NFL Preview - Pittsburgh (2-5) at New England (6-2)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - The New England Patriots proved to be a second-half team last weekend.
They have been a strong second-half franchise over the past few seasons as well.
The Patriots try to win back-to-back games for the first time since their 4-0 start as they host a Pittsburgh Steelers club looking for its third victory in four games.
New England perhaps saw the lingering effects of its 30-27 overtime setback to the New York Jets on Oct. 20 carry over as it faced a 14-point deficit and gained just 59 yards of offense in the first half last Sunday versus the Miami Dolphins.
The Pats finally came alive in the third quarter, racking up 17 of their 24 unanswered points in the frame. That included a pair of touchdowns less than two minutes apart in the third in an eventual 27-17 win.
It was a surprise turn of events given New England had not scored a third- quarter touchdown in any of its first seven games.
"We dug a big hole for ourselves at halftime. We really haven't played good in the third quarter all year but we did today," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "We got it from all three phases of the game. We had contributions from everyone in the second half."
Tom Brady threw for just 25 yards in the first half, but ended with 116 yards on 13-of-22 passing in the contest. That included a 14-yard scoring strike to wide receiver Aaron Dobson.
Both Steven Ridley and Brandon Bolden ran for scores to highlight a 152-yard ground game for the Pats, which also got a season-high six sacks from its defense -- all in the second half.
New England has split four games since a 4-0 start and still has a two-game edge over New York for first place in the AFC East despite an offense that uncharacteristically ranks 18th in football with 330.0 yards per game.
"I know a lot of people are frustrated, but to be 6-2 is not bad. We'll just try to win next week and get to 7-2. That's what we'll try to do," said Brady.
New England improved to 32-4 in the regular season since 2003 following a loss and is 23-1 in the second half over the last three seasons. The Pats went 8-0 in both 2010 and '11 while going 7-1 a season ago.
The Steelers are also hoping for a strong second half as they sit last in the AFC North at 2-5. That opened the season with four straight setbacks, then won two straight after a bye before last Sunday's 21-18 road loss to the Oakland Raiders.
Pittsburgh saw Oakland quarterback Terrelle Pryor run for a 93-yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage and trailed 21-3 at the half before a comeback bid fell short.
Ben Roethlisberger was sacked five times and picked off twice while throwing for 275 yards on 29-of-45 passing. He did hit Emmanuel Sanders for a touchdown, with Sanders and fellow wide out Antonio Brown combining for 16 catches and 170 yards.
"We had too many mistakes early to give ourselves a legitimate chance," said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. "We allowed them to control and dictate the flow of the game with how we started."
The Steelers did force a season-high three turnovers and saw kicker Shaun Suisham hit a 47-yard field goal in the second quarter. However, he also missed on a pair of field goals from inside the 35.
"Look, it's no secret, the impact my missed field goals had on the game. We'd have won the game if I made those field goals," noted Suisham. "It's a tough one to swallow. No choice but to do it. I should have been better today and we lost because of it."
Suisham will try to rebound in Pittsburgh's first trip to New England since 2008. The Steelers are trying to win two straight in this series for the first time since a six-game winning streak from 1989-97 and lead the all-time series 14-8.
The Patriots, though, have a 3-1 edge in the postseason and have won four of six at home.
A victory for the Steelers would make them 4-4 against a Belichick-led Patriots team and would make them just the second team to have at least a .500 record against the Pats with Belichick as head coach. Denver is 5-5.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
It continues to be a pedestrian season for Brady as he has just nine touchdown passes to six interceptions while throwing for 1,824 yards. The speculation is that the former MVP is dealing with a right hand injury, something he downplayed after the win over the Dolphins when told it looked swollen.
"I didn't know anyone knows what the back of my right hand looks like, but it looks fine to me and it feels good. I'll be out there next week; you don't have to worry about that," said Brady.
New England is still hoping the return of tight end Rob Gronkowski will help Brady and he has already logged 10 catches for 141 yards in two games this season after missing the first six recovering from multiple offseason surgeries.
Tomlin knows that his defense will have to minimize the impact the tight end has on the game.
"He is a special player," the Steelers coach said of Gronkowski. "He does a lot of things for them. The vertical stuff down the field obviously, the red zone talents are what they are. He is a big component of the passing game."
Brady has thrown for 947 yards with nine touchdown passes to zero interceptions in his last three games versus the Steelers, but won't have right tackle Sebastian Vollmer protecting him after the lineman was placed on injured reserve with a leg injury suffered versus Miami. First-year Patriot Will Svitek is listed next on the depth chart.
The Steelers and their 23rd-ranked offense have their own issues on the front line as starting guards Ramon Foster and David DeCastro were both hurt versus the Raiders, as was backup Guy Whimper.
Foster suffered a concussion, DeCastro hurt his right ankle and Whimper went down with a knee issue, but none of the three have been ruled out for this game.
With all three guards getting hurt, Kelvin Beachum was forced to move from his tackle spot versus Oakland, but Tomlin said he would likely keep him at tackle for this game and start Cody Wallace at guard if need be.
Roethlisberger is eyeing a win over the Patriots and could hit a few milestones in the process. He is one passing touchdown shy of joining Terry Bradshaw as the only Steelers tor throw at least 200 and a victory would make Big Ben the fifth-fastest quarterback to reach 90 regular-season wins as a starter.
Roethlisberger is set to make his 134th start this Sunday. Brady is the fastest, having done so in 115 games, while Steve Young is currently fifth on the list with 137 games.
In six games versus New England, Roethlisberger has thrown for 1,530 yards and 12 touchdowns with three interceptions.
Tomlin is expected to give Jason Worilds more time at the right linebacker spot this weekend over struggling rookie Jarvis Jones opposite LaMarr Woodley, who has three sacks in three games versus the Pats.
Pittsburgh also made a special teams move this week, placing punter Zoltan Mesko, a former New England draft pick, on waivers and Mat McBriar was signed to take his place. Mesko ranked last in the AFC with a 42.5 average per punt and saw one of his seven punts versus the Raiders travel just 30 yards. He had another one partially blocked.
Field position will be key as New England is making a habit of forcing turnovers. The Patriots have at least one in 35 straight games, getting three versus the Dolphins.
Safeties Marquice Cole and Duron Harmon both picked up interceptions, while cornerback Logan Ryan saw one of his two sacks force a fumble. Defensive end Chandler Jones also had a sack versus Miami, giving him a career-high 6 1/2 sack of the season.
With Vince Wilfork lost for the season due to injury and Tommy Kelly battling a knee injury, the Patriots acquired defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga from Philadelphia in a trade on Tuesday. He'll add much-needed depth to the defensive line.
There is something to be said for the Patriots being 6-2 despite their offensive struggles. Brady has made plays when necessary and the defense has kept the club in games most weeks.
Now the fear for opposing teams is that Brady will get hot, especially as he captures his previous chemistry with Gronkowski.
"I'm sure he measures himself by record, and I agree with him," Tomlin said of Brady. "The big thing in the midst of all the things that maybe are going on is they are finding a way to win. That's what is most important. I'm sure it starts with him."
The Steelers and their fourth-ranked defense will try to avoid getting caught off guard by Brady, but it is tough to go against the Patriots at home in late October.