Here are 10 things to watch for in Sunday night’s Patriots-Steelers game:
When the Patriots have had success against the Steelers’ defense, a large reason why has been their ability to use Pittsburgh’s tendency to over-pursue against them with reverses, fakes and play-action. If New England can establish the run early – a big if, especially against a defense that’s best in the league at stopping the run — that lends more credibility to the possibility of play-action. That will draw the aggressive Steelers’ linebackers and secondary closer to the lone of scrimmage, which should create some opportunities in the passing game.
So much of that begins with quarterback Tom Brady, who has enjoyed great success against the Steelers over the course of his career. Brady, who has struggled with a foot sprain but figures to play this week, is 5-1 lifetime against Pittsburgh, and has completed 143 of 213 passes for 1,658 yards, 11 touchdowns, five interceptions and a 97.9 passer rating.
“He’s always been a control passer — use the short pass for a run and then play-action and hit you deep,” Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau explained to Pittsburgh-area reporters this week. “He’s never been just a wild horse, sit back and throw the ball 50 times 40 yards up field. That’s why his deep throws have probably been as effective or more effective than most.”
The Steelers occasional inability to put points on the board. Through the first eight weeks, this is a Pittsburgh offense that had issued when it comes to scoring consistently. They are 16th in the league in points per game, averaging 21.58 points per contest. Much of those troubles came in the first four weeks of the season while Ben Roethlisberger was on a four-game suspension (in those four games, the Steelers broke 20 points just once).
The Pittsburgh offense has broken out since then, but there are still occasions when the Steelers have trouble finishing off drives. They are last in the AFC at touchdown conversions inside their opponents’ 20-yard line — Pittsburgh has had 22 red-zone possessions, but has just nine touchdowns, a conversion rate of 40.9 percent.
“Before last week, we were pretty stout against the run, especially the last four or five weeks,” said linebacker Jerod Mayo. “That was just a little hiccup, and hopefully, we can handle it this week.”
For what it’s worth, they also seem to have major issues scoring in the third quarter: Through eight games, the Steelers have only 16 third-quarter points. New England has 66 third-quarter points. If the Patriots are going to make gains against Pittsburgh, those gains could come right after halftime.
Preventing the big play. In his second season, Pittsburgh wide receiver Mike Wallace has suddenly become one of the best big-play receivers in the game — he has 22 catches for 507 yards, an astounding rate of 23 yards per catch, best rate in the NFL. In addition, he’s fifth in the league in receiving plays of 20 yards or more with 11, and has two games this year where he’s finished with 100-plus yards receiving.
“I don't know if there are too many players that have the speed of Wallace, period — anywhere,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick when asked about the 6-foot, 199-pounder out of Mississippi. “This guy's really fast. He's really fast. He's a special player and can really get in the deep part of the field in a hurry. He's very dangerous back there, and that, of course, opens up some other things in the passing game, too.
“And they've definitely got a guy that can get him the ball, too. It's hard to outrun Ben [Roethlisberger]. He can throw it about as far as it needs to be thrown even when he's not totally on balance. He can just rear back and let it go. That's a lethal combination.”
Fred Taylor. BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead have had their moments, but veteran running back Fred Taylor, who has been sidelined since Week 3 with a turf toe problem, remains the most complete running back the Patriots have on their roster.
The return of Taylor this week would provide the running game with a sizable boost, as he’s always put up good career numbers against Pittsburgh — in 11 career games against the Steelers, he has rushed for 934 yards, an average of 84.9 yards per game, and seven touchdowns. But based on those numbers, even just the threat of Taylor could make a difference when it comes to play action.
Taylor, who practiced this week for the first time since late September but was still limited in what he could do, remains optimistic that even if he does not return this week, he’s closer to a full-time return to the field.
“It’s getting better. There haven’t been any setbacks,” Taylor told reporters on Friday. “I had a productive week. We’ll go from there.”
Rookies bouncing back. Last Sunday was a rough game for rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski, who committed a serious special teams miscue, fumbled away a ball in the Cleveland red zone, dropped a few catchable balls and had a bad holding penalty. Will he be able to put that miserable afternoon behind him? Tom Brady certainly believes so.
“Rob is a tremendous player. What he’s done as a rookie — he and Aaron [Hernandez] at that position, they’ve added so much to what we’re doing as an offense,” Brady said of Gronkowski, who has 14 catches for 148 yards and three touchdowns through a half-season with the Patriots. “And everybody has games like that. We all do. I’ve thrown four interception before and you feel like the eight of the world…’God, I lost the game all by myself.’ And he certainly didn’t do that.
