What to Watch For: Patriots vs. Steelers
Friday, November 01, 2013
An old friend, so to speak, comes into Foxboro for a visit Sunday. But the Pittsburgh team playing the Patriots doesn't look much like the familiar foe that has battled New England for Super Bowl berths in the recent past.
This Steeler team is battling just to get back to .500. And they've got some road to travel before getting there.
Pittsburgh (2-5) opened the season with four straight losses, their worst start in 45 years. After picking up two ego-soothing wins, their fortunes took a nose-dive again a week ago with a 21-18 loss at Oakland...which included a 93-yard TD run by Raiders' QB Terrelle Pryor on the first play from scrimmage. It was the longest TD run by a quarterback in NFL history.
Very un-Steel Curtain-like.
While Pittsburgh and New England have each done their share of beating up on each other - the Steelers won the last meeting in 2011 25-17 at Heinz Field, and also won 33-10 the last time they played at Gillette in 2008 - the Patriots have big wins in 2001 and 2004 that led to Super Bowl victories. New England is 6-2 this year despite not having much in the way of healthy, seasoned personnel. Pittsburgh also is short on health, and perhaps a bit over-seasoned up and down the roster.
The Steelers' troubles have started on the offensive side of the ball, as a battered and bruised offensive line has had difficulty keeping QB Ben Roethlisberger off of the turf, and a hard time opening holes for the backs. The backs, Le'veon Bell and LaRod Stephens-Howling, have been hurt...although Bell has returned and the rookie is beginning to show his draft worthiness. The receivers can't catch a cold, and the defense has the runs - as in allowing them. Three times they've allowed two or more rushing TD's in a game, when they had never given up more than ONE in a game over the past three seasons.
Plus, they're aging by the minute. The secondary, led by Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark, has been a step slow. They've limited yards, but they aren't forcing turnovers.
It's a different look and situation altogether for Pittsburgh, still led by the more-than-capable Roethlisberger. But with an offense that has managed only 11 touchdowns in 28 quarters of play, it's a bit of a puzzle as to how they might get back into the AFC North race.
A puzzle the Patriots hope is still missing a few pieces when the old foes renew acquaintances this Sunday.
Up the tempo
Keeping Tom Brady clean and off of the turf needs to be Mission One for the Patriots offensive line, after allowing 17 sacks over the past four weeks. Pittsburgh has struggled with the run, and knowing what everyone in the free world knows about beating New England (by getting to Brady early and often), emphasizing the ground game seems to be an edge the Pats can use. Throw in a short, up tempo passing game to keep the Steelers' pressure at bay - especially with Marcus Cannon taking over on the line for the injured Sebastian Vollmer (out for the year with a broken leg) - and the Patriots can keep Pittsburgh's strength from causing trouble.
Focus on 7
Sure, scoring touchdowns rather than settling for field goals is always a good thing. And even though Stephen Gostkowski has been on target, seven beats three every time. But the focus for the Patriots "D" needs to be on Pittsburgh's Number 7, Roethlisberger. Even with the scoring struggles, Roethlisberger can still make plays with his ability to throw downfield, quick feet and strength. Since the running game hasn't produced much, the QB has had to shoulder the load. Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown are frequent targets. But focus on Number 7, and don't let him beat you.
Take it away
One of the major differences between winning teams and losing teams isn't so much the yardage given up - it's the turnovers they create. Or don't create. Pittsburgh is -9 in takeaways, while the Patriots are at +7. The Steelers did force three turnovers last week against Oakland (they have five for the entire season), but they still lost the game. If New England forces Pitt to make mistakes, and takes advantage by scoring, there's little this version of the Steelers can do to change their current trend.
Patriots 30, Steelers 20
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