NFL Preview - New England (5-1) at Pittsburgh (5-2)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Heinz Field has usually been a very frightening place for teams facing the Pittsburgh Steelers over the years, though Tom Brady and the New England Patriots haven't seemed to be too intimidated.
The Patriots aim to continue their recent success in the Steel City when two of the AFC's premier teams square off Sunday in the headline matchup of the Week 8 schedule.
Pittsburgh won a pair of playoff games at home to represent the AFC in last season's Super Bowl, but the Patriots were the conference's No. 1 overall seed after amassing an NFL-best 14-2 record prior to the tournament. One of those victories took place at Heinz Field during Week 10 of the 2010 campaign, a 39-26 triumph fueled by a 350-yard, four-touchdown performance out of Brady.
The reigning league MVP has had several other outstanding moments against the Steelers over his glorious career. In his last four encounters with Pittsburgh, which includes an appearance in the 2004 AFC Championship Game held at Heinz Field, Brady has thrown for nine touchdowns and been intercepted just once in leading New England to victories on each of those occasions.
Pittsburgh did rout the Patriots by a 33-10 count in New England in 2008, but Brady did not play that day because of a torn ACL the superstar signal-caller suffered in that year's opener.
Counting the playoffs, the Patriots have left with a win in five of their last six stops in Pittsburgh and are 6-1 all-time against the Steelers when Brady's been under center.
"They've played us pretty good a few times, too," said Brady. "We've had our moments and they've had their moments. I think we realize the kind of challenge that it is, and we put a lot of time into the preparation and we put a lot of effort into understanding what we're trying to accomplish from a game- plan standpoint and then we've executed well."
This latest showdown between current division leaders on Halloween Eve will be a battle of strength versus strength. New England boasts the NFL's most prolific aerial attack as well as the top-ranked overall offense, while Pittsburgh is permitting just 171.9 passing yards per game (2nd overall) and stands third in the league in both total defense and scoring defense.
The Patriots had a little additional time to prepare for the Steelers' formidable stop unit, with the AFC East front-runners enjoying a Week 7 bye that followed their third consecutive triumph, a hard-fought 20-16 decision over Dallas on Oct. 16 in which Brady engineered a long go-ahead drive capped by an eight-yard touchdown strike to tight end Aaron Hernandez with only 22 seconds left to play.
That result gave Brady and Pats head coach Bill Belichick their 116th career victory together, which tied Miami's combo of Don Shula and Dan Marino for the most in NFL history by a coach/quarterback tandem.
Pittsburgh is also riding a three-game win streak and vaulted past rival Baltimore and into first place in the AFC North after last Sunday's 32-20 ousting of slumping Arizona.
Ben Roethlisberger led the way against the Cardinals by amassing 361 passing yards and throwing for three scores, and the standout quarterback has compiled a stellar 9-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio during the team's present surge.
Including its two wins in the 2010 AFC Playoffs, Pittsburgh has gone 8-1 at Heinz Field since last November's setback to New England and has outscored its competition by a 79-30 margin in coming out on top in each of its three previous matchups at home this season.
The Steelers have a 13-8 advantage in their all-time regular-season series with the Patriots, but New England has emerged victorious in three of the last four bouts between the clubs following last November's above-noted 13-point win at Heinz Field. The Patriots also bested Pittsburgh on the road by a 23-20 count in 2005 and posted a 34-13 verdict in a 2007 clash with the Steelers held in Foxborough. Pittsburgh exacted revenge with the aforementioned 33-10 triumph in Massachusetts the following year.
The teams have also met in the postseason four times since 1996, with the Patriots claiming a 1996 AFC Divisional Playoff (28-3), the Steelers returning the favor with a win in the 1997 AFC Divisional Round (7-6), and New England prevailing in the 2001 (24-17) and 2004 (41-27) AFC Championships. The 1997, 2001, and 2004 meetings were all played in Pittsburgh.
Belichick has a 9-10 record against the Steelers, but is 6-2 versus the Black and Gold since taking over in New England in 2000. Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin is 1-2 against both Belichick and the Patriots as a head coach.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
New England was incredibly successful in spreading the Steelers out defensively and neutralizing Pittsburgh's traditionally-potent pass rush in last year's tilt, as Brady (2163 passing yards, 16 TD, 8 INT) wasn't sacked once in completing a crisp 30-of-43 throws for 350 yards. As usual, the two-time MVP's favorite target was slot man extraordinaire Wes Welker (51 receptions, 785 yards, 6 TD), with terrific young tight end Rob Gronkowski (29 receptions, 401 yards, 5 TD) hauling in all three of Brady's scoring deliveries in that contest. The two comprise half of an outstanding foursome of targets for the NFL's No. 1 pass offense (350.3 ypg), as both Hernandez (27 receptions, 289 yards, 3 TD) and veteran wideout Deion Branch (26 receptions, 2 TD) can create headaches for defenses as well. The biggest problems this year have been caused by Welker, however, as the sure-handed Pro Bowler easily tops the league in catches and receiving yards per game and has amassed 124 yards or more in four of New England's six outings. The Patriots use the running game primarily to simply keep teams honest, but top back BenJarvus Green-Ellis (391 rushing yards, 5 TD) is a powerful and effective player who totaled 87 yards on 18 carries in last November's win over Pittsburgh.
