Dissecting Most Crucial Matchups in Pittsburgh Steelers Week 9 Matchup

Mike BatistaContributor INovember 1, 2013

LaMarr Woodley sacked Tom Brady twice the last time the Steelers played the Patriots.
LaMarr Woodley sacked Tom Brady twice the last time the Steelers played the Patriots.Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers have stumbled to a 2-5 record this season, and a trip to Gillette Stadium isn't exactly what the doctor ordered.

The Steelers will try to defeat a Tom Brady-led Patriots team at New England for the first time Sunday (4:25, CBS) and keep their faint playoff hopes alive.

If they can beat the Patriots (6-2) in their Week 9 matchup, they'd be 3-5 going into a two-game homestand against the Buffalo Bills and Detroit Lions. A .500 record would be visible on the horizon.

Here are the key matchups to keep an eye on in Sunday's game.

(Statistics from NFL.com unless otherwise noted.)


OLB LaMarr Woodley vs. RT Marcus Cannon

Steelers outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley had no tackles in Sunday's 21-18 loss at Oakland, and his four-game sack streak was snapped. But according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he had three quarterback hurries. He has 16 hurries this season, which ties him for 12th in the NFL among outside linebackers.

Here, Woodley hurries Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor into an incompletion.

On this play, Woodley pursues Pryor and forces him to throw an interception to Troy Polamalu, who's waiting for the ball.

Pryor's athleticism and elusiveness is part of the reason Woodley couldn't take him down. That won't be a problem with Brady.

Marcus Cannon, a third-year guard/tackle making his second career start, will try to keep Woodley away from the Patriots quarterback. Cannon is replacing right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who is out for the season with a leg injury, according to Pro Football Talk.

The 6'5", 335-pound Cannon has a size advantage over the 6'2", 265-pound Woodley, who has five of the Steelers' 10 sacks this season. Woodley will have to use pass-rushing moves to get around Cannon.


TE Rob Gronkowski vs. SS Troy Polamalu/CB Cortez Allen

In two games since returning from a forearm injury, Rob Gronkowski has caught 10 passes for 141 yards for the Patriots.

The 6'6", 265-pound Gronkowski caught five passes for 72 yards and three touchdowns in a 39-26 win over the Steelers at Heinz Field in 2010, his rookie year.

Gronkowski caught seven passes for 94 yards, but no touchdowns, in a 25-17 Steelers win over the Patriots at Heinz Field in 2011.

Troy Polamalu was instrumental in limiting the damage Gronkowski did in that game, the most recent between the two teams.

On this play, Polamalu leapt onto Gronkowski's shoulders to slow him down and waited for the cavalry to arrive. Cortez Allen and Ryan Clark helped Polamalu take Gronkowski down.

The Miami Dolphins kept Gronkowski in check last week, holding him to two catches for 27 yards.

On this play, Dimitri Patterson stepped in front of Gronkowski to intercept Brady's pass to him.

Polamalu and Allen, who also had an interception against the Raiders, have the ball-hawking skills to make a similar play. Jumping the route might be a gamble worth taking once in a while in trying to stop Gronkowski.


RB Le'Veon Bell vs. Patriots defense

After running for 93 yards on 19 carries in a Week 7 win over the Baltimore Ravens, Steelers rookie running back Le'Veon Bell took a step back in Week 8, gaining 24 yards on 13 carries in the loss to the Raiders.

Bell goes up against the NFL's No. 31 run defense on Sunday. The Patriots have allowed 130.8 yards per game.

The loss of 350-pound defensive tackle Vince Wilfork to a torn Achilles doesn't help the Patriots run defense.

The Patriots allowed 156 rushing yards on 31 carries in Sunday's 27-17 win over the Dolphins at Gillette Stadium. Lamar Miller gained 89 of those yards on 18 carries.

On this 18-yard gain in the second quarter, Dolphins left guard Richie Incognito blocks Chris Jones to help Miller get free for a cutback to the right.

Jones, who has seen his playing time at defensive tackle increase in Wilfork's absence, had the worst grade against the run of any Patriots defensive player Sunday, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

Defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, who was injured in Week 5, could return Sunday, according to Pro Football Talk. However, Pro Football Focus also has given him a negative grade for the season when it comes to stopping the run.

None of the Patriots' run-stopping deficiencies will matter unless the Steelers can at least keep the game close.

This season, the Steelers have fallen behind 17-0 to the Chicago Bears, 10-0 to the Minnesota Vikings and 14-0 to the Oakland Raiders. All of those deficits have come in the first quarter.

Falling behind so early forces the Steelers to throw the ball and takes Bell out of the game. For Bell to be a factor in New England, the Steelers must avoid another two-score deficit in the first quarter.