New England Patriots' Gameplan Puts Youngsters on Steelers' Defense into Focus

Cian FaheyFeatured ColumnistOctober 28, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - JANUARY 23:  Stevenson Sylvester #55 of the Pittsburgh Steelers reacts against the New York Jets during the 2011 AFC Championship game at Heinz Field on January 23, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Steelers won 24-19. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
Nick Laham/Getty Images

Growing up a Pittsburgh Steelers' fan and ultimately becoming a New England Patriots' writer for Irishcentral, I have developed a certain enamoring for two teams whose fanbases generally despise each other.

While I don't actually have a side this weekend, realistically my Steelers allegiance had to go once I jumped into journalism. This week still brings something special to the table for me.

When I first began to write for Bleacher Report a year ago, I became a Steelers and Patriots feature writer (as well as NFL in general). Therefore, this matchup involves far less research and much more knowledge on my behalf.

Approaching Sunday evening, one must note Tom Brady's undoubted dominance of the Steelers throughout his career. It is a dominance that has resulted in a 6-1 career record, and has Steelers' fans, for the most part, dreading the prospect of Wes Welker waltzing around William Gay all day.

The Steelers are not helped by the loss of some key players defensively. Aaron Smith's career has come to a close in all likelihood, while James Harrison is still recovering from eye surgery. Casey Hampton returns, but Steve McLendon will likely see more snaps against this outfit either way.

Of the big three that have gone out, Aaron Smith is the greatest loss. Smith wasn't having a great year before his injury, but is the type of lineman the Steelers are desperate for against this offense. He was dominant against the run in his prime with an ability to get to the quarterback.

Casey Hampton's return is basically irrelevant because the Steelers will feature a lot more nickel defenses. Even when the team is in a base three-four look, Steve McLendon is the best option of the team's three nose tackles. Chris Hoke is the other, because of his ability to play both ways effectively.

McLendon may be young but he is more athletic than both Hoke and Hampton, who are specialist run stuffers. McLendon will be more disruptive in the passing game which will allow him to stay on the field.

The Patriots' offense is built around mismatches.

It was not a fluke that Bill Belichick was able to get so much out of Danny Woodhead after the New York Jets didn't deem him worthy of a roster spot.

Woodhead would never have had as much success in New York because of the respective systems.

Bellichick thrives on giving Tom Brady a mismatch to manipulate all day long. It was no fluke that Rob Gronkowski caught three touchdown passes in this game last year. It is also no fluke that the team has two of the best tight ends in the league together at once.

The Patriots love to use their tight ends to run a balanced offense with their receivers outside. This allows the team to manipulate the defense and react to whatever the opposing defensive coordinator shows them.

Belichick is looking to get the opposition out of their base system in order to run the ball, if he cannot do that, then Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski and even Danny Woodhead can split out to easily shift to a five-receiver set.

This means that Dick LeBeau cannot realistically play the Steelers' regular game plan.

Casey Hampton on the field will essentially allow the Patriots to play against a 10-man defense because he forges little effect as a pass-rusher.

What the Steelers must look to do, is stay in their nickel package with Keenan Lewis and Ike Taylor on the outside, while William Gay moves to the slot.

Bryant McFadden or Ryan Mundy could even make their way onto the field regularly to make it six defensive backs on the field.

This can only be done however, if the Steelers can get a lot of production from their young defensive linemen.

Nobody is worried about Brett Keisel's ability to play both the pass and the run. The Patriots will not look at Keisel and target him. Evander 'Ziggy' Hood played outstanding football last year but his ability to consistently shut down the running game and pressure the passer, from a nickel defense, is still in question.

Cameron Heyward has been impressive as a rookie, but will be relied upon more than ever this weekend. Heyward comes out of college as a potential pass rushing three-four end that could stop the run.

This game is the perfect breakout day for him where his skill set should be given every opportunity to flourish.

The Steelers could look to McLendon instead as a down lineman in their base defense. The 25-year-old's bulk and athleticism could make him more valuable with less defensive linemen on the field.

With Heyward, Hood and McLendon possibly giving the team more intensity and athleticism up front, this game could look a lot different from last year's affair.

Dick LeBeau could go another route however, should he decide to bring return LaMarr Woodley to a down lineman.

Realistically, against the Patriots, the Steelers defense won't care much for its formation. Getting the right matchups and play calls in the right situations will be far more vital. Woodley has no hope of covering Deion Branch, Wes Welker or even Aaron Hernandez no matter the situation.

Allowing him to play with his hand on the ground, which he did in college, would allow him to focus on solely shutting down the run on the way to the quarterback.

Woodley is one of the biggest outside linebackers in the league. His ability to play in tight is not in question. Whether the Steelers have the linebacker depth to do so is, though.

That linebacker depth may feature another potential breakout performer. Larry Foote and James Farrior are currently starting at inside linebacker, and Lawrence Timmons plays outside in James Harrison's spot.

Both Foote and Farrior excel against the run, but mostly struggle in pass coverage, which is a reason why Farrior has begun to blitz much more in the past few seasons. In this game, the Steelers will be desperate for athleticism from the linebacker position so they don't expose Ryan Clark against the Patriots' tight ends, as he was last year.

The most athletic linebacker the Steelers have, outside of Timmons, is Stevenson Sylvester. Sylvester has only been a special teams stud to this point in his career, therefore his football IQ and comfort in the scheme is a worry.

He is at the point in his career where that he should be comfortable in playing at the NFL speed and have the required intensity level. If the Steelers bring him in for the sole purpose of better matching up to either Hernandez or Gronkowski, then they could give their secondary a huge boost.

With Keenan Lewis most likely seeing a lot of snaps on the outside, he may be asked to play lockdown man coverage a la the Jets of last season/Bills of this season. The Steelers will have a lot more pieces to work with that can matchup to the Patriots this year.

Bryant McFadden led the Steelers in this game last year with nine tackles. McFadden may barely see the field this Sunday and when he does, he will be in a much better position to succeed.

McFadden's reduced role is a direct result of the younger Lewis stepping up. Whether the rest of the youngsters can step up too will likely decide this game.


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