Patriots vs. Steelers: 5 New England Weaknesses Pittsburgh Must Exploit
I've heard the arguments a million times. Mike Tomlin has never beaten the Patriots' Tom Brady. There's even an article on ESPN where James Walker talks about how Tom Brady owns the Steelers. I can't fault anyone's reasoning, but New England isn't the untouchable juggernaut it usually has been.
There are weaknesses. If the Steelers can finally exploit those, they can claim victory this Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field when New England steps in.
Here's a look at five weaknesses the Steelers must exploit.
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The Patriots secondary might not be doing much celebrating on Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh.
Have you seen the Steelers wide receivers? If not, let me refresh your memory.
Mike Wallace is the best receiver in the AFC and arguably the best in the NFL. He's the best deep threat out there thanks to amazing speed and quickness.
It doesn't end there. Behind him are veteran possession guy Hines Ward and speedsters Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. Any or all of them can get open against the best defensive backs in the league, and there's virtually no way to cover all of them plus tight end Heath Miller on every play.
Ben Roethlisberger has been locked in more and more with his young receivers, and they are starting to thrive even without the usual stalwart rushing attack. The Steelers no longer have to grind the clock out to beat you; they can outscore you, too.
The Running Game
This isn't the weakness it used to be, and the Patriots have balanced out their offense some after years of being a passing only team, but this isn't the strongest position on the team.
After initially struggling versus the run, the Steelers have begun to shut people down more and more. While not perfect yet, they are more than a match defensively for the Patriots runners.
This season, the Patriots have been using the run more often, particularly on early downs. Part of it is to disguise another weakness in the offense which we'll cover next (their receivers), and part of it is just the natural desire to give talented runners like Stevan Ridley and Ben Jarvus Green-Ellis the ball.
If the Steelers can take away the Patriots rushing attack, they can work on exploiting some of the team's other issues.
Blocking in the Middle
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There aren't many ways to get to Tom Brady, but one of his only weaknesses as a player is the simple fact that he cannot run. At all. He's the perfect pocket passer. His best runs are roll outs.
Since he stays in the pocket, the Patriots have always put an emphasis on good offensive linemen to protect him. They've always had good linemen, but those linemen seem to have one weakness that's getting more and more prevalent as teams catch on.
They don't block well in the middle, particularly against blitzes that send middle linebackers straight into the quarterback's face.
The Steelers have rarely exploited this weakness because they are built more around outside linebacker blitzing and zone tactics. They'd do well to change it up this time.
Bring Troy Polamalu up and send him right between the guard and center. Turn Lawrence Timmons or James Farrior loose. There's no need to sack Brady on every snap (although it would do a lot for the team's victory hopes), but simply get in his face, hit him and get him rattled.
Brady has been human this year and is turning the ball over more often than he has ever before in his career. If the Steelers can rattle him, he'll make mistakes. The key is making sure he doesn't have time to find his secondary targets.
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I will give New England this much: They have the best set of tight ends in the league in Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. What they do not have, however, is a stellar set of receivers.
If I give you Wes Welker and Chad Ochocinco, can you name any of the team's other targets?
It's not easy, is it?
Welker has been a weapon ever since coming to New England, and he and Brady are dangerous when they get on the same page, as they have done routinely against the Steelers.
Ochocinco has never put up big numbers against the Steelers, and this season, he's been more of a distraction than an actual part of the offense. His numbers are down and he's certainly not lighting up the scoreboard anywhere.
Coverage is tricky because the tight ends get open so well, but the best moves would be to put Ike Taylor on Welker and keep the safeties in on passing downs to cover against the tight ends breaking big gains if they get past the linebackers. This isn't going to be a typical situation, but New England isn't a typical offense.
Their lack of outside targets, however, is a weakness the Steelers can exploit. If they can take away Welker, they put Tom Brady is quite the bind.
The Defensive Scheme
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We've talked about the secondary already, but the whole New England defensive scheme is just not working this season.
The team is dead last in the league in yards allowed. They're 32nd against the pass and eighth against the run, and they're allowing almost 23 points a game (16th in the NFL).
For perspective, the Steelers are the league's third ranked defense overall and are allowing about half the yardage that the Patriots are giving up.
But what can the Steelers exploit about that? They can use short passes and screens to substitute for the running game if they can't get Rashard Mendenhall going. I'd also use a steady dose of Isaac Redman in the backfield to give the Patriots a tough inside runner to deal with.
The Patriots rotate their defensive linemen, which is OK for health, but robs consistency. The Steelers can exploit that if they can give the Patriots surprise looks (passing out of run formations, good play action, running out of the shotgun) and catch them off guard.
They can also throw deep and stretch the field early and often. The Patriots aren't getting much good pressure this year and have recorded only 10 sacks. If Ben Roethlisberger has time, someone will get open or he will take off himself.