By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots (5-1) travel to Heinz Field for the second season in a row to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers (5-2) in a meeting of two of the AFC’s better teams. Both teams come in with three game winning streaks, the Patriots from beating Oakland, New York Jets and Dallas while Pittsburgh comes in with wins over the Tennessee, Jacksonville and Arizona.
The two teams have had quite a few good games in the past few years but since Tom Brady has taken over for the Patriots, they’ve enjoyed the better of the success. Overall the series is led by Pittsburgh with a 14-11 record but New England has won seven of the past nine including two conference championship games in Pittsburgh.
This one should be no different so with that in mind, it’s on to the matchups:
Patriots Running Game: The Patriots running game has been getting better as the season wears on, a significant stat since the weather may affect the passing game as the winter nears. BenJarvus Green-Ellis had a very solid game a year ago in Pittsburgh with 87 yards on 18 carries for a 4.7 YPC as the Patriots spread out the Steelers defense and ran from those formations.
Given that train of thought, they may attempt to do the same this year, with BJGE and Stevan Ridley, who has a bit more of a burst looking to catch Pittsburgh in a mismatch. The Steelers have given up a lot more yardage on the ground this season (nearly 45 yards per game) than last year, and the main reason has been the injuries to the front seven. James Harrison has been out and will probably miss this week’s game. Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Chris Hoke have all missed a lot of time, although both Hoke and Hampton may play on Sunday.
Expect the Patriots to attempt the same thing, spread them out and stay with the run, regardless whether it’s effective early or not. Balance is the key here, if the offense remains balanced, it has so many weapons, it will be difficult to stop.
Patriots Passing Game: Tom Brady has enjoyed unparalleled success against the Steelers pass defense. Last season in Pittsburgh Brady spread out the defense and roasted them with quick passes that took advantage of the aggressiveness of S Troy Polamalu. The Patriots rolled up 39 points on the Steelers in a game that wasn’t as close as the 39-26 final score.
With no sacks, and little pressure Brady was able to find open receivers and the offense rolled. It will be interesting to see how the Steelers decide to cover Wes Welker, who has been on a roll this season. Sliding down CB Ike Taylor isn’t the best of options as Taylor would be playing in an unfamiliar position.
The keys for the Patriots will again be their big tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, Gronkowski was immense last year, catching 3 TDs. Hernandez was blanked in the game but will provide the matchup nightmares for the defense. WRs Deion Branch and Chad Ochocinco won’t be big parts of the passing game but will have to be able to chip in with those medium range receptions.
Pittsburgh is going to have to replace Harrison’s pass rush elsewhere, LaMarr Woodley, and possibly Cameron Heyward or Ziggy Hood will be looked upon to step up. We may say Polamalu blitz more this time around as Pittsburgh will look to disrupt the Patriots timing in the passing game. Bottom line, if Brady has time to throw, the Patriots will be hard to stop and he will shred them again.
Pittsburgh Running Game: The Steelers Rashard Mendenhall has been stepping up his game lately and the Pittsburgh rushing attack which was sputtering in the early going. Mendenhall ripped the underrated Jaguars defense for 146 yards two weeks ago and can be a factor in any game. Like the Pats’ Green-Ellis, he is not flashy but is steady and can get the tough yards inside.
The Patriots defensive line which is starting to get healthy is becoming much better at stopping the run. Vince Wilfork is always a force at stopping the run, now with Albert Haynesworth finally getting healthy; they are a powerful tandem stopping the run. Pittsburgh’s offensive line is banged up with Doug Legursky possibly missing the game and Chris Kemoatu and Marcus Gilbert both nursing injuries.
For the Patriots, it’s unsure if Jerod Mayo returns this week from injury, I would think not, but stranger things have happened. The key to the running game is the improved play of MLB Brandon Spikes. Spikes has been very good in run support the past few games and he’ll need to be active in this one. I don’t see the Steelers putting much stock in the running game in this one unless they get ahead. Then they’ll pound the ball to wear down the defense and open up play action. They’ll take the same tack as NE, mix it up to stay balanced and open things up in the passing game.
Pittsburg Passing Game: The Steelers are much more of a prolific passing team than in years past. Ben Roethlisberger has a home run threat in Mike Wallace every time he touches the ball. Wallace is averaging a ridiculous 20.3 yards per reception. In addition the Steelers Antonio Brown is benefitting from having Wallace opposite him to put up good numbers and have very good TE Heath Miller and WR Hines Ward who provide the steady underneath routes that consistently move the chains.
The Patriots pass defense was absolutely sieve-like the first three games but it has improved somewhat the past three games. That is coming from switching from man-to-man to more zone coverage and improved play from the defensive line. Andre Carter is coming into his own now, setting the edge on running plays and providing pressure on passing downs. Wilfork and Haynesworth were instrumental in collapsing the pocket against Dallas. They will need that kind of effort to put pressure on Roethlisberger and force some early throws and get sacks.