“Football is very important to Rob and it’s not that he’s not working hard. It’s just that sometimes things happen out there. I mean, you don’t have 10 minutes to make a decision out there. These things happen quick. When it doesn’t go well, you keep hearing about it over and over and over and sometimes you get down on yourself a little bit, but you also have to understand that it’s part of playing competitive sports. You’d love to do it right every time, but no one in the history of sports has done it right every time. You just have to try to do it better and more consistently and we’re all trying to do that.”
Taking care of the football. It’s simple, really. If the Patriots are able to protect the football and force turnovers, they will win. If they give up the ball and can’t get it back, they’ll lose: In their six wins, New England has a plus-10 turnover ratio. In their two losses, the Patriots are minus five.
When it comes to turnovers, Nuggetpalooza reveals the Steelers are fumbling at the fifth-highest rate in the NFL (2.1 percent of touches), while the Patriots have put it on the ground at the league’s third-lowest rate (0.7 percent) despite two critical fumbles last Sunday in Cleveland. In addition, Pittsburgh’s defense is tied for the NFL lead with 10 opponent fumble recoveries, while the Steelers lead the NFL with 21 takeaways, forcing multiple turnovers in each of their last seven games.
Being physical. Few teams in the NFL have been consistently as physical as the Steelers, but the Patriots have managed to fight through a few of the more physical teams in the league over the course of the season, a group that includes the Jets, Vikings and Ravens. In two of those three cases, the Patriots have been the more physical team. And on two of those three occasions, New England has come away with the win.
“They’re a physical team. They’re a physical team. That’s been a staple of their team,” said linebacker Tully Banta-Cain. “They’re known for being physical. We’ve played other physical teams, and we’d like to think we’re physical too, so it’ll be a great battle.”
Kicking at Heinz Field. It’s a safe bet that a large reason the Patriots signed kicker Shayne Graham to replace Stephen Gostkowski was especially for this week. Because of his time with the Bengals, Graham is an AFC North veteran, having kicked in Heniz Field on an annual basis from 2003 through 2009. The turf at Heniz Field is considered occasionally suspect, and the 32-year-old Graham might have a better feeling for the intricacies of kicking in Pittsburgh than another one of the kickers the Patriots were considering adding to their roster.
“I’ve just had opportunities that I’ve been able to capitalize on, I guess,” said Graham, who is 9-for-11 in his career at Heinz Field. “I’ve felt like I’ve played well there. Every kick is its own kick. Whatever I’ve done in the past, it doesn’t matter. It’s what I’m going to do this Sunday. I think as a team we all want to go [to Pittsburgh] and perform our best.”
How the new trio of specialists work together on field goals and extra points. Graham and new long snapper Matt Katula were imported this week to replace Stephen Gostkowski (when was placed on season-ending IR on Wednesday) and Jake Ingram (who was cut loose after a series of rough snaps over the last month), and so they’ve had a limited amount of time to work with punter/holder Zoltan Mesko. Katula and Graham do have a limited history together — they were both with the Ravens briefly this past offseason — but the snapper/holder/kicker relationship is based on timing, and it’s a bind that takes time to build.
“I think good, actually,” Belichick responded when asked about how the new kicking unit has looked. “Graham and Katula have worked together down there in Baltimore, so they’ve played before. It’s definitely a question of getting used to it and timing and so forth, so we’ve done that for a few days and we’ll see where we’re at. I imagine it’s alright.
“It affects the center in terms of blocking responsibilities and snap location sometimes (and) things like that. There is a lot going on there. Hopefully we can do a good job with it,” Belichick added. “We’ll find out on Sunday; I’m sure they’ll test us out.”
The Patriots kick return game. When it came to slowing down Brandon Tate, the Browns introduced a new wrinkle last Sunday which many teams could end up copying — they kicked it way short, dropping it in front of Tate and forcing unlikely players like Dan Connolly and Alge Crumpler into sudden return duty. (One of these kicks appeared to befuddle Gronkowski and Sammy Morris, which led to a fumble and the first Cleveland touchdown of the day.) Opponents usually end up yielding an extra yard or two when it comes to starting field position, but they prevented Tate from ripping off a big return.
“The most important thing to us is our field position at the end of the play [and] how far out we can get the ball for our offense to take over,” Belichick said. “That’s the goal, not who handles it or any of that. What’s our starting field position? We just try to maximize whatever those opportunities are. Wherever the kick goes, that’s something we can’t control.”