Brady's greatest challenge of the season could come this weekend, as the Steelers have held enemy quarterbacks to a league-low 5.8 yards per pass attempt and possess a couple of proven difference-makers in the secondary. Strong safety Troy Polamalu (43 tackles, 1 sack) is the obvious headliner, having earned the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award with a sensational 2010 season, while Ike Taylor (14 tackles) is a true lock-down corner who usually handles the opposition's No. 1 receiver and doesn't get tested all that much. The back end is complemented nicely by Pittsburgh's ability to generate consistent pressure on the passer, a trademark under longtime coordinator Dick LeBeau, and All-Pro outside linebacker James Harrison's absence for the last three weeks due to a fractured eye socket hasn't slowed down the rush. The Steelers have produced 10 sacks during their three-game win streak, Harrison counterpart LaMarr Woodley (34 tackles, 7 sacks, 1 INT) has been on a tear with his running mate sidelined, having notched a whopping 5 1/2 sacks over that stretch, and will need to be a factor once again with Harrison also out this week. Pittsburgh's historically strong run defense has fallen off a bit this season, with the club allowing an average of 4.5 yards a carry, but five-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton's expected return from a shoulder injury that's kept him out three straight game could help shore things up.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
With a balanced offense directed by a top-tier quarterback in Roethlisberger (1937 passing yards, 12 TD, 6 INT), the Steelers may just have the firepower to keep up with the explosive Patriots if this game becomes a shootout. The two- time Super Bowl champion certainly did his part in last year's test between the teams, throwing for 387 yards and three scores in a losing cause. Two of those touchdowns landed in the hands of wide receiver Mike Wallace (36 receptions, 730 receiving yards, 5 TD), perhaps the most dangerous deep threat in the game today. The speedy playmaker is averaging better than 20 yards per catch for a second straight year and has a reception of 40 or more yards in six straight weeks, the longest streak in the NFL since St. Louis' Isaac Bruce did so in 2000, and has a touchdown grab in three consecutive outings as well. He's the top option of a deep corps of pass-catchers that may not have crafty veteran Hines Ward (26 receptions, 2 TD) this week due to a sprained ankle, though youngsters Antonio Brown (25 receptions) and Emmanuel Sanders (13 receptions, 2 TD) are both capable fill-ins who combined for 12 receptions for 148 yards and a score against the Cardinals last Sunday and trusty tight end Heath Miller (23 receptions, 2 TD) remains at Roethlisberger's disposal as well. In the backfield, leading rusher Rashard Mendenhall (351 rushing yards, 3 TD) is coming off a 1,273-yard, 13-touchdown season in 2010, but has been held under three yards per carry in three of his last four games while also missing time with a hamstring injury.
It's a good thing for New England the offense is so skilled at putting up points, because the defense has been an inviting target for quarterbacks on the schedule all year long. The Patriots are giving up a startling 322.2 passing yards per game and have held only one team under the 300-yard mark thus far, while their 423.7 total yards allowed per week is dead last in the league as well. One bright spot in an otherwise disappointing secondary has been cornerback Kyle Arrington (34 tackles, 6 PD), whose four interceptions are tied for the second most among individuals, while 2010 first-round draft choice Devin McCourty (38 tackles) made the Pro Bowl as a rookie last year before going into a sophomore slump. New England has also struggled in mounting a steady pass rush, and age seems to be getting the better of an experienced front line in which starting ends Andre Carter (23 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and Shaun Ellis are in their 11th and 12th seasons, respectively. The Patriots have been generally solid in stopping the run even with well-regarded linebacker Jerod Mayo (25 tackles) having missed two games with a knee sprain, though teams have been more inclined to attack them through the air. Mayo was back practicing during the bye week and is a possibility to suit up on Sunday.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Pressure Brady. The Steelers weren't able to do so well enough in last year's meeting and paid the price. Though Taylor is an excellent corner capable of shutting down whomever he's assigned to, Pittsburgh still doesn't have the secondary depth to contain all of New England's receivers, therefore it'll be up to Woodley and his mates to harass the MVP quarterback and force him into quick decisions.
A big game out of Big Ben. As good as Pittsburgh's defense is, it's still a stretch to think it'll be able to keep the high-powered Patriots under 20 points, something no team has done in 15 straight games. That means Roethlisberger will have to be sharp with his reads and take advantage of the soft spots to be found in New England's shaky secondary.
The turnover battle. This has been the Steelers' sore spot all season long, as they're an NFL-worst minus-nine in takeaway-to-giveaway ratio and have forced a mere three turnovers, also last in the league. Brady has been far from flawless this year, having been intercepted four times in a Week 3 loss at Buffalo and twice more in the Pats' narrow win at Dallas two Sundays ago, but New England is an awfully tough out when its quarterback is on point.
The Patriots showed the blueprint for successfully moving the ball on the Steelers when these teams faced off last season, and Belichick's track record in games in which he's had extra time to game plan is very good. While Pittsburgh will likely encounter difficulty slowing down the New England offense for a second straight year, the Patriots will find it hard to prevent Roethlisberger and Wallace from having their say in the outcome as well. This could be a situation in which the team that has the ball last wins, but unless the Steelers can solve their inability to create turnovers, matching their prolific opponent score-for-score may be too tough an assignment.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 28, Steelers 24
10/27 17:59:41 ET