The Steelers (2-5) have struggled this year, but match-ups against the Patriots have rarely failed to deliver an interesting game.
Here is how the two teams stack up in Week 9 of the NFL season.
Patriots Offense vs. Steelers Defense
With Rob Gronkowski back in the fold, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is able to once again look for personnel mismatches. He will try to catch the Steelers with the wrong group of defenders on the field, look for the Patriots to continue using their hurry-up offense and preventing the Steelers from substituting.
The Steelers defensive backfield is aging—some more gracefully than others—and the young receiver group for the Patriots should be able to find some space down the field.
Aaron Dobson has really stepped up his play over the last few weeks and should continue to get the lion's share—among receivers anyway—of targets from Brady this week.
Patriots Defense vs. Steelers Offense
Let's not beat around the bush, the Steelers offense has not been good. Antonio Brown heads up a quality receiver group, but Pittsburgh has been dogged by their poor blocking. David DeCastro has played like a future All-Pro, but the tackles—Mike Adams, Marcus Gilbert and Kelvin Beachum—have proven to be a liability.
Look for Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich to have a field day rushing the passer. It is always tough to bring down Ben Roethlisberger, but if the Patriots can stay in their rush lanes, they will be able to get home.
If the Steelers try and test the interior of the Patriots defense, look for newly-acquired Isaac Sopoaga to get into the thick of things early on.
What They're Saying
As I said, you can never count the Steelers—or any NFL team for that matter—out, regardless of their record. Bill Belichick echoed that sentiment in a press conference on Thursday (via Mike Reiss of ESPN.com).
Asked if he was surprised the Steelers are 2-5, Belichick said he doesn't see a team reflective of its record. "They beat Baltimore, which is a good win. It’s something we didn’t do last year. They beat the Jets; it’s something we didn’t do two weeks ago. They were in a bunch of close games that could have gone either way," he said. "When you look at them, I think you see a good football team that’s kind of like us; we’ve been in a lot of close games. We’ve won more than we’ve lost, they’ve lost more than they’ve won, but a couple plays one way or the other in any of those games and you could have a big swing in what a lot of teams’ records are. But that’s the league."
Don't expect the Patriots to be over-looking the Steelers on the way to their bye week.
Tale of the Tape
Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady, two long time superstars in the NFL, have both had better years. Each has been inconsistent, looking brilliant one play and like a green rookie the next. Whoever plays better Sunday will probably end up with the win.
Neither team has run the ball as effectively as they would have liked to this year. Both teams have gone with a committee approach for much of the season—sometimes out of necessity due to injuries. That said, Stevan Ridley is the best running back on either roster. If Belichick rides him on Sunday, look for him to deliver.
The Patriots young receiver group—especially Aaron Dobson—has progressed in leaps and bounds this season. However, they still aren't a match for the talented Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders with Danny Amendola operating at less than optimal health.
Rob Gronkowski might not be operating at his full capabilities yet, but there isn't another tight end that can match the combination of his blocking and receiving. Heath Miller can still play, but he isn't the sort of athletic tight end that can give the Patriots defense fits.
The Steelers offensive line has been the weak link ever since linchpin Maurkice Pouncey was placed on injured reserve before the season began. Sebastian Vollmer's absence will hurt New England, but Marcus Cannon is a capable backup.
While Patriots rookies Chris Jones and Joe Vellano have played admirably, they need some help against the run. The Patriots might be getting reinforcements this week, with Tommy Kelly on the mend and Isaac Sopoaga ready to contribute.
Each team has some youth in their linebacker group, but the Steelers have the experience edge with Jerod Mayo on injured reserve. Despite that edge, Dont'a Hightower and Brandon Spikes have played well enough to even that advantage out.
Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu get a lot of accolades—some deserved—but Devin McCourty is playing like the best safety in football. His range and instincts in the deep half are unparalleled. Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard have both played at a high level this season, while Ike Taylor hasn't played up to his capabilities. William Gay and Cortez Allen have arguably had better years.
The Steelers recently waived former Patriots punter Zoltan Mesko, replacing him with veteran Mat McBriar. The Patriots, meanwhile, have thrived with rookie Ryan Allen punting and Stephen Gostkowski kicking.
Overall: Patriots 5-1-3
The tale of the tape heavily favors the Patriots this week, with New England holding slight edges across the majority of the categories. If one quarterback breaks out of their slump, they could easily carry their team to victory.
Wednesday's Injury Report Analysis
Did Not Participate: None
Limited Participation: Danny Amendola, Kyle Arrington, Brandon Bolden, Marcus Cannon, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, Michael Hoomanawanui, Tommy Kelly, Aqib Talib, Leon Washington, Tavon Wilson
Full Participation: Tom Brady, Matthew Slater
Tommy Kelly and Aqib Talib are the players to watch here for Patriots fans. If either are able to play, they offer something that can't be duplicated by others on the roster. Kelly is the last true three-down defensive tackle with Wilfork injured and Talib is the best corner in the NFL right now.
DeCastro, McClendon and Markus Wheaton are the major injury concerns for the Steelers. All three failed to participate in practice Wednesday.
All statistics are courtesy of NFL.com and the Patriots Media Relations Department.