Commentary

Roethlisberger always a handful

Like their shifty veteran QB, the struggling Steelers won't go down easily

Updated: November 1, 2013, 11:23 AM ET
By Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

Every week leading into the Patriots' next game, ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi and ESPNBoston.com Patriots reporter Mike Reiss preview the matchup. This week, it's a Sunday home game against the Pittsburgh Steelers (CBS, 4:25 p.m. ET):

Mike: These are two of the AFC's most successful franchises over the past decade, but it's been a tough start for the Steelers (2-5). Meanwhile, the Patriots are 6-2, but, as Bill Belichick said, if a few plays had gone the other way, we might see a big swing in some teams' records. In preparing to face the Steelers, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is a good place to start.

Tedy: No one runs for his life better than Ben Roethlisberger. He does a great job of staying alive. You think he might be getting up there in age, and he's getting beat up, he's getting ankle injuries, but you watch him against the Raiders this past Sunday and there are plays when he should be down once, twice, three times, but he's completing passes down the field.

[+] EnlargePittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarBruschi: Ben Roethlisberger "one of the toughest sacks in the NFL."

Mike: We say it almost every year, but you just don't see many 6-foot-5, 241-pound quarterbacks. Belichick joked he might make left tackle Nate Solder the scout-team quarterback this week.

Tedy: I always felt, in my experience, he was one of the toughest sacks in the NFL. I remember one play where I was clean, coming up the A-gap down at the lighthouse side of the field -- about the 15- or 20-yard line -- and I swear I had him lined up. But his short-area quickness, that quick little shifty side step in the pocket to the right or left, he did one of those moves on me and I just missed him. It's still happening today, just ask the Oakland Raiders.

Mike: Although Roethlisberger has been the constant, the running game that traditionally is a big part of the Pittsburgh offense hasn't really shown itself.

Tedy: The Steelers rank 30th in the NFL in rush offense (68.7-yard average). They've had some injuries along the offensive line, and the main thing that stands out to me is that they are no longer a power running team. They use the draw play. They want to make you do one thing and counteract you another way. They won't overpower and overwhelm you, but they want to get you up the field so they can get you with the draw. They want to get you chasing the tear screen so they can get you on the tear screen and go. They want you to chase the reverse so they can sneak the run play in the backdoor. It's almost like a misdirection offense where you really have to do your film work this week and diagnose it before you commit to where you're chasing the ball. Right when you think that's the play, and you have it, they have a counter to what you're thinking. You have to be somewhat disciplined in this game defensively. That physical attack that you think of with the Steelers, it's just not that way anymore.

Mike: Rookie Le'Veon Bell is their lead back, and he's the second-round draft choice out of Michigan State. He returned from an injured foot and has played in four games and totaled 64 rushes for 208 yards (3.3 avg.).

Tedy: There are times they line him up at the quarterback position, which some people call the Wildcat, but it's a little different from that. They did it two straight plays against the Raiders, and mainly they're just trying to get an extra blocker for the running game while making it easier for the running back to go downhill. This is how creative offensive coordinator Todd Haley has to be now. It's wide receivers on reverses. It's quick catch-and-run plays, all because this team is having an incredibly difficult time running the ball.

Mike: In the passing game, there seems to be a lot of shorter stuff. Part of that seems to be a result of wanting to help a banged-up offensive line that has struggled to protect (27 sacks allowed).

[+] EnlargeHeath Miller
Ron Jenkins/Getty ImagesTE Heath Miller has two touchdowns in the past two games and could give the Patriots trouble Sunday.

