The Steelers got a gift on Monday evening when the Baltimore Ravens completely fell apart in Jacksonville against the struggling Jaguars. The loss put the Ravens a half game behind Pittsburgh in the AFC North race and gave the Steelers back the vital positioning they need to reclaim the AFC North title.
The Steelers, however, are headed into a key two game stretch in the schedule that could determine the course of the season. It all starts with New England on Sunday afternoon.
Here’s a look at six areas where the Steelers must dominate to claim victory over the Patriots.
The Steelers used to be the ultimate clock killers. They’d get a decent lead and then let Jerome Bettis or Barry Foster or whoever was in the backfield shut down the game and keep the opposing offense from seeing the field.
This year, the Steelers are winning despite the running game. They are outscoring opponents thanks to a combination of an elite quarterback who can keep plays alive with his feet and a corps of wide receivers who can get behind almost any defense.
The best way to stop the Patriots dead is to keep Tom Brady, the league’s reigning MVP, off the field. If the Steelers can find a way to control the clock with or without their rushing attack, they can be victorious.
This goes for both sides of the ball.
If the Steelers can get a good push up front, they can help their linebackers generate pressure. Brady is at his worst when pressure comes up the middle from over the center or inside the guards. That starts with Steve McLendon and/or Chris Hoke.
Winning the battle on defense also will help slow the Patriots rushing attack, which has become more and more of a threat this season.
On offense, the reasons are obvious.
Keeping Ben Roethlisberger upright and giving him the time with which to make plays is vital. The Steelers receivers can get behind any defense, particularly a Patriots secondary that doesn’t do much good in coverage.
Also, if the Steelers can get initial push, they’ll be able to open running lanes for Rashard Mendenhall, who’s dangerous with a sliver of daylight.
The Steelers would need to improve in this area regardless of the opponent. Outside of a huge day against the Jaguars (which looks even bigger considering how much Ray Rice struggled against them), Rashard Mendenhall and his backfield mates have been mired in cement.
The best course of action in my mind is to play Isaac Redman more. Why? He’s a tough inside runner who get bully his way through tacklers regardless of space. He gains those tough yards that grind out first downs.
Mendenhall will be important too, even if he’s in a relief role. He’s a slasher who can make one cut and then go. He also can avoid wrap ups with an excellent spin move (that he needs to stop using when he hits the hole initially) and fast feet.
The better the Steelers run, the more they will be able to set up their play action, which has been devastating for defenses all season.
I’m not talking about the linebackers, I’m talking about the middle of the field. If the Steelers dominate here, they can be victorious.
The Patriots don’t have the receivers to be extremely threatening on the outside. Chad Ochocinco has been mostly a non-factor, and Deion Branch hasn’t been explosive either. Wes Welker works primarily in the middle and out of the slot. The Patriots have two stellar tight ends too that have more than made up for their lack of star pass catchers.
The key to slowing down the Patriots passing attack is turning their usual defensive scheme inside out. They have to be at their best in the middle of the field, where the tight ends are coming from and where Welker will lurk.
This is going to be an important game for Ryan Clark, nickel corner Keenan Lewis and also for Troy Polamalu in a coverage sense. The linebackers will have to act in support too, and this would be a great time for Jason Worilds to be healthy and come up big and let Lawrence Timmons slide back inside.
If the Steelers man the middle, they’ll manhandle the Patriots.
Isn’t it always important to have good special teams?
This game might turn on this facet. This is Antonio Brown’s time to break the big run back.
The Patriots aren’t a bad coverage team. I’d say they are about as good as Pittsburgh in that department. Both teams have kickers who’ve been pretty good this year (even though I’m still not sold on Shaun Suisham) and punters who can kick an offense back into the shadow of their endzone.
The variable? The Steelers have a returner who can strike fear into anyone.
I’ve seen everything from Brown. He can run straight ahead and beat you. He can come to a complete stop, let you run by him and then turn on the jets immediately. He’s just a scary guy when he has the football.
If there was ever a game to dominate and really come up big, this is the one.
Isn’t this obvious?
For the Steelers to win this year, their quarterback has to play his best game. Ben Roethlisberger has had some duds against the Patriots. He needs to tighten it up this time. This game means a lot already, and even more when you consider that the Steelers are back in first place.
Roethlisberger is on pace for over 5,000 yards passing and could set other career highs if he keeps up his current pace. He has to stay away from those early season struggles where he was regularly making errors with ball safety and with defensive reads.
He’s going up against the best the league has to offer at the quarterback position. Brady is right there with Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees in the MVP race in my mind. This is Roethlisberger’s game to show he belongs with that trio.
There hasn’t been a bigger game for him since Super Bowl XLV. The Baltimore games happen twice a year (at least). A chance to beat the league’s darling franchise is too good for him to pass on (excuse the pun).
This is the game people around the country will watch and judge Roethlisberger on. It’s time to shine.