Patriots at Steelers
Tonight, 8:20, Channel 7 (Line: Steelers by 4 1/2)
When the Patriots runThere’s no way to sugar-coat it. The Patriots will struggle to move the ball on the ground tonight. Pittsburgh nose tackle Casey Hampton (6 feet 1 inch, 325 pounds) is powerful and physical and will lock up multiple blockers, allowing the immensely talented quartet of linebackers room to seek and destroy running backs. The inside men are James Farrior and Lawrence Timmons. Farrior is tough and rangy. He has the strength to take on bigger blockers and the speed to make plays from sideline to sideline. Timmons is a quick and explosive tackler. The outside guys are James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. Harrison is athletic and versatile and plays with a lot of emotion. Harrison dissects plays quickly and delivers ferocious hits. Woodley has a nice blend of speed and power and will lower the boom. Patriots running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis has shown flashes this season but has yet to prove he can be a consistent workhorse. He has good body lean and toughness, but he lacks speed and patience and too often runs into his own blockers. Danny Woodhead has impressive quickness and vision and almost always makes positive yards. However, he doesn’t have the bulk to carry 20 times a game, particularly against a defense as brutal as Pittsburgh’s. Sammy Morris? Is he still on the roster? Look for the Patriots to run some reverses with Aaron Hernandez and Brandon Tate to keep the linebackers honest.
When the Patriots passTom Brady generally plays his best in big games, so expect a big effort tonight. Brady and the Patriots offensive line are coming off horrendous performances in Cleveland. Brady will be fiery and efficient as he goes about attacking a Steeler defense that will be without stud defensive end Aaron Smith and probably Brett Keisel. Brady won’t have a lot of time (even if the O-line performs at a high level), so it’s imperative for his receivers to get clean breaks and get open quickly. Otherwise, it will be another night of watching Brady deliver spikes at his receiver’s feet. Wes Welker has yet to have a Wes Welker game. If he can shake the press coverage, it will go a long way in helping Brady get into an early rhythm and open up some outside routes for Deion Branch and Brandon Tate. Branch’s quickness was clearly affected by hamstring woes the last two weeks, and if he’s even a tick slow tonight, the Steelers will punish him. The rookie tight ends have been good, bad, and ugly. Aaron Hernandez has great athleticism and hands, while Rob Gronkowski has tremendous size and strength. Pittsburgh corners Ike Taylor (he specializes in jamming at the line) and Bryant McFadden (he’s smart and aggressive) are excellent one-on-one defenders. Safeties Troy Polamalu (he’s simply awesome) and Ryan Clark (he has excellent recognition skills) cover a lot of ground.
When the Steelers runRashard Mendenhall is an unknown to most Patriots fans, as he has yet to face New England in his two-plus seasons. Thick and muscular, Mendenhall (5 feet 10 inches, 225 pounds) is a tough runner with excellent vision. He is at his best when he cuts once, finds a lane, and blows through it. While not blessed with elite speed or great moves, Mendenhall gets the job done by bobbing and weaving through the first and second line of defenses and using raw power to punish defenders in the secondary. He sometimes runs too upright and will take big hits. Definitely an old-school back, Mendenhall can wear defenses down with his relentless style. Mewelde Moore (5-11, 209) is shifty and speedy. Elusive in the open field with tremendous acceleration, Moore provides a nice change-of-pace from Mendenhall. The Steelers offensive line has been ravaged by injuries, but there are still some standouts. Rookie center Maurkice Pouncey (6-4, 304) is fast off the snap and has excellent balance and strength. He plays with an edge and finishes his blocks. He created a lot of running room for Tim Tebow at Florida. Left guard Chris Kemoeatu (6-3, 344) is tough and surly, although he’s listed as doubtful. Right guard Trai Essex (6-4, 324) has speed and balance but is inconsistent and lacks power. New England’s front seven was gashed last week. Expect veterans Vince Wilfork (superior speed and power) and Jerod Mayo (superior instincts and power) to be at their best.
When the Steelers passBen Roethlisberger is extraordinarily frustrating to play against. At 6 feet 5 inches, 241 pounds, he is a master improviser who is quicker on his feet than any man his size has a right to be. Just when it looks like a defender has him lined up, Roethlisberger either sidesteps out of the pocket or slides off the tackle. Being able to buy this extra time is crucial to Big Ben’s success, as it allows his receivers to break free of coverage and create something out of nothing. That being said, Roethlisberger will take his share of hits, but he almost always gets right back up, and it rarely affects his psyche. Hines Ward has long been Roethlisberger’s favorite target. Ward has excellent awareness and is adept at adjusting to broken plays and working his way back to bail out Roethlisberger. Ward lacks size and speed but is an excellent route runner and a tenacious blocker. Mike Wallace is the deep threat. Blessed with remarkable speed and acceleration, Wallace also has strong hands. He’s not a great route runner, though, and isn’t smooth in and out of his cuts. Antwaan Randle El has an explosive first step and good hands but lacks consistency. Tight end Heath Miller is a big target with soft hands. New England’s big-hitting safeties will be counted on to help corners Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington, both of whom are getting better but still give up too many big plays.
Steelers' key player
He’s one of a kind, but you’ll swear there are two or three of him on the field tonight. He’s everywhere. On a team where there are bigger dudes and harder hitters, he is still the one opponents fear most. And his hair is perfect.
How he beats you: With great versatility. Polamalu puts the “strong’’ in strong safety, and he’ll do damage playing near the box and taking on running backs. But he also has the speed and cover skills to defend the pass, too.
How to shut him down: By finding him and going the other way. The Steelers love to move him all over the field to disguise their coverage. The quicker Tom Brady spots him, the better for the Patriots.
Steelers' keys to victory1. Power play: Take a page out of the Browns playbook and run Rashard Mendenhall ragged until the Patriots prove they can stop him — or at least slow him.
2. Blitzburgh: Bring the heat from every angle, particularly up the A-gap (between the center and guards) because New England’s backs have trouble picking off these rushers.
3. Pressing needs: The corners have to jam Wes Welker and Deion Branch at the line to disrupt their routes and Tom Brady’s timing.
Patriots' keys to victory1. Hospital Ward: Thug Hines Ward before he thugs you. He’s a playmaker, pure and simple. If you don’t beat on him early and often, you’ll be seeing that obnoxious grin all night.
2. Hit squad: The front seven has to fill the gaps and maintain their edges to cut off Rashard Mendenhall’s escape routes. Then they have to make Mendenhall cry.
3. Fun and gun: The more shotgun, the better. Tom Brady needs the extra time to survey the field and find the mismatches.