Patriots at Steelers
Today, 4:15 p.m., Channel 4 (Line: Patriots by 2 1/2)
When the Patriots runNew England has a stable of versatile (and, more important, healthy) tailbacks to run at the Steelers. BenJarvus Green-Ellis will get first crack at denting the Steel Curtain. Green-Ellis is a hard-charging, north-south runner who gives as much punishment as he takes. He won’t dazzle you with jukes and jives, but he will bowl you over. Rookie Stevan Ridley has impressed with his tough running and nonstop motor. Ridley shows good vision and the strength to break tackles. The ever-lovable Danny Woodhead has excellent quickness and burst. An exceptionally instinctive runner with extraordinary vision, Woodhead slips past defenders - and out of their grasp - quickly. His lack of size (5 feet 8 inches, 195 pounds) makes him hard to locate but it also makes him susceptible to big hits. Wily veteran Kevin Faulk is back. Another instinctive runner with good burst, Faulk reads his blocks well and has a nose for the sticks. New England’s interior three are playing at a high level. Center Dan Connolly is smart and efficient, left guard Logan Mankins has been his beastly self, and right guard Brian Waters has been a mobile monster. The Steelers’ run defense is spearheaded by nose tackle Casey Hampton. A smart, fiery, and instinctive player, Hampton has great strength and finds the ball quickly. He often draws double-teams, freeing space for Pittsburgh’s fearsome inside linebackers James Farrior and Lawrence Timmons to bring the pain.
When the Patriots passTom Brady has enjoyed much success against the Steelers, in large part because he recognizes defenses quickly, checks down to exploit favorable matchups, and gets rid of the ball quickly. All of these factors help negate Pittsburgh’s vaunted zone-blitzing schemes. Brady is blessed to have multiple receivers who are adept at getting open quickly and moving the chains. Option No. 1, of course, is Wes Welker. The incomparable slotman finds room quickly and catches most everything thrown his way. Twin tower tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez excel at getting open, as well. Gronkowski (6 feet 6 inches, 265 pounds) is a nightmare matchup because of his size and strength. Hernandez (6-1, 245) has receiver hands and a fullback mentality after the catch. These two will keep the outside linebackers busy and off Brady. Deion Branch controls the intermediate area with his fast feet and fluid routes. The deep ball hasn’t really been there this year, but the Steelers still must respect Matthew Slater’s speed. Pittsburgh has an above-average secondary led by the highly athletic, highly intelligent, and highly physical safety Troy Polamalu. Rare is the safety who can control a game, but Polamalu and Baltimore’s Ed Reed are such breeds. Polamalu has great instincts and is equally comfortable in coverage or blitzing. Top corners Ike Taylor (quick and explosive) and Bryant McFadden (smart and aggressive) will make plays.
When the Steelers runRashard Mendenhall carries the load for the Steelers. A thick, 5-foot-10-inch, 224-pounder, Mendenhall is a tough, muscular runner with excellent vision and patience. He moves well laterally, finds cutback lanes, and can slide off defenders and break tackles. He doesn’t have elite speed but shows good acceleration in the open field and will finish his runs with a thump. He has been bitten by the injury bug frequently. Isaac Redman (6-0, 230) is a rugged inside runner who thrives on contact. He lacks speed but has good power and will churn out yards after the initial hit. Mewelde Moore (5-11, 209) is a nifty change-of-pace back with quickness and burst. If he gets a clean crease, he will get to the secondary quickly and can be tough to bring down. Center Maurkice Pouncey (6-4, 304) is Pittsburgh’s best offensive lineman. Big, quick, and mobile, Pouncey gets off the ball and into his block quickly. Pouncey is smart, strong, and surly (think Logan Mankins) and never takes a play off. Left guard Chris Kemoeatu (6-3, 344) is wicked strong and will power through defenders and create running lanes. The Steelers will miss quick and athletic right guard Doug Legursky, who is out with a toe injury. New England’s tackle rotation of Vince Wilfork (he’s strong and swift), Albert Haynesworth (he’s big and powerful), and Kyle Love (he’s getting better and better) should dominate in the trenches.
When the Steelers passBig Ben Roethlisberger (6 feet 5 inches, 241 pounds) is one of the most frustrating players to defend because of his improvisational skills. Just when you think you have him bottled up, he slips out of the pocket (and out of tackles) and makes plays on the run. He’s so big and strong that even when defenders appear to have him wrapped up, he uses his superior arm strength to complete passes. He has taken more than his share of hits over the years but almost always answers the bell. Pressuring Roethlisberger is a must to protect New England’s struggling secondary. Roethlisberger has good weapons but his favorite, Hines Ward, has an ankle injury. If he can’t go, forgotten man Jerricho Cotchery (a fearless over-the-middle receiver) could see his first significant playing time. Outside receiver Mike Wallace (6-0, 199) can fly. He lacks strength, so knocking him around at the line is imperative to prevent him from taking off. Emmanuel Sanders (5-11, 180) is quick and has good hands but lacks bulk and isn’t a fan of the rough stuff. Tight end Heath Miller (6-5, 256) has exceptional hands and is a demon on third down. Miller gets off the line quickly and finds soft spots in a hurry. He senses when Roethlisberger is in trouble and comes back to the ball. Chipping Miller at the snap will help prevent him from getting into a comfort zone.
STEELERS’ KEY PLAYER : James Farrior
Even when not at full speed (calf injury), Farrior is the most consistent linebacker on a team loaded with talented ones. He is smart, athletic, and lets his play do the talking.
How he beats you: With brains and brawn. There isn’t a formation Farrior hasn’t seen, broken down, and neutralized. He has a nose for the ball and is almost always in the right place at the right time. Oh yeah, and his hits leave marks.
How to shut him down: Running the other way works. Sometimes. He has great lateral movement, so he will find the ball. But identifying him before the snap and adjusting accordingly is a good strategy.
STEELERS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Jam sessions: Disrupting the routes (and timing) of New England’s receivers is a must. If not, Tom Brady will once again have his way in the Steel City.
2. Outside force: Wide receiver Mike Wallace is a legitimate burner. Take repeated shots downfield, because there is nobody in the New England secondary who can consistently keep pace with Wallace.
3. Bring the wood: Let pass-rushing specialist LaMarr Woodley blitz at will. He has the power and moves to dominate any of the Patriots tackles one-on-one.
PATRIOTS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Battering rams: Another way to combat the zone blitz is to run the ball - particularly out of passing formations. Spread the wealth among the tailbacks to establish the run before going to the air.
2. Wrap him up: Ben Roethlisberger is the best quarterback in the NFL at extending plays with his feet. Make the first hit count - missed tackles killed the Patriots vs. the Bills - or he’ll come back and haunt you.
3. Get involved: It has become a tired story line, but it’s time to get Chad Ochocinco up and running. It’s getting close to fish-or-cut-bait time with this once-elite receiver.
Prediction: Patriots 28, Steelers 24