his all-time great resume.

You can explore the charts and data provided by Next Gen Stats for yourself right here, as well.

Matt Harmon is a writer/editor for NFL.com, and the creator of #ReceptionPerception, who you can follow on Twitter @MattHarmon_BYB or like on Facebook.

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