That is the weakness of the Pittsburgh passing game, not only are the OL men banged up but they are allowing a lot of sacks which gets the QB hit and banged up. Roethlisberger has been sacked 18 times this year, a key reason why he’s given up four fumbles. Of course part of the problem lies with Roethlisberger himself, he holds the ball a long time trying to make plays.
Key matchups here, Shaun Ellis, still recovering from off-season hip surgery against Marcus Gilbert and Andre Carter against Jonathan Scott/ Max Starks in the pass rushing department. Wallace will matchup with Devin McCourty and if he torches McCourty, then it will go a long way to winning the Steelers the game. Last season Wallace had 8 catches for 136 yards against the Patriots.
Pittsburgh is going to accumulate lots of yardage here; the key will be to making them get it in smaller chunks and forcing them into making mistakes or penalties that can stop drives.
Special Teams: The Patriots STs this year has been a mixed bag, overall their coverage units on kickoffs has been inconsistent at times, giving up way too much real estate. Their kick-off return game likewise has been nothing special. Julian Edelman, who should return this week, gives them a nice boost, especially in the punt return department.
For Pittsburgh, Brown has improved their play in the return game and will be looking to give his team a boost against a suspect Patriots kickoff coverage unit. Both punters are having excellent seasons; Daniel Sepulveda and Zoltan Mesko are averaging well over 45 yards per punt and are adept at pinning opponents deep.
The Patriots may have an edge in the kicking game; Stephen Gostkowski is recovered from his injury and has made 10 of 11 field goal attempts. Shaun Suisham is just 6 of 10 beyond 30 yards but part of that has to do with kicking in the difficult conditions of Heinz Field.
“X” Factors: The Patriots are coming off a bye week where they are 9-2 under Bill Belichick and for all the talk of this being a big game for both teams, the Steelers bigger game comes next week when they face Baltimore at home.
This really isn’t as big a game for Pittsburgh as the Baltimore game, not to say they are looking past this, they aren’t. But the media portraying this as a conference “must win” is ridiculous in October, as coach Mike Tomlin pointed out in his presser on Tuesday.
One big thing in the Patriots favor is the fact that Brady is so successful against Pittsburgh’s defense. The matchups favor NE and the last thing Tomlin wants is to get into a shootout with the Patriots offense. The other is the feeling that they have to score more than 30 points to win. If they get into that mindset, it will affect their game planning and could result in being too wide open.
Conclusions: This one should be a great game, two very good teams with a national television audience going at each other again. Last season, also in Heinz Field Brady shredded Pittsburgh in a 39-26 that was far closer on the score board than it was on the field. The Steelers will be looking for redemption and keep a three game winning streak going with the hated Ravens coming in next.
The Patriots will be looking to continue their own three game winning streak, this is the meat of their schedule with Pittsburgh, Giants, Jets, Eagles and the Chiefs up on the slate. But the Patriots under Belichick are never ones to get ahead of themselves. They focus from week to week and this one will be no different.
On offense, look for Brady to spread the Steelers out and pick their spots until they’re stopped. Hernandez, Gronkowski and Welker give them an advantage over the Pittsburgh secondary. While corners Ike Taylor and Bryant McFadden are playing very well, they are not elite corners, the Pittsburgh pass rush arguably the best, is reason for their success. Look no farther than Brady’s success as evidence of that, if NE keeps him upright, they are very successful. Brady will try to mix up the attack with Green-Ellis and Ridley to keep the Steelers off-balance.
The Steelers will likely attempt to stretch the field with Roethlisberger throwing deep balls to Wallace and Brown. And why not? McCourty has struggled this season and if Roethlisberger can freeze the secondary with play-action, it will open up the deep ball. The key for Pitt will be to protect the QB, something they’ve struggled in. The Patriots will be trying to get to Roethlisberger and make him throw earlier and to his secondary receivers. Pittsburgh will also run the ball to keep things balanced on offense, but both teams will look to pass first and run second.
The key for the Patriots defensively, give McCourty help over the top and take away Miller and Ward underneath. Right now, Ward is questionable with an injury but I would imagine he’ll play. I think they’ll attempt to limit those throws to Miller as they’ve done with Gates, Keller and Witten. They’ll give Wallace the underneath routes and try to force Pittsburgh to move down the field a piece at a time. This way they can try to either sack the QB or force Pittsburgh’s OL into a penalty to disrupt drives. The other key for the Patriots is to keep Roethlisberger in the pocket. Pressure him but keep him inside, when he breaks to the outside, he’s much more dangerous and much more accurate while on the run. His passes tend to sail on him when he remains in the pocket, he’s lethal when running around the perimeter.
Turnovers will be key here, Pittsburgh’s defense has only generated three so far this season, and will need one or two to help the cause. Both teams need to play mistake free football and keep their QB’s upright.
In the end however the Patriots passing game should once again find holes in the secondary. Last season it was Gronkowski, this year look for Hernandez to have a big game catching passes from Brady as the Patriots offense gives Dick LeBeau fits. Roethlisberger will also throw for a lot of yardage, possibly more than Brady but the Patriots balanced offense should be able to put this one away in the fourth quarter. Patriots 31-24