New England Patriots v. Pittsburgh Steelers NFL Week 8 Preview
By: Cian Fahey | Published Tuesday, November 1, 2011, 7:15 PM | Updated Tuesday, November 1, 2011, 7:15 PM
Tom Brady leads his Patriots to Heinz Field today, hoping to add to his 6-1 career record against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers however will be looking for revenge after being embarrassed in this fixture last year, while also hoping to take a stranglehold of the AFC North.
With the AFC favorites for this season, and the reigning AFC Champions, going toe-to-toe, there is no doubt which game is a must watch this weekend.
However it is not just the fact that both teams are winning right now, these two teams have been the most dominant of the past decade with a combined five Super Bowl rings and seven appearances.
Both sides have an elite quarterback with star receivers, but both also have susceptible defenses. Especially in the secondary.
It will be a tough day for the New England secondary once again as they suffered not one, but two losses this week. Rookie Ras-I Dowling found his way onto IR while Leigh Bodden found his way towards another roster after being released.
Safety Josh Barrett will also be missing but Jerod Mayo and Sebastien Vollmer have a chance at returning from long term injuries after making the trip to Pittsburgh. Mayo would be a huge addition in order to help the Patriots handle Heath Miller.
Miller is an underrated tight end that should see a lot of targets as Hines Ward is highly unlikely to play due to an ankle injury.
Ward's loss should lessen the Patriots' secondary woes, but in reality, the Steelers have the deepest receiving corp in the league. Tight End Miller will be used a lot in the passing game however Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery and Mike Wallace is still a more than formidable quartet.
Wallace must be double teamed, and even at that it is a struggle to prevent him from getting open with his speed. Brown is emerging into an all around receiver after he proved himself to be a big play option as a rookie. Sanders' sheer size and speed combination make him impossible for any of the Patriots' secondary to cover man-to-man, while Jerricho Cotchery is a proven possession receiver who is being missed in New York.
Bodden's release, only two days prior to this game, will put a lot of pressure on Antwuan Molden, who is the leading candidate to take over the nickel role. Bodden had been contributing to the team despite his inability to be a starter and subsequent release.
The Patriots will be looking to their big guys upfront to create some form of pass rush against a poor Steelers' offensive line. This could be a breakout day for Albert Haynesworth, as the Steelers' biggest issues in pass protection come through the middle.
Rookie Marcus Gilbert and veteran Max Starks have proven to be solid pass protectors on the outside. However Maurkice Pouncey is struggling in his second season, while Chris Kemoeatu and Ramon Foster at the respective guard positions don't have the physicality to cope with Vince Wilfork or Haynesworth.
The Steelers' defense has not been dominant at all this year as they have not seemingly recovered from being shredded on opening day by the Ravens.
Casey Hampton will return, but shouldn't see the field too much as he is a specialist run stuffer. The team will really miss James Harrison and Aaron Smith however. Smith's career has seemingly come to an end while Harrison is recovering from orbital bone surgery.
Harrison's loss is extenuated because Jason Worilds is also out. Worilds is a former second round pick who the Steelers have high hopes for. Without Worilds, the team must move Lawrence Timmons to outside linebacker which costs them athleticism over the middle as neither James Farrior or Larry Foote excel in coverage.
Farrior may not even be on the field as he is listed as questionable on the team's injury report because of a calf injury.
It may be a blessing in disguise if Farrior doesn't play as Stevenson Sylvester would bring a lot more energy and athleticism to the group. That was what was lacking last year when the Patriots dismantled the Steelers' defense with Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker in particular.
This year should be different as Keenan Lewis will see a lot of time on the outside, and the team's leading tackler from that game, Bryant McFadden, has been reduced to a special teams role. With Lewis and Ike Taylor on the outside, the Patriots will see more man coverage which will prevent them from taking advantage of matchups on the inside.
Whether the Steelers' depleted defense can cope with the Patriots or not is no certainty, but they definitely are better built to cope this year.
The youthful pair of Evander Hood and rookie Cameron Heyward will be looked to in order to get pressure on Brady. While Brett Keisel should continue his fine form and finally test Logan Mankins at left guard. While Steve McLendon will provide a stern test for Dan Connolly up the middle.
Getting pressure through the middle has always been the way to slow down Tom Brady. The Steelers certainly have the pieces this year with some emerging youngsters and proven commodities.
Brady may add to his 6-1 record against the Steelers, however don't expect him to have things all his own way because he won't.
Neither will the Patriots.