Steel Mill A.M.: Steelers have high expectations of tight end Jesse James
Today presents another chance for the Steelers to end the New England Patriots' domination of them, which means the outcome could hinge on the play of a certain tall tight end who finished high school in Western Pennsylvania.
Only thing is we're not just talking about that Rob Gronkowski fella.
Jesse James, coming off the most productive game in his three-year career and once again playing without tight end partner Vance McDonald, could be a significant receiving threat for the Steelers as they try to snap a four-game losing streak to the Patriots and clinch a first-round bye in the playoffs.
The Patriots, if history holds true, will focus on stopping the Steelers' top two playmakers in Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell. It's a formula most NFL teams try to use, but the Patriots do it better than most. This could lead to more game-changing opportunities for players such as Martavis Bryant, JuJu Smith-Schuster (healthy) and, of course, James.
Often overlooked in the passing game at times this season – he had 11 catches over his previous seven games – James caught 10 passes for 97 yards in the Steelers' 39-38 division-clinching win over the Baltimore Ravens last Sunday. He had a key third-down grab on the Steelers' final series to help set up Chris Boswell's 46-yard game-winning field goal.
“Obviously statistically he had a good game last week, but he's been getting better and better for us,” offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. “Not just the obvious things … in all areas of the run game. He's a very dependable guy mentally. It doesn't matter if he's banged up. He went through a stretch where he was pretty beat up, and I think a lot of guys may not have even played and he never missed a practice. There is a lot of value put on a guy like that you can count on every day.”
James has been the one constant at his position the past two years – or since Heath Miller's retirement. Ladarius Green couldn't stay on the field because of concussion issues, and this year McDonald has missed five games with ankle injuries. He'll sit out a sixth today because of a shoulder injury sustained against the Ravens.
McDonald also had his most productive game of the season, catching four passes for 52 yards against the Ravens when the Steelers used a lot of two tight-end sets. But James will have to go it alone against the Patriots, unless the Steelers give more snaps to third-stringer Xavier Grimble.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger isn't worried.
“I think he's playing well and finding different ways to do it,” Roethlisberger said about James. “Moving him around, it's hot stuff, it's deep stuff, kind of really making some big plays, some big third-down plays for us, so it's kind of what we expect from Jesse. We have high expectations from him and I know that is the expectation he has from himself as well.”
As is his custom, James downplayed his contributions against the Ravens, nothing that Roethlisberger attempted 66 passes and, well, someone had to be on the receiving end.
“You're obviously going to get some touches, and the ball is going to come your way at some point,” he said.
When the teams met in the AFC championship game in January, James was involved in one of the game-changing plays. With the Steelers trailing 17-6 late in the first half, he caught an apparent 19-yard touchdown pass. On replay review, however, officials deemed James was down at the Patriots 1.
Two runs lost a combined four yards and, following an incompletion, Boswell kicked a field goal, and the Steelers never got closer than eight points the rest of the game.
“We put a lot of emphasis on finishing drive,” James said this week when reminded of that sequence. “They take a lot out of you if you get the ball inside the 1-yard line and can't score in three plays. It's a big boost for them.”
Steelers (11-2) vs. New England Patriots (10-3), Heinz Field
Kickoff: 4:25 p.m., CBS
Series history: Series is tied, 15-15, including five postseason games.
Series streak: The Patriots have won four in a row, counting the AFC championship game in January.
Last Steelers win: Oct. 30, 2011, Steelers 25, Patriots 17: Ben Roethlisberger completed 36 of 50 passes for 365 yards and two touchdowns, and the Steelers possessed the ball for 39 minutes.
Last Patriots win: Jan. 22, 2017, Patriots 36, Steelers 17: Tom Brady passed for 384 yards and three touchdowns to help the Patriots advance to the Super Bowl.
At stake for the Steelers: A win would ensure the Steelers of a first-round playoff bye and guarantee they wouldn't have to go to New England in the playoffs. A loss would drop them to the No. 2 seed.
At stake for the Patriots: A win would give the Patriots the edge on the Steelers in the event of a tiebreaker for a home game in the playoffs. A loss would hurt the Patriots' chances of getting a first-round bye.
Three Steelers players to watch
Tyler Matakevich: “Dirty Red” could be in line to make his first NFL start provided he can return from a shoulder injury that kept him out of the Ravens game. Matakevich will be the latest player to start at inside linebacker as the Steelers press on without Ryan Shazier for the rest of the season.
Martavis Bryant: Will he emerge as the deep threat everyone envisioned when he returned from his one-year suspension?
Sean Davis: The second-year safety delivered some big hits against the Ravens but also missed several tackles. He might be the best defensive capable of holding his own with Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Three Patriots players to watch
Dion Lewis: The former Pitt player leads the Patriots with 607 yards rushing and a 5.2 average per carry. He also has returned a kickoff for a touchdown this season.
Kenny Britt: The Patriots quickly scooped up the wide receiver this week after he was dumped by the Cleveland Browns. At 6-foot-3, 223 pounds, Britt brings some beef to the Patriots receiving corps.
Stephen Gostkowski: The balls he puts through the uprights might not be his biggest contributions to this game. Given the Steelers' problems on kickoff returns, expect Gostkowski to place his kicks inside the 5-yard line to force returns.
Since 2001, the Patriots are 40-17 in games decided by three points or fewer. They are the only team with a .700 winning percentage in such games.