This Sunday, the 6-2 New England Patriots take on the 2-5 Pittsburgh Steelers on CBS at 4:25 pm EST at Gillette Stadium. Jim Nantz and Phil Simms will be loaning their melodious tones to the national broadcast, and Simms will do his best not to be disappointed in Tom Brady.
Well, here we are. On a team beset by injuries, disappointing play both from rookie receivers and the star quarterback, and one of the more tumultuous offseasons in past memory, the New England Patriots stand at 6-2, firmly on top of the AFC East. Call it Belichick Jedi powers, call it weird winning habits, call it a rapidly improving pass defense, call it a weak schedule and weaker AFC East (ruh roh), but they’re still 6-2.
Last week’s game was pretty indicative of the season as a whole: super ugly first half, gutsy second half comeback fueled purely on the backs of their young defensive talent (Logan Ryan, Chandler Jones, Devin McCourty) and their best running back (Stevan “Van Riddles” Ridley) bursting out on some nice runs.
The Steelers, on the other hand, are coming off a rough 21-18 loss to the Oakland Raiders that was marred by weird coaching decisions and even weirder referee decisions. At 2-5, this is not the Steelers that we’re used to.
That being said, this is a rough matchup for the Patriots. Despite their offensive struggles, the Steelers’ defense is still sneaky good, especially against the pass. And you would be foolish to ever count out Big Ben Roethlisberger.
Here are some things to watch coming in this week’s game.
Key Matchup: Stevan Ridley vs. Lawrence Timmons
Alright, so the Steelers are 2nd in the NFL in pass defense, only giving up 181 yards per game through the air. And despite the returns of Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola, this Patriots pass offense is still a work in progress. However, against the run, the Steelers are pretty terrible, giving up 121.9 yards per game, good for 27th in the league.
What does that spell? V-A-N-R-I-D-D-L-E-S.
You better believe Belichick and McDaniels know this is the Steelers’ weak spot. And if, God willing, they permanently release Ridley from the doghouse (seriously what happened last week?), we could finally see a big game from the third year back. LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden, while fine in their own right, aren’t anywhere near Ridley in terms of explosiveness.
Who’s the one Steeler who could really shut down Ridley? Lawrence Timmons. The 27-year old linebacker is the one consistent disruptive force in the Steelers’ run defense, piling up 59 combined tackles and an interception and a forced fumble to boot.
That being said, Timmons is still healing a broken hand, something that clearly bothered him last week against the Raiders. If he’s anywhere under 100%, look for Ridley to pound the ball behind that Pats O-line with little trepidation, and put up some big numbers.
3 Pre-Game Questions
- What will Isaac Sopoaga bring to the D-Line?
Good news? Steelers rush offense has been pretty terrible so far, putting up less than 70 yards a game thus far. Across the board, the Steelers’ backs (Le’veon Bell, Felix Jones, Jonathan Dwyer) have been pretty miserable, putting up a collective 3.32 yards per carry.
Bad news? The Patriots run defense has been god-awful after Vince Wilfork succumbed to his season-ending injury, giving up 156.5 yds/game since then. Last week, they made Lamar Miller and Donald Thomas look really good, which is no easy feat.
Potentially good news? The Patriots welcome Isaac Sopoaga to the team. The former 49er is here for one reason, to bolster that running D in Wilfork’s absence, and he’s been pretty good at it in the past. The big dude (6-3, 330) will at the very least be a fun unmovable presence, and allow Chris Jones and Joe Vellano to be their wildly overachieving selves and get to the QB. It may take a while for he and Belichick to get on the same page, but if somehow he gets there this week, he could have a good impact.
2. Can Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich get to Roesthlisberger?
Same old story for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Their offensive line is their weakest point. Yes, David DeCastro is one of the great feel-good stories of the year, bouncing back from injury to put up an All-Star level year, but the rest of the line has been underperforming.
The Patriots’ pass-rushers have been stepping up their game of late, especially Chandler Jones, who has 6.5 sacks on the year, and has been making plays all over the field. Rob Ninkovich had his best game against the Dolphins, and will have a field day against Marcus Gilbert. Joe Vellano and Chris Jones may be slowed down by DeCastro but he can’t do it all by himself.
One hitch in the plan? Roethlisberger is a big dude, and nearly impossible to bring down. So while the Patriots maybe won’t find the same success if they send someone like Logan Ryan after Big Ben, if the Patriots are persistent and keep getting to him, they might pull this win out.
3. Can the Pats offensive players stay healthy in this game?
Seriously. Ryan Clark. Troy Polamalu.
Prediction: Patriots 30, Steelers 20
The Patriots have only gotten to 30 points twice this season, against the Falcons and the Saints, and I see this game going very similarly to those. Both of those defenses had veteran linebackers, weaker secondaries, and a strong pass rush. The difference? The Steelers have nowhere near as explosive an offense as either Atlanta or New Orleans.
I see Brady getting only one passing touchdown, as the game plan will be to only go in the air sporadically. I see McDaniels taking the leash off of Van Riddles, who will relish the opportunity to put the offense on his back. I see the Pats defense keeping their streak alive and forcing a turnover.
This game does worry me a bit. Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger are really good, and they want this win desperately. Clark and Polamalu are nearing the twilights of their careers and will love the opportunity to put some licks on the Pats. But their inability to stop the run and the weakness of their offensive line will eventually do them in. Pats beat the spread.