The streak of prime time games will end at three this week as the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots play to gain control of the AFC.
Given the competitiveness in the AFC, this game will be key to the Steelers positioning themselves for the playoffs.
A win over New England would keep Pittsburgh on top of the conference as well as provide the team with a moral boost by defeating their nemesis.
If they lose it will not be the end of the season but another loss to Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the rest of the Patriots can be a tough mental hurdle to overcome.
Pittsburgh will have a distinct home field advantage where Steelers fans have been waiting nearly a month for a home game and will be fired up for the national game under the lights.
A matchup between two quarterbacks who have combined for five Super Bowl championships makes for an exciting game.
There is no doubt that Brady will be throwing early and often given how the Steelers pass defense has played lately. Look for him to attack William Gay and Bryant McFadden who have allowed a lot of completions this season.
For Pittsburgh, Ben Roethlisberger will want to steal the spotlight from Brady and could exploit the vulnerable Patriots defense over the top to Mike Wallace. If healthy, Heath Miller is also due for a big game.
Whichever quarterback is more productive will likely come out on top and have their respective team in control of the AFC.
The normally accurate Brady has had three straight games completing under 60 percent of his passes, though he has not thrown an interception since Week 6.
Those numbers do not mean much against the Steelers defense. If they sit back and only rush three or four, Brady will almost certainly pick Pittsburgh’s secondary apart.
Instead, the Steelers need to pressure Brady and force him into making throws.
Without Randy Moss in the lineup, Brady has to depend on rookie Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker, who has averaged only 8.1 yards per reception this season.
Despite the efficiency of Brady, the lack of a big play threat has hurt New England’s production in the passing game.
Matching up against the Steelers defense could easily mean a night where the Patriots throw 40 to 50 times and pile up around 300 yards and a couple of touchdowns.
Pittsburgh cannot allow Brady to do this.
In order to prevent a big night from Brady Dick LeBeau will have to have his defense pressure Brady. This pressure will need to come up the middle.
James Farrior and Lawrence Timmons should get plenty of opportunities to get in Brady’s face to throw off him off his rhythm, and Troy Polamalu can be another threat up the center.
Brady is not nimble with his feet and often breaks down when a defender is coming right at him.
This may also eliminate some of the short slants across the middle because Brady’s passing lanes will be clogged and it would also allow LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison to remain outside to defend against the screen.
By no means though should Harrison and Woodley be called off.
What can make a pass rush up the middle so dangerous is mixing up the defense and sliding the protection to the outside.
A lot of pressure from Pittsburgh’s defense will mean a long night for Brady and the Patriots.
Last week, Pittsburgh’s secondary was torched by Terrell Owens, allowing 10 receptions for over 100 yards and two touchdowns.
Though he is not the big play threat that Owens is, Wes Welker is a quick, shifty wide receiver who is capable of putting up big numbers in the receptions category.
For a team that has struggled getting off the field on third downs, Pittsburgh cannot let Welker move the chains for New England.
Over the first five games of the season, Welker had 33 receptions but has slowed down as of late, catching only 11 balls over the last three games for only 85 yards.
If Pittsburgh can hold Welker to his season average of 8.1 yards per reception and only three or four receptions they will be in good shape.
That will then allow Pittsburgh to focus on Hernandez, who leads the Patriots with 436 yards, and Brandon Tate, who averages 15.1 yards per reception.
However, if Pittsburgh lets Welker run free he is capable of creating yards after the catch.
With their physical secondary, though, Pittsburgh should be able to limit Welker’s effectiveness Sunday night.
Without a big play threat, the Steelers will also be able to move McFadden, Gay and Ike Taylor around to create the best matchups for their defense.
New England’s defense is having a down year, currently ranked 29th in the league in yards allowed per game and 21st in scoring defense, allowing 23.5 points per game.
This defense just may be the matchup needed to spark Pittsburgh’s offense.
To maximize their potential, the Steelers need to establish the run, which will then set up the play action pass.
In the fourth quarter against Cincinnati, Bruce Arians began to run quick hitting plays up the middle of the field and Mendenhall took advantage of it.
It was the best series of running that Mendenhall had in several weeks and this momentum needs to carry over into this week.
Given injuries to Max Starks and Chris Kemoeatu, the Steelers will have a new left side of their line with Jonathan Scott starting at left tackle in place of Starks and Ramon Foster at left guard in place of Kemoeatu.
Running the ball straight ahead and avoiding the slow developing run plays will give this makeshift the best chance of success.
Once the ground game gets clicking the Steelers can begin to play to Roethlisberger’s strengths and that is moving him around the pocket and running the play action.
Roethlisberger is beginning to click with Wallace, who had over 100 receiving yards last week and could be in for another big game against a weak Patriots’ secondary.
Wallace cannot be covered down field as it is but if the play action gets defenders peaking in the backfield he could be in for a two touchdown game.
This may also open up opportunities to hit Miller or Hines Ward deep over the middle of the field.
A successful night in the deep passing game usually means good things for Pittsburgh, especially if Wallace scores a touchdown. The Steelers are 9-0 when Wallace has a touchdown reception.
Rashard Mendenhall had one of his best games of the year last week when he ran for 99 yards.
He will need a carry over performance for the Steelers if they want to win.
Bill Belichick always does a nice job putting together schemes to defend against Roethlisberger and will certainly look to attack the left side of Pittsburgh’s offensive line.
However, if Mendenhall can have a strong running game, the Patriots will have to slow their rush on Roethlisberger.
A strong running game will also allow Pittsburgh to control the tempo of the game, provide rest for their defense, and keep Brady off the field.
Applying pressure up the middle will be a key in stopping Brady and there is no one better than Lawrence Timmons to get the job done.
Timmons has played at a Pro Bowl level this year and could really make a name for himself on the national stage by having a big game against New England.
The speed that Timmons has makes him a very dangerous threat to get to the quarter even when rushing up the middle. He also has the quickness to rush from the edge.
When he’s not rushing the passer Timmons has stepped up his run defense and is a very good pass defender over the middle of the field which will help slow down passes in this area of the field.
- Since 2001, the Patriots have gone 5-2 against the Steelers.
- Pittsburgh won the last matchup 33-10 on November 30, 2008.
- The Steelers have not beaten the Patriots at home since a 34-20 victory in 2004.
- With his next touchdown, Rashard Mendenhall will set a career high in rushing touchdowns. He currently has seven for the season.
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