By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots are at home again to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday afternoon at 4:25 p.m.
The game will be televised on CBS with their top crew of Jim Nantz doing the play-by-play and Phil Simms with the in-game analysis in the nationally televised game.
The Patriots (6-2) beat the Dolphins 27-17 last week scoring 24 unanswered points in the second half and look to enter the bye week on an up note. After playing an ugly first half on both sides of the ball, the team was able to turn things around and dominate the final 30 minutes.
The Steelers (2-5), lost last week in Oakland 21-18, dropping them to last place in the AFC North. This is very unfamiliar terrain for Pittsburgh to be navigating and they want to reach their half-way point by climbing back in the mix.
We here at PatsFans.com are going to try something a little bit different this season. Our new weekly column, the “Razor’s Edge” gives a quick break down on some of the key matchups of the game and what to look for in how the game plays out.
The Patriots and Steelers have met 26 times all-time with the Steelers leading the overall series 15-11. The teams have met only seven times in Foxboro with the Steelers holding a 4-3 lead here.
The teams last met in October of 2011 with the Steelers dominating the game but not the scoreboard, winning by a score of 25-17. Ben Roethlisberger had a big game riddling the Patriots secondary for 365 yards and the Steelers defense under Dick Lebeau shut down New England, holding them to less than 250 yards total.
The Patriots offense remains a work in progress, the entire unit has still yet to take the field together yet in 2013 although the wide receivers and tight ends all got to take the field last week. It made little difference however as the first half was a disastrous one for the Patriots.
In the second half, the Patriots went to Stevan Ridley more and that seemed to spark the unit as they scored 17 unanswered points in the 3rd quarter, their first touchdowns in the third quarter of the season. But the passing game was still stuck in neutral only gaining 116 yards as third downs remain a big problem as the team could only convert 2 of 10 third downs Sunday.
Patriots RBs vs Steelers Front Seven- Edge Patriots
The Patriots running game is going to be key on whether or not they win this game. Stevan Ridley in the past two games has been riding the bench in the early going playing very little in the first halves of the Jets and Dolphins games. Whether by design or a disciplinary move remains to be seen but he needs to carry the ball more than the 25 carries he has in the past two games.
With the passing offense still scuffling, the Patriots will need to run the ball to remain balanced and to set-up play action passing. Ridley is the team’s best running back and has superior vision and hits the holes with better burst than either LaGarrette Blount or Brandon Bolden. Blount is more of a 4th quarter closer but their roles have been reversed in the past few weeks.
Pittsburgh isn’t quite as stout against the run as they’ve been in the past. They are giving up 121 yards per game, which is far below their normal level of play. Pittsburgh has a solid defensive line with Brett Keisel, Steve McLendon and Cameron Heyward but they have had issues at times this season in the run game.
One noteworthy item is that rookie linebacker Jarvis Jones has lost his starting job for the time being to veteran Jason Worilds. The Patriots have the capability to grind some yardage here, but OC Josh McDaniels will have to stick with the run and mix it up. The play-calling lately has been far too predictable.
Patriots WRs vs Steelers Secondary- Edge Steelers
The passing game in New England continues to be stuck in mediocrity, Tom Brady has struggled to find a rhythm with the new wide receivers and Rob Gronkowski has just returned to game action after a nine month layoff. Brady has only 2 TD passes and 4 INTs in the past 4 games.
This week the rookie wide receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins along with veteran Austin Collie will be working against experienced veteran corners Ike Taylor and William Gay and they’ll find the going tough.
Look for the Patriots to try to clear out room with Gronkowski going down the seam and having Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola crossing underneath in the middle of the field.
Pittsburgh remains stout against the pass allowing only 181 yards per game good for 2nd in the NFL. If they can figure out how to generate some better pressure against the QB (only 10 sacks) and create more turnovers, they’ll be even better.
The Patriots have been struggling protecting Brady the past four games (17 sacks), so don’t be shocked to see Dick LeBeau dial it up more this week especially with RT Sebastian Vollmer being lost for the season with a broken leg. In 2011, the Steelers showed blitz by laid back in coverage and completely shut down the passing game.