Tedy: The Steelers don't have Mike Wallace at receiver anymore, that deep threat to go down the field consistently to get that 40- to 50-yard chunk. But, with players such as Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown, they have a unique tear screen package. The tear screen is the quick pass to the wide receiver. On those plays, blockers break out at a 45-degree angle from the line of scrimmage to the sideline, the ball is quickly thrown to the wide receiver, and he quickly tears across the formation behind those blocks. Haley, the offensive coordinator, has been very creative in using that package. He has the tear screen and the tear screen "go," where the tight end or secondary receiver to the formation is also the blocker but instead he'll pump-fake it to the tear screen and then throw it down the field to the player who faked the block and went upfield. Pittsburgh also has the tear screen pass, which is something Antonio Brown tried last year against the Bengals and earlier this year versus the Jets. (A small detail to know with this play is that Brown is left-handed.) That's really part of the Steelers' play-action pass package. They also run some reverse-motion. This is what they've had to do because of the lack of run game. Overall, I think Haley has done a good job this year of calling plays based on the offensive personnel he has and what his offensive personnel can execute. One thing that has helped him is the return of Heath Miller. He has two touchdowns in the past two games, and that's been a big help for Roethlisberger. Miller has always been a player I respected, one who plays hard and is an all-around tight end. He can help you set the edge in the running game as a blocking tight end but also as a capable receiver.

Mike: I've always been a fan of Miller's game; he falls into that pure tight end category -- powerful blocker but also effective as a pass-catcher. But it looks as if the real go-to guy on offense is receiver Antonio Brown.

Tedy: I really respect him. He's done everything for this team -- run reverses, run the short tear screen package; he's run every route, and he's also had some shots down the field for big gains. He returns punts, so, overall, he has to be one of the most valuable players on the team. He has good hands, is fantastic after the catch and will be someone the Patriots have to focus on. I've been a fan of him for some time now -- his toughness, his intensity, just the overall package, how he's an all-around player. He doesn't get as much attention as some of the other big-time receivers such as Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant and A.J. Green, but to me he's just as effective.

Mike: On defense, Pittsburgh's lack of turnovers stands out. The Steelers are minus-9 in the turnover differential, having forced just five turnovers (three last week against Oakland). Compare that with the Patriots, who are plus-7 (16 takeaways, 9 giveaways), and those are numbers that start to explain the difference between a 2-5 team and a 6-2 team.

Tedy: Pittsburgh is allowing 121 yards per game on the ground. That's when you know it's not the defense you're used to seeing. It lost a lot of players you're used to seeing in a Steelers uniform; players such as James Harrison, who always brought an intimidation factor.

Mike: Two of the constants are on the back end: safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark.

Tedy: Those are the main guys I want to highlight. Polamalu is one of the most extraordinary players in the league in terms of how he plays defense. He really does a great job of understanding what the offense does. When he decides what play it is, that's when he attacks. He has an unpredictable style of play. I would relate it to when I played with Junior Seau, who played off of his instinct, his film study and his football intelligence, then exploded to make a play. Polamalu has been adept at that for the past decade. On top of that, having a safety such as Ryan Clark next to him is a big help, too. The other safety, your partner in crime, almost has to know you as much as he knows himself. Clark knows the tendencies of Polamalu, and he can adjust off that. Clark is also very intelligent, a big hitter, and he knows how he has to play within that defense to make it successful. This is probably one of the best safety tandems in the league today.

Mike: One key matchup will be Steelers outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley against Patriots right tackle Marcus Cannon. With Sebastian Vollmer out for the season, it likely thrusts Cannon into the starting mix, and that's the side Woodley usually rushes from.

Tedy: With Dick LeBeau and his 3-4 scheme, another staple is the cross-fire zones -- linebackers crossing in the middle. That's something they have and rely on, and the complexities will come on third-and-long. That's what you saw against the Raiders, when they had multiple players standing up, when Polamalu came off the edge at times, and different looks.

Mike: We also can't overlook special teams, as Steelers kicker Shaun Suisham missed field goals from 34 and 32 yards last week. If he makes those, they might beat the Raiders. The Patriots have six special-teams penalties over the past two games, which is something they want to clean up, but they've been pretty strong overall in that area. They have forced at least one turnover in 35 straight games, and that will continue to be the key. Patriots 27, Steelers 20.

Tedy: It was such a joy for me to watch the Red Sox win the World Series with my sons. Players from other professional teams watch each other and are very aware of the effect it has on the region. This will be a motivating factor for the Patriots this week, and they will want to keep the party going in New England. A motivated New England squad will beat Pittsburgh. Patriots 24, Steelers 20.

Tedy Bruschi

Columnist, ESPN.com
Tedy Bruschi spent his entire 13-year career with the New England Patriots after being drafted in the third round out of Arizona. He played in five Super Bowls, winning three. He retired prior to the 2009 season.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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