The Patriots are set to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday at Gillette Stadium. Typically, these games have been for positioning at the top of the AFC as both teams have traditionally been at the top of their divisions. While the Patriots have managed a 6-2 record thus far, the Steelers have struggled to close out games and have only two wins. But don’t let their record deceive you as nearly all of those games have gone into the fourth quarter as toss ups. The Steelers have just not been able to play good football when it matters most and that’s why they sit in very unfamiliar territory at the bottom of the AFC North. The Patriots have historically fared well against Pittsburgh, but they have also had their struggles in 2013 and the Steelers will be looking to exploit some very real weaknesses on Sunday. Let’s take a look at the key questions going into Sunday’s matchup against the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
1. Can the Steelers limit the Patriots rushing attack?
The Steelers have not been strong against the run in 2013, a real departure from what we’ve come to expect from this franchise over the years. Pittsburgh is allowing more than 120 yards per game on the ground and the Patriots will certainly lean on the run on Sunday. The Patriots have relied on a running back by committee approach thus far in 2013, but Stevan Ridley is by far their most productive rusher and should receive the lion’s share of the carries on Sunday. While Ridley struggled to hold on to the football early in the season, he has seemingly put those issues behind him. Ridley averaged more than 5 yards per carry against the Dolphins and could be primed for his breakout performance of the season against the Steelers. The Patriots should not just rely on the run on Sunday, they should rely on Stevan Ridley and his ability not just to pick up yards in the middle of the field, but also in the red zone.
2. Is this the game that Brady breaks out?
Tom Brady showed some life in the second half last week against the Dolphins. Not only did he throw his first third quarter touchdown pass of the season, but he also hit Rob Gronkowski in the back of the end zone from thirty yards out on a play that was called back on a penalty. Regardless, Brady made the kind of throw on that play that fans are used to seeing and it could be a sign of things to come. While Brady has struggled so far in 2013, could a matchup against the Steelers be what he needs to break out? Brady has historically owned the Steelers, but this team is not exactly weak against the pass. The Steelers rank second in the league in passing yards allowed per game (181 yards per game), so it may not be so easy on Sunday for Brady to put up the numbers against the Steelers that he has throughout his career.
3. Can the Patriots stop the run?
A hallmark of Pittsburgh football is tough running, but the Steelers rushing attack has really struggled this season. They are averaging only 68 yards per game on the ground and have not had a 100 yard rusher thus far in 2013. The Steelers featured back is Le’Veon Bell who averages around 16 carries a game, but is only averaging 3.3 yards per carry. Bell has the potential to have a big game against the Patriots, regardless of how well the Steelers have run the ball so far this season. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is well aware of the Patriots injuries on the interior of the defensive line (Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly) and at the next level (Jerod Mayo) and will undoubtedly put the Pats rush defense to the test early in this game. The Patriots are 31st in the league in rushing defense as they allowed 156 yards on the ground to Miami last week and 177 yards to the Jets the week before. The Patriots will have to improve against the run if they expect to win against Pittsburgh.
4. How will the Patriots defend against Big Ben?
Despite the Steelers struggles, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has played well. He’s completing 66 percent of his passes and averaging more than seven yards per attempt. Roethlisberger has thrown only 8 touchdown passes compared to seven interceptions, not exactly the ratio his coaches are looking for, but his offensive line has really let him down. He’s been sacked 27 times already in 2013, good for seventh most in the league. In the past, the Patriots focused on setting the edge against the Steelers to prevent Roethlisberger from getting outside the pocket where he is capable of making big plays. But with the trouble the Steelers have had protecting Roethlisberger, look for the Patriots to attack the Steelers offense similarly to how they did in the second half against Miami. The Patriots blitzed more in the second half against Miami than they had all season long and it was extremely effective at disrupting Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins offense. Don’t be surprised if the Patriots replicate that effort against the Steelers and rush personnel from the secondary as they effectively did last week.
The Patriots offense will click on all cylinders on Sunday as Stevan Ridley will get more carries than he’s had all year and Tom Brady and his receivers will benefit from some much needed consistency in personnel. While the Steelers will have some success running the football, the Patriots pass rush will continue to improve and the defense will force turnovers when they need to.
Patriots 34 – Steelers – 17