Saturday, November 13, 2010
10 things for Patriots-Steelers
By Mike Reiss ESPNBoston.com
Here are 10 areas that project to be crucial in Sunday night's game between the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field (8:20 p.m. ET):
1. Tom Brady's injured foot. The Patriots quarterback missed his first practice of the season Wednesday and was limited in Thursday's and Friday's workouts. Brady has said in the past that he likes to practice because it's the main way players get better, so the fact his foot injury is keeping him off the field is significant. The Steelers can bring the heat on defense, so Brady's footwork, and also how he keeps plays alive in the pocket, will be key.
Tom Brady has been hampered by a foot injury this week. Will it affect him against the Steelers?
2. Pass protection in spread formations. The Steelers' run defense leads the NFL in surrendering an average of just 58.3 yards per game. The Patriots figure to attempt to run to keep the Steelers honest,, but the better matchup is through the air in spread formations -- if the Patriots can protect. Steelers inside linebackers Lawrence Timmons and James Farrior often pressure inside with a "crossfire zone" and outside linebackers James Harrison (questionