Yes, the Pittsburgh Steelers looked overmatched along the offensive line in stumbling to a 2-5 start, but with a two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback, they still could be a formidable test for the New England on Sunday afternoon.
Given the history between these two teams over the past dozen or so years, you can assume the Steelers would love to come into Foxborough and upset the Patriots, who have an opportunity to extend their division lead in the AFC East as they enter the bye.
Despite all that the Patriots have gone through this season (and extending back into the offseason), the team finds itself in good -- if not very good -- shape before their one-week break from game play. The Patriots have managed through injuries and inefficiency on offense, while a defense decimated by injuries to key leaders has more than held its own.
But the Patriots know there’s room to be better, and, frankly, that they’ll need to be better in the second half of the regular season, when the stakes will continue to raise and the competition with stiffen.
With just about 48 hours until kickoff, he’s what we’ll be watching for on Sunday.
1. Will Brady be Brady? Tom Brady is the first to admit that he hasn’t played to his own expectations this season, as he’s completing roughly 55 percent of his passes and has just two touchdown passes in his past four games. No player is more critical to this team’s success for the balance of the season, and Brady needs to find his groove again. With his receiving group largely healthy and the running game having been better of late, Brady is due for a turnaround. By the numbers, the Steelers are one of the stingier pass defenses in football, but some of that could be attributed to offenses trying to burn clock late in games when ahead of Pittsburgh. On Sunday, all eyes will be on Brady and his right hand, which appeared to be swollen last week.
2. Impact of Sopoaga. It’s difficult to assess expectations for a player acquired just this week, but new defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga was likely appealing to the Patriots first and foremost due to his run-stuffing aptitude. At 6-foot-2 and some 320 pounds, the 32-year-old brings much needed girth to the middle of the Patriots' defensive line. Tommy Kelly practiced on Wednesday and Thursday but was absent on Friday but has been ruled for Sunday's game due to a knee injury, meaning the Patriots will likely continue to rely heavily on rookies Chris Jones and Joe Vellano. Since Vince Wilfork went down with an injury, the Patriots have not held an opponent under 100 yards rushing. Perhaps Sopoaga’s presence can help to break that trend.
3. Talib back in the mix? The Patriots had perfect attendance for both Wednesday and Thursday's practice, but they’re still nursing some notable injuries on either side of the football. None is bigger than that to cornerback Aqib Talib, who has missed two straight games due to a hip issue. He’s practiced a total of seven straight days now, all on a limited basis. Could he return this Sunday? If he does, he could be called upon to shadow Antonio Brown, the Steelers terrific wideout who leads the NFL in catches (despite having played one fewer game than most of the others near the top of the list). Getting Talib back to check Brown would be a major boon for the Patriots' secondary.
4. Woodley’s impact. Marcus Cannon has performed admirably in previous relief duty for Sebastian Vollmer, but now he’s the full-time starter at right tackle going forward, as Vollmer is on the shelf for the remainder of the season due to a broken right leg. The first challenge for Cannon is finding a way to slow down LaMarr Woodley, who after struggling in 2012 is back on pace for another double-digit-sack season in 2013. Woodley has the power to drive an opposing tackle into the backfield, something Cannon will need to counter with his own strength. After allowing just 27 sacks all of last season, the Patriots have already surrendered 23 sacks, too high of a total for a line as talented and experienced as it is.
5. Ridley’s workload. The Patriots have been a running-back-by-committee offense this year, but Stevan Ridley appears, at least from this view, to be running better than any of his fellow backfield mates. But it hasn’t led to a consistent lead back role, as Ridley didn’t play until the second quarter in Week 8 and has had to split duties with LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden, who is used more primarily when the team goes into its up-tempo sets. But Ridley is a key for this offense going forward, as the balance established by his strong running is critical to the team’s play-action passing success. Will he be the first running back on the field to start Sunday? If so, it would be his first start since Week 4.