Coming into the 2013 NFL season, this matchup promised to be an early November battle of two AFC heavyweights. With the Steelers currently sitting at (2-5) and the Patriots looking like a (2-6) squad with a (6-2) record, both teams find themselves in unchartered waters. After losing Mike Wallace to the Dolphins, Big Ben (8 TD, 7 INT, 46.7 QBR) has struggled without a consistent rushing attack to fall back on. Pittsburgh averages just 68.7 YPG on the ground, good for 30th in the NFL. Le’Veon Bell has flashed signs of greatness since making his rookie debut in Week 4 but has not broke a run longer than 11 yards.Better yet, the Steelers have just 1 rush longer than 20 yards. Look for the Steelers to try and exploit the absence of Wilfork and Kelly, as well as the inexperience of recently acquired Isaac Sopoaga.
Still 2 games atop the AFC East, it’s no secret Tom Brady (9TD, 6 INT, 48.6 QBR) is not playing at an elite level. Yes, he lost weapons in the offseason but TB12 continues to feel the injury bug wrath that has plagued the Patriots all season long. Amendola has missed 4/8 games and Gronk is finally back on the field for the 3rd straight week. What seemed like a rough 17-3 start to last Sunday turned into 24 unanswered points in the 2nd half. What was the deciding factor in the 27-17 victory; the (3-1) give/take ratio (3-1) in favor of the Pats. New England has forced a turnover in a remarkable 35 games in a row, look for Belichick to keep the aggressive defensive schemes rolling in Week 9. In order to stay undefeated at home and move to (7-2) before the bye, these 3 keys to victory will be imperative come Sunday at 4:25 on CBS.
1) Get Ridley going early: Enough of the disciplinary/Belichick shenanigan ghost starts in the 2nd quarter and beyond. Yes, Stevan had a rough start to the season and fumbles will most likely always haunt the back. But when it comes down to production, Ridley deserves more snaps, earlier in the game. After coming back from his early-season injury, the LSU alum has scored in 3 straight games – averaging 5 YPC on 45 carries for 225 yards and 4TD. Seeing Vereen back at practice this week is a positive sign towards his Week 11 availability coming off IR. He will slide right into the “passing back” role, currently occupied by Brandon Bolden who has played 51.3% of the snaps over the past 4 games. Pittsburgh has surrendered an average of 121.9 YPG on the ground (27th in NFL) but thrive through the air, only giving up 181 YPG (2nd in NFL). If the Pats can get it done on the ground, early and often, I don’t see this sputtering Steelers squad scoring enough points to win. Big Ben and company have scored 10 points or less in 3 of 7 games this year, yikes.
2) Finish strong: The Patriots can take a page out of the World Series Champion’s book for this one. An ideal combination of starting fast and finishing strong is obvious; however, let’s get a bit more granular. There have been too many times on 3rd down that the first tackler gets dragged and better yet, whiffs all together. When New England starts hot, they let teams back into competition. If they get off to a slow first half, they turn up in the 3rd and 4th quarters. The Patriots have not pieced together a full 60 minutes all year, Belichick will be the first to agree. This goes for special teams as well. Old friend Zoltan Mesko returns to Gillette, replaced by rookie Ryan Allen who has filled his shoes admirably. Gostowski is back to his Pro Bowl ways, converting on 20/21 field goals and making some huge kicks late in games. On the contrary, Amendola needs to peel it back a bit. We are half way through the season and we need him for the playoffs. The white chalk is your friend, run out of bounds once in a while.
3) Disrupt Big Ben: Roethlisberger is the king of escaping sacks due to his pure strength and large frame. The Patriots blitzing schemes were impressive last week, bringing down Ryan Tannehill 4 times. The Steelers’ offensive line is vulnerable, allowing 26 sacks through 7 games, close to 3 a game. Brady hasn’t been too elusive himself, going down 23 times thus far. Chandler is playing like a Pro Bowler and the bearded Nink remains consistent. The surprises to date are the play of rookies Chris Jones and Joe Vellano, the recent Isaac Sopoaga trade and the injury of defensive captain Vince Wilfork. It seems as if New England has weathered the storm. Get in Big Ben’s face and the rest will play out accordingly.
Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown are the weapons the Patriots need to contain. The cornerback play has been solid without Aqib and Devin McCourty has found himself at safety. Limiting these two playmakers is key and if only one finds the endzone, I like our chances. Patriots move to (7-2), win 27-17 and head into the bye clicking on all cylinders. Oh and Vereen in Week 11…