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Nuggetpalooza: Patriots vs. Steelers!

10.29.11 at 9:41 am ET
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The Patriots emerge from the bye week with another big one in Pittsburgh. This could be one of the best NFL matchups of the season and looks like it could easily be a preview of a second playoff weekend rematch. Get ready with some stats on the Patriots, Steelers, and the rest of the NFL that you may not have seen anywhere else:

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* – Did you know?: One or both teams has scored 30 or more points in six of the last seven matchups (including playoffs) between Pittsburgh and New England… Over the last 30 years, this will be the 18th regular season meeting between the Patriots and Steelers and 15 of those will have been played in Pittsburgh… Including playoffs, the Patriots have won seven of their last nine against the Steelers… New England has won their last seven games coming off their bye week and are 8-2 in those games under Belichick. Pittsburgh has won the last three times they’ve faced an opponent who was fresh off a bye and they’ve scored 30+ points each time (including last week against Arizona)… Since the start of the 1999 season, the Steelers are just 5-23 at home when they’ve trailed at halftime.

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* – This is not like Pittsburgh: The Steelers and Colts have each allowed seven touchdowns following drives of 10 or more plays this season, tied for the most in the NFL:

7 – Steelers
7 – Colts
6 – Four teams tied

How different is that for the Steelers? They allowed just six such touchdown drives during all of 2010 and just eight in 2009.

NFL note: The Vikings and 49ers are the only teams that have yet to allow a TD drive of 10+ plays.

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* – New England has scored 31 points on their first possession of games this season, a league high 5.2 average:

5.2 – Patriots
4.0 – Cowboys
3.5 – Ravens

Note this: Pittsburgh has allowed 17 points on their opponents’ first possessions, tied for third most in the league.

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* – First Down Battle: The Patriots enter the weekend averaging an NFL best 7.2 yards on their first down plays. The Steelers defense has allowed an NFL best 4.7 yards on first down. On the other side of the coin, while the Steelers’ first down offense has been rather pedestrian, averaging 5.5 yards (20th), the Patriots’ first down defense has given up a league worst 7.8 yard average.

Note this: The Patriots allowed an average of 7.7 yards or more on first down in each of their first four games, but allowed just 4.2 against the Jets and 6.1 against the Cowboys, so that’s progress.

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* – The Steelers forced the Cardinals into just one three-and-out last Sunday, the first time this season that they’ve failed to force multiple three-and-outs. The Patriots’ defense has been feast-or-famine in this area, with three games forcing four or more, one game forcing just one, and two games where they never got off the field in a three-and out.

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* – Did you know that the Steelers’ defense has finished either in the top six or 20th or worse in third down conversion percentage allowed in each of the last nine seasons? Top six in four seasons (including first in 2008) and 28th, 27th, and 20th three times. New England’s offense, currently converting third downs at a 54% clip, is well on their way to their eighth straight season in the top eight (all at 42% or better). Eight years in a row of 42% or better third down conversions would be the longest in the NFL since they began tracking the stat in 1991.

NFL note: Want some context on that 42% streak? The Bears are working on their 16th consecutive season without ever converting even 38% of their third down tries, and the Buccaneers have had exactly one 42% season in the 21 years that they’ve tracked the stat.

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* – Pittsburgh has only received three turnovers this season, the fewest in the NFL:

3 – Steelers
4 – Dolphins
7 – Colts
7 – Rams

They haven’t forced multiple turnovers in a game all season. That seven game streak forcing fewer than two turnovers is the longest by a Steelers defense since at least 1990. They had such streaks of five straight games in 1993 and 1999.

NFL note: The NFL’s longest streak forcing one or zero turnovers since 1990 is 12 games, by the Oakland Raiders, from 2003-2004.

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* – The Patriots enter Sunday’s game having picked up 15 or more first downs in their last 37 road games, one shy of the longest such streak since they began tracking the stat in 1991:

38 – 49ers (1991-1996)
37 – Patriots (2006-2011)
37 – Colts (2000-2004)

Note this: The Steelers have allowed fewer than 15 first downs in six of their last 17 home games. The most such games in the league in that span.

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* – There have been 10 fumbles in games involving the Steelers this season, and Pittsburgh has recovered only two of them. That 20% recovery rate is the second lowest in the league. Only KC (14%; 2-of-14) has had worse luck at falling on fumbles. The problem, from the Patriots’ point of view, is that Pittsburgh’s bad fumble luck will even out eventually, just hopefully starting after Sunday.

New England has recovered four of the eight fumbles in their games (50%), just about what you would expect.

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* – 54% of kickoff returns by the Steelers have gone for 30 or more yards, easily the highest percentage in the league so far:

54% – Steelers
38% – Texans
38% – Broncos

The Patriots have allowed only 2-of-22 opponent kickoff returns to break 30 yards (10%).

