If you have Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in your fantasy league, now is a good week to start him, based on the way the Patriots have defended -- or not defended -- opposing quarterbacks this year.
It's hard to erase the memory of the Patriots being bowled over like candlepins last week in Cleveland by Peyton Hillis and the ground-and-pound Browns. With always rugged and run-ready Pittsburgh on tap Sunday, there is no doubt a lot of focus on the Patriots' ability to physically stand up to the Steelers. But repelling Pittsburgh's rushing attack won't be the Patriots' biggest problem on Sunday night in the Steel City. They're capable of mud wrestling in the trenches with the Steelers.
Passers vs. Patriots this season
The Patriots' youthful defense has certainly made strides and come up with timely turnovers and clutch stops on the way to a 6-2 record, but they rank 29th in the NFL in pass defense, surrendering 268.9 yards per game.
The Patriots' pass defense is easier to pick on than the Miami Heat.
Every opposing passer the Patriots have faced has completed at least 68 percent of his passes, and the defense ranks last in the league in completion percentage, allowing 70.1 percent of passes to find their intended target. By comparison, Saints signal-caller Drew Brees currently leads the league with a measly 69.8 completion percentage.
Another condemning statistic for the New England defense is what it has done when it has gotten teams in third-and-long situations, which are usually must-pass scenarios. The Patriots rank second to last in the NFL when it comes to stopping opponents on conversions of third and 10-plus. They've allowed nine conversion in 26 such opportunities.
The passing problems for the Patriots stem from a consistent lack of pressure and pass rush, inexperience and inconsistency in the secondary, and the fact their inside linebackers are not good in coverage. Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes are jackhammers in the middle, but they're less equipped to cover.
Containing prolific passers was a problem for the Patriots last year in the second half of the season. Combined, Brees, Houston's Matt Schaub and incomparable Colts QB Peyton Manning completed 66 percent of their passes (70 of 106) for 1,001 yards and 11 touchdowns with three interceptions against New England in a trio of Patriots' losses that helped frame a disappointing season.
Coach Bill Belichick must find a way to make the skies less friendly for opponents this season, or the season could start going south for the winter with Roethlisberger and Manning on tap in the next two games. You can survive serving up yards to Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Buffalo Bills, but not against teams like the Steelers and Colts.
The scary part when looking at some of the Patriots' pass defense numbers is that they've only faced one elite QB so far this season, San Diego's Philip Rivers. We can debate the merits and mythology of Brett Favre's career until New Year's, but the fact is he is not performing like an upper echelon passer this season. Rivers, who leads the league in passing yards, is.
Playing against the Patriots without his two starting wide receivers and with his Pro Bowl tight end hobbled, Rivers still managed to complete 34 of 50 passes for 336 yards and a touchdown, with one interception. His team scored every time it touched the ball in the second half, save for a potential game-winning field goal that went awry. Rivers was the third passer to top 300 yards this season against the Patriots, joining Cincinnati's Carson Palmer and Chad Henne, who just got benched in Miami.
It's never a good sign when a quarterback who lost his job has a 300-yard game against you on his ledger.
Roethlisberger will certainly have better weapons than Rivers did in wily wideout Hines Ward and second-year receiver Mike Wallace, who is sporting a gaudy 23-yards-per-catch average. Roethlisberger is the best in the league at extending plays and improvising passes. That leads to big plays from Big Ben, who has completed five passes of 35 yards or more since returning from his four-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy. He is averaging 8.41 yards per pass attempt, not far off from the 8.6 he averaged last year, when he threw for a career-high 4,328 yards.
The Patriots have an opportunity to start the second half of the season off with a huge win. Pittsburgh and Roethlisberger represent a huge test.
It's pass or fail for the Patriots.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.