An old rivalry renews this Sunday, as the Pittsburgh Steelers are set to take on the New England Patriots. These two teams have been the AFC representative in the Super Bowl eight times since 2000, and they fill up two of the top three slots for most wins since 1994. Both squads have been a model of success, and of course, it is always fun to watch two of the greatest quarterbacks of the decade go at it, in Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady.
Despite being one of the most successful franchises of all time, the Steelers have struggled here in 2013. They are a measly 2-5, and they find themselves at the bottom of the AFC North. Like the Patriots, their run defense has been gashed, while the normally potent Pittsburgh offense has not produced in their normal dominant fashion. This does not mean that Belichick and company are not taking the Steel Men seriously, in fact, I am willing to bet a good deal of money that Belichick has done nothing but talk Pittsburgh up in practices this week. One of the worst things you can do as an NFL player is take a bad team for granted, because more often than not, that team will come out and steal a victory.
The Steelers are 30th in the league in rushing yards, which presents a terrific opportunity for the struggling Pats run defense to get on track. The Pittsburgh offense line has struggled to open up holes, and even when they have, the Steelers simply lack talent at the running back position. Le’Veon Bell is certainly a capable backup running back, but he is not starting running back material (he is only a rookie, so he has time). He has flashed talent, but it is obvious that he has more than a few things to work on.
The Patriots dealt for defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga this past week, in hopes of giving a struggling defensive front some stability. There is only one team in the NFL that has given up more yardage on the ground, and that team is the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars (it’s never good being mentioned in the same sentence as them). Chris Jones and Joe Vellano have played their hearts out over the last few games, and I am sure that they will appreciate some much needed rest on Sunday. Sopoaga is the block-eating type of player that New England lost in Vince Wilfork, and getting a team like the Steelers is a perfect scenario to integrate their new big man. I have no doubt that Mike Tomlin and the Steelers will attempt to run the ball down New England’s throat, but this will be the game where the Pats come together, and finally shut down an opposing teams’ ground game.
On the other side of the ball, you have a Patriots offense that has no look of a Tom Brady-led offense of the past few years. They currently rank 18th in total offense, and 17th in scoring offense. That is a significant drop-off from a team that ranked first and second in total offense in 2012 and 2011. The receiving corps are often not on the same page with Brady, and the usually dominant Patriots offensive line has struggled mightily thus far (losing Sebastian Vollmer won’t help). However one thing that this group has seemed to do well halfway through this regular season, is run the football. Stevan Ridley leads the charge, but Brandon Bolden and LeGarrette Blount have held up well in the absence of Shane Vereen, Ridley’s backup heading into the season. As a group they average 120.6 yards per game, good for 12th in the league. Ridley is quickly emerging as one of the top running backs in the league, highlighted by his explosive running nature, as he is one of the best in the game at finding a hole, and bursting through for a solid gain. As bad as the offensive line has been in the passing game (23 sacks through eight games), I think that they haven’t gotten enough credit for their work as run blockers. On more than one occasion, we have seen a Patriots running back glide through a gaping hole in the defense for a huge gain, and all of the credit in those situations, have to go to the big boys up front.
As I mentioned earlier, the Steelers are not particularly “efficient” in stopping the run. This group gives up nearly 122 yards a game on the ground, placing them at 27th in the NFL. I expect the Patriots to attack the interior of this defense early and often this Sunday, and I truly believe that Ridley and company could go over 200 yards against the “vaunted” Steeler defense. This is coupled with the fact that Pittsburgh obtains the second best passing defense in the NFL, and when you combine that with the 23rd ranked Patriot passing attack, Brady and Belichick will be content to let Ridley carry the offense throughout this game.