Here are 10 matchups worth keeping an eye on in Sunday’s Patriots-Steelers game:
Tom Brady against Dick LeBeau: There have been no fewer than 8,203,412 stories written this week about Tom Brady owning Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, so I’ll spare you another version here. The bigger question entering this game is: Will the Steelers try and do something different in hopes of slowing Brady down? Probably not.
The core beliefs of the Pittsburgh defense have been in place for generations (Bill Belichick said this week that the Steelers’ scheme hadn’t really changed at all in 20 years), and while it’s been a huge reason for the Steelers’ success over the years, that defensive style doesn’t particularly lend itself to flexibility. Bottom line is that when it comes to defense, Pittsburgh is what it is -- a big, physical, aggressive team that gets plenty of pressure on the quarterback.
But at the same time, they have a hard time with multiple formations, and the Patriots’ offense, with Brady at the helm and a variety of options in both the passing and the running game, is as multiple as they come. Unless the Steelers are able to force a fluky turnover or two early and take New England out of its game (as was the case in 2004 when Brady threw two picks in the only game he’s lost to Pittsburgh), this shapes up as a bad matchup for the Steelers, which means you can go ahead and pencil in another 30-for-40, 300-yard, three-touchdown effort for the quarterback.
Rob Gronkowski against the Pittsburgh pass defense: Gronkowski was an absolute nightmare for the Steelers last season (he had three touchdowns and caught all five of the passes in his direction for 72 yards), and it’ll be interesting to see what the Steelers try and do to slow down the big fella on Sunday. Pittsburgh will also have to deal with Aaron Hernandez, who played only a handful of snaps last season against Pittsburgh because of injury. The Steelers must decide if they want to try and combat the duo with linebackers (which would mean a combo package of James Farrior and Larry Foote) or leave them to the safeties, including Ryan Clark. The thinking here is that Pittsburgh tries to get physical with Gronkowski, and then maybe try and match Hernandez up with one of the defensive backs.
Patrick Chung against Heath Miller: The Patriots have done a good job of slowing down elite tight ends -- Antonio Gates, Jason Witten and Dustin Keller -- this season with a combination of coverages. In all, opposing tight ends have averaged just three catches for 39 yards against New England. The Patriots will get their chances against another good one on Sunday when they face Miller, who has 23 catches for 276 yards (both good for third on the Steelers) and two touchdowns. While the Patriots will mix their coverages (zone, man), look for Chung and fellow safety James Ihedigbo to lead the way, as the New England linebackers have done a poor job in pass coverage this season. According to Nuggetpalooza, Patriots linebackers have been targeted on 60 passes this year but have defensed only one of those, the lowest percentage in the league.
Nate Solder/Sebastian Vollmer against Lamarr Woodley: With James Harrison on the shelf because of an eye injury, Woodley has become Pittsburgh’s top pass rush threat. He has seven sacks on the year, including two in the last three games. Woodley, who usually rushes from the left outside linebacker slot in LeBeau’s scheme, will likely go up against either Solder, who has done a serviceable job as a rookie (according to Pro Football Focus, he’s the only New England rookie to play more than 100 snaps this season) mostly filling in for an injured Vollmer. If Vollmer is completely over the back problem that slowed him through much of the early going this year, he figures to get the start.
Devin McCourty against Mike Wallace: The Patriots’ defense is all about slowing down their opponents’ No. 1 offensive option, and Wallace has certainly proved himself as Pittsburgh’s primary threat this season. The Ole Miss product leads the Steelers in targets (50), receptions (36), receiving yards (730), touchdowns (five), yards per catch (20.3) and receiving yards per game (104.3). Meanwhile, It has been a difficult start to the season for McCourty (according to Pro Football Focus, he’s tied for last allowing 35 receptions to his covered receiver), but while the Patriots figure to play some zone in the secondary to try and defend against the Pittsburgh passing attack, figure that McCourty will see Wallace in single coverage occasionally on Sunday. Wallace is one of the best deep threats in the league (his 20.3 yards per catch is third-best in the league), and set a franchise record with a 95-yard touchdown reception last week against the Cardinals. McCourty, who said Wallace was “probably the fastest receiver in the NFL” this week, will certainly be challenged on a regular basis by the Roethlisberger/Wallace combination.
Brandon Spikes against Rashard Mendenhall: With the absence of Jerod Mayo and the apparent regression of Dane Fletcher, Spikes has stepped up very nicely at the linebacker spot over the last couple of games, and if Mayo is out again on Sunday, Spikes will again get the bulk of the reps in his place. The Steelers are no longer the ground-and-pound offense they’ve shown in years past, but Mendenhall remains their No. 1 option in the running game with 94 carries for 351 yards for a 3.7 yards per carry average and three touchdowns. After some bumps at the start of the season, Spikes has made serious gains in the running game, including a seven-tackle effort two weeks ago against Dallas.
Andre Carter against Max Starks: The Patriots’ best pass rusher over the last two games has certainly benefitted from having Albert Haynesworth back in the lineup on a semi-regular basis -- in the Dallas game, Carter was able to get serious pressure on Tony Romo when Haynesworth was in the lineup, because Haynesworth routinely drew two blockers (and in the case of Carter’s second sack of Romo, three blockers). Carter should be able to do the same thing on Sunday against a Pittsburgh offensive line that has yielded 20 sacks through seven games, the sixth-worst total in the league. Protecting Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side will likely be Starks, who is an upgrade over Jonathan Scott, who was getting destroyed for much of the early part of the season. After being signed off the street earlier this month, Starks has played every snap the last three games for the Steelers at left tackle, and allowed just one sack in that stretch.
Wes Welker against William Gay: The job of slowing down one of the NFL’s elite receivers will fall to Pittsburgh’s nickel back. Gay would be wise to take a look at the film from New England’s last game against Dallas, where Cowboys’ corner Orlando Scandrick (with some help), was able to hold Welker to six catches for a season-low 45 yards and a touchdown.
Vince Wilfork against Maurkice Pouncey: Wilfork will not be lined up exclusively on Pouncey -- the Patriots will likely employ a four-man front against Pittsburgh -- but Wilfork will spend much of his time knocking heads with Pouncey, one of the best young offensive linemen in the league.
Patriots kick coverage against Antonio Brown: The Steelers don’t have a kick return for a touchdown this season, but Brown, who is averaging 29.4 yards a return, has been a valuable weapon for Pittsburgh’s special teams. According to Nuggetpalooza, 54 percent of kickoff returns by the Steelers have gone for 30 or more yards, easily the highest percentage in the league so far. (The Texas and Broncos are hitting on 38 percent.) Meanwhile, the Patriots have allowed only 2-of-22 opponent kickoff returns to break 30 yards (10 percent).