Saturday, October 29, 2011

New Look Steelers Could Finally Give Patriots Trouble

At first glance, Patriots versus Steelers looks like an exercise in frustration for Pittsburgh.  The games are often close, but since Pittsburgh beat the Patriots on Halloween 2004, they are 1-4 versus New England, the only win coming over the Matt Cassel-led team in 2008.

However, the Steelers are writing a new script this year, and the Patriots defense is in transition at just the wrong time.  So past patterns might not have as much play this Sunday.  Here are three reasons the match-up is intriguing.

1.  Mismatch for Pittsburgh: Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Wallace versus the Patriots secondary.

The Steelers haven’t really been a run-first team since 2005, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s second season.  But their passing game has mostly been short to mid-range throws, with occassional long bombs on plays extended by Roethlisberger.  Without a significant deep threat, the Patriots regularly put extra men near the line of scrimmage, making it tougher for the Steelers to run or pass.

However, this year Pittsburgh sports a real deep threat in wide receiver Mike Wallace.  His yards per game are up about 33%, from 78.6 last year to 104.3 this season, and he scored the two longest touchdowns of his career (81 and 95 yards) in the first seven games.  Wallace always averaged about 20 yards a catch, but his increased yardage and quick-strike touchdowns -- coupled with Roethlisberger’s ability to extend plays -- have opposing teams defending the entire field for a change.

Additionally, the Patriots secondary remains a real problem.  Inexperience at safety has caused communication breakdowns and easy completions and touchdowns.  The team waived cornerback Leigh Bodden during the bye week, leaving scrappy Kyle Arrington and slumping Devin McCourty to cover against outside receivers.  All of which means the Patriots will either double-team Wallace (and leave other receivers open) or take their chances with single coverage (and risk big plays).

2.  Mismatch for New England: Tom Brady versus the Steelers defense.

This mismatch isn’t theoretical (like the first one); Patriots quarterback Tom Brady feasts on the Steelers defense.  For years Pittsburgh has played sound fundamentals and didn’t change the defense much from week to week.  They just played their system extremely well, and the results have been excellent.

Unfortunately for them, Brady exploits holes in their zone coverage, and he is outstanding at reading the blitz and completing passes before it gets to him.  So playing the same defense against Brady doesn’t work.  Need statistical proof... Brady’s QB rating the last four games against the Steelers are as follows: 130.5, 92.7, 125.2, and 117.4 -- gaudy numbers against a one of the best pass defenses in the NFL.

The other trend working against Pittsburgh is that Brady threw three interceptions in one of those games, and zero in the other three games combined.  The Steelers will need to win the turnover battle on Sunday, and that means confusing and hitting Tom Brady -- which they haven’t done lately.

3.  Something has to give: Patriots post-bye offense versus Pittsburgh’s first quarter defense.

After a bye week, the Patriots offense used to be awful to begin the next game.  In the first six years under Bill Belichick, they averaged less than a field goal (2.72 points) in the first quarter of games after a bye.  Something needed to change, and it did; in the last five years they are much improved, averaging 9.13 points in the first quarter of post-bye games.

Then there are the Pittsburgh Steelers, who give up an average of just 3.42 points in the first quarter this year -- and a microscopic average of 1.67 points in the first quarter over the last six weeks.  Clearly one of these trends has to give, and the team that continues its trend will have a leg up in going for the win.

Also note that the Patriots are very likely to be kicking off to start the game.  They always defer if they win the toss, and if Pittsburgh wins, they are likely to want the ball first to keep the Patriots offense off the field.  This factor plays in the Steelers’ favor as far as the first-quarter scoring trend goes. 

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