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* – After scoring a club record nine return touchdowns last season, the Patriots are one of only seven teams without one this season.

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* – Here’s another stat that just doesn’t sound like it would apply to Pittsburgh: So far in 2011, the Steelers have lost 127 yards on quarterback sacks and sacked opposing quarterbacks into 114 sack yards lost. That’s a “net sack yards” of -13. If it holds, this would be the fifth season out of the last seven that the Steelers have had a negative “net sack yards”.

The Patriots are currently at -3 net sack yards. They’ve finished in positive territory following each of the last seven seasons, as have the Colts, who are at -16 at the moment.

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* – Wes Welker already has 42 yards after catches in the Red Zone this season, which puts him on pace for 112 such yards this season. Since they began tracking the stat in 1992, the NFL record for Red Zone YAC yards in a season by a wide receiver is 81, by Steve Smith of the 2005 Carolina Panthers. The Patriots’ club record is 69 yards, set by Welker last season.

Note this: Actually, Welker already has 397 overall YAC yards this season, which would already be the 9th best season by a Patriots wide receiver since 1992. He’s on pace for 1,058 YAC yards this year, which would not only break the NFL record for wide receivers since 1992 (810 by Steve Smith, 2005 Panthers), but would break the record regardless of position (930 by Marshall Faulk of the 1999 Rams).

Note this too: As much success as Patriots’ receivers (especially Welker) have had gaining yards after catches this year, Pittsburgh is pretty stingy about giving up big gains (more than 20 yards) after catches. Only 1.6% of opponent catches have included 21 or more YAC yards, the third lowest/best percentage in the NFL:

1.0% – Ravens
1.2% – Lions
1.6% – Steelers

The Steelers led the league last season, allowing 21+ YAC yards on just 2.0% of opponent catches.

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* – Rushing in the trenches: When it comes to the running game, there are the runs that gain 10 or more yards, and then there are the “grinder” runs where no big gain is possible, but you’ve got to get whatever yards that you can. Well, the Patriots are averaging an NFL high 3.22 yards this season on rushes that gain less than 10 yards:

3.22 – Patriots
3.17 – Cardinals
3.07 – Saints

The Patriots were very efficient in this area last season as well, ranking second with a 3.02 average. Only the Jets (3.15) were better.

Note this: The Steelers defense was 7th best at limiting these gains last season, allowing an average of 2.34 yards. But so far this season, they’ve allowed a 2.94 average on “grinder” rushing plays, LAST in the league:

2.94 – Steelers
2.93 – Packers
2.86 – Colts

So keep your eye on whether the Patriots can turn those “cloud of dust” rushes into three or four yard gains rather then just one or two yard pickups.

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* – During the entire 2010 season, Steelers’ opponents began 37 possessions at or inside their own 20-yard-line and they wound up scoring four touchdowns and one field goal on those possessions. Over the first seven weeks of the 2011 season, their opponents have started 21 drives at or inside their 20, and have scored four touchdowns and one field goal on those drives.

Note this: So far this season, New England’s offense has started 17 drives at or inside their own 20-yard-line… and they’ve scored four touchdowns and one field goal on those possessions.

Note this too: Patriots’ opponents have started 23 drives at or inside their 20-yard-line (4th most in the league) and an NFL high SEVEN of them (30.4%) have ended in touchdowns. Last year, New England’s defense allowed only two touchdowns out of 35 opponent drives (5.7%) starting at or inside their 20.

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* – The Patriots are allowing an average of 9.0 points in the fourth quarter this season, the highest average in the league. Since 1960, the Patriots have NEVER allowed the most fourth quarter points in any single season. They’ve allowed the second most such points once, in 1993.

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* – NFL nuggets: Philadelphia has won 12 straight games coming off their bye week… The Dolphins are the only NFL team that has not scored a touchdown from 20+ yards yet. Green Bay leads the league with nine such touchdowns and a league leading 57% of Jacksonville’s points (48-of-84) have come from outside the 20. Problem is, 27 of those long-range points have come on field goals… Baltimore is averaging a league high 9.8 points in the first quarter this season, but only 16.0 points over the final three quarters… Cleveland has had all sorts of trouble coming out of the locker room, getting outscored 34-3 in the first quarter and 29-6 in the third quarter this year. They’ve outscored their opponents 88-57 in the second and fourth quarters… The Bears are the only team that has yet to be flagged for pass interference this season… Among all rushers with at least 50 attempts this season, the leader in average rushing yards after contact is a quarterback, the Panthers’ Cam Newton (3.2). He’s followed by the Vikings’ Adrian Peterson (3.0), and another Panther, DeAngelo Williams (2.9).

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Enjoy your NFL weekend!

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