The Patriots defense has continued to play at a high level, even thru the numerous injuries they’ve suffered this season. While they’ve struggled against the run without Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Tommy Kelly, overall the team is still playing at a very high level and shut out Miami for the final 30 minutes on Sunday while generating 6 sacks.
They also held the Dolphins to under 200 yards passing and this was without CB Aqib Talib and part of the game without corner Kyle Arrington who left with a groin injury. Wednesday’s news was good as everyone including Talib and Kelly were back at practice so, while maybe not Sunday but after the bye week, the defense should be back close to strength.
Steelers RBs vs NE Front Seven- Edge Patriots
Pittsburgh has not run the football well this season, and are averaging under 69 yards per game. They have gotten back rookie Le’Veon Bell however,who was hurt earlier in the season. But even Bell to this point is averaging only 3.3 yards per carry.
The Patriots injuries has left a huge hole in the middle of the rush defense. The past four games they have allowed an average of 156 yards per game. Rookie defensive tackles Joe Vellano and Chris Jones have played well rushing the passer but have been pushed around in the running game. This issue had to be addressed so…
The team worked a trade with Philadelphia and brought in DT/NT Isaac Sopoaga that will help stem the tide. He’s a big, physical run stuffer who should be a two-down presence in the middle which would allow Jones to come in on passing downs. It’s unknown if Kelly will be able to go this week, but Sopoaga’s entrance combined with Pittsburgh’s struggles gives the Patriots a slight edge.
Steelers WRs vs NE Secondary-Edge Steelers
The Steelers passing game plenty of weapons for QB Ben Roethlisberger with Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Jericho Cotchery and TE Heath Miller. The last time the teams met in 2011, Brown and particularly Miller had very big games.
Bill Belichick smiled when asking about Miller and the game in ’11 stating, “He killed us. I mean, everybody hurt us in that game (a Steelers 25-17 win that wasn’t as close as the score). … Thanks for reminding me, I’d forgotten all about it.”
Pittsburgh’s issue has been protecting Roethlisberger who’s been sacked 27 times in seven games. Making matters worse is that both starting guards Ramon Foster (concussion) and David DeCastro (ankle) were forced to leave last week’s game.
The Patriots may have to go at this one without both Talib and Arrington in the secondary as both were limited in the team’s practice on Wednesday. With so many different weapons to pick from, it will be a tough matchup for the defense.
One manner of dealing with the mismatches in the secondary may be by dialing up more pressure on the quarterback, something they did last week with corner blitzes, but with a QB as big and strong as Roethlisberger it may fall to LBs Dont’a Hightower and Brandon Spikes.
Special Teams- Edge Patriots
Both kicking games and kickers have been solid this year, Stephen Gostkowski for the Patriots is having a Pro-Bowl type season and Pittsburgh’s Shaun Suisham has been very good, although he did miss two kicks last week in Oakland.
Punt return games as well as coverage units are again both very solid with Antonio Brown and Julian Edelman giving each team the opportunity for the big play. Pittsburgh gets the edge in the kick return game with the dangerous Sanders over the moribund Patriots return game with LaGarrette Blount. However Leon Washington did return to practice so perhaps the team will finally get a boost there.
The Patriots get the big advantage in the punting game, rookie Ryan Allen has been outstanding averaging 46.2 yards per punt and a 40.4 net average. Former Pats punter Zoltan Mesko struggled and was released on Tuesday and the team signed 10 year vet Matt McBriar.
Patriots Player to Watch- Stevan Ridley
As mentioned above, Ridley should be the Patriots featured running back, he gained over 1200 yards last season and is the best of the three running backs the Patriots are using by committee this year.
The Patriots are going to need Ridley at his best on Sunday; Pittsburgh’s defense should have no problem completely stopping the passing game of New England if they don’t have the balance of the running game and the threat of running the ball to open up play action.
Ridley has been largely unused the past few weeks getting only 11 carries for 50 yards against the Jets and 14 carries for 79 yards against the Dolphins. That needs to change this week. The Patriots running game is much more effective with Ridley carrying the load earlier in the game and with Blount in the role of a closer late in the game.
It is unknown as to why the Patriots haven’t used Ridley much early in the last two contests, but that needs to change. And his success or lack of it on Sunday will go a long way in determining who wins the football game.