It's difficult to describe the Steelers as a lesser-known opponent for the Patriots given the recent history between the two teams, although they didn't play each other during the 2012 season (it almost feels like they are in the same division given how often the two teams square off).
Like the Patriots, the Steelers have been among the more consistent NFL franchises over the past decade, but there are some who are wondering if an 8-8 2012 campaign (which followed a first-round playoff exit the year before) is a sign that this team is trending downward. The roster still has talent and an elite quarterback, but salary-cap restrictions prevented Pittsburgh from being a major player on the open market this year in free agency.
The Patriots nearly nabbed a starting wide receiver from the Steelers this offseason, as they signed Emmanuel Sanders to a restricted free agency offer sheet that Pittsburgh ultimately matched. The pick that would have been shipped to Pittsburgh if Sanders became a Patriot was the 91st overall, which the Patriots used on safety Duron Harmon.
While many Patriots followers are familiar with the challenges the Steelers present, let's examine one from each side of the ball that the Patriots will have to work through leading up to a Week 9 matchup at Gillette Stadium.
Offense: The Patriots have not yet faced the Steelers with Todd Haley as the offensive coordinator (he took that post prior to the 2012 season), and one of the staples of Haley-run offenses is extensive pre-snap shifts and motions. Those can serve multiple purposes, including stressing a defense into having to make several adjustments on the fly or perhaps catching a player aligned in a position that he's uncomfortable with. The Steelers use multiple tight end sets as well, which can create favorable run/pass matchups (as we see with the Patriots and Rob Gronkowski/Aaron Hernandez). The Patriots' ability to deal with pre-snap adjustments and get properly lined up will be key to slowing down an offense that looks to feature much different personnel entering the 2013 season. While the Steelers no longer have the explosive Mike Wallace to stretch the field vertically, Roethlisberger's ability to extend plays is always a difficult chore to handle.
Defense: Few defensive minds are as well-respected in the NFL as Steelers coordinator Dick LeBeau, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Among the many ingredients behind LeBeau's prolonged success has been his successful implementation of zone blitzes, which are designed to cause confusion for an opposing quarterback by disguising where the pressure is coming from. If a linebacker is sent off the edge as a blitzer, a defensive lineman may be asked to drop into underneath coverage -- or any other wrinkle involving two or more players. Quite simply, LeBeau is one of the most innovative coaches in the game, and he always develops impressive game plans that present a challenge to square off against. On Wednesday we highlighted the chess match that will take place between Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and Tom Brady on the field when the Patriots travel to New Orleans. A similar chess match will take place between Brady and LeBeau.