Show and tell: Steelers eye Giants WR who tips off plays

Once a week, a group of Pittsburgh Steelers defenders get with team scouts to scour the opposing team for tendencies — or, in some cases, telling signs.
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Safety Mike Mitchell, who organized the growing meeting, might learn from the scouts how a specific player struggles to get off jams or gets flustered easily.

For Sunday’s matchup against the New York Giants, Mitchell caught something specific with a New York playmaker.
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“I can’t use the name, but there’s a receiver that you know where every time he touches his gloves, it’s a pass,” Mitchell said. “Got that from a scout. It’s 100 percent. Little things like that.”

Steelers safety Mike Mitchell meets with scouts each week to look at opposing teams’ tendencies. Odell Beckham, Sterling Shepard and Victor Cruz are the Giants’ primary receivers.

In the short term, very little should change for the Patriots, who are huge favorites to win the AFC East. At 9-2, their closest competition is the 7-4 Dolphins, who have won six straight games with the past five coming by seven points or fewer. FPI gives the Patriots a 97.7 percent chance of winning their division, more than any other division leader. Even if their true team strength drops with Gronkowski and FPI can’t yet realize that, the Patriots have a two-game lead and the tiebreaker on the Dolphins with five games left.

This should really benefit the trio of contenders in the AFC West more than the Dolphins or Bills. The Patriots currently have a 68.5 percent chance of coming away with the top seed in the AFC, per FPI, even though their 9-2 record is identical to Oakland’s. The Raiders are in second at 22.8 percent, mostly thanks to concern about their end-of-season slate, with three road games to come against their AFC West brethren. If the Chiefs beat the Raiders next Thursday and move into first place in the West, they would suddenly be a threat to the Pats, given that the Chiefs would then be 7-2 in the conference, lurking just behind the Pats, who are currently 7-1 in those games.

The margin of error for everyone on the Patriots, actually, is dramatically reduced by the Gronkowski injury. An offensive line that has been better this year after the return of legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia needs to keep things up; right tackle Marcus Cannon, in particular, can’t revert to the guy who made Patriots fans groan before an impressive 2016 season. The Patriots’ pass defense, a dismal 28th in DVOA heading into this week, can’t allow the likes of Ryan Fitzpatrick to post 115.2 passer ratings.

And of course, as it always does, it comes down to Brady to elevate his game without his best receiver around. As Chris Wesseling of NFL Network noted in November, Brady has been a superstar with Gronkowski and basically a league-average passer without him. Here are Brady’s numbers since Gronk entered the league in 2010 in games with and without his longtime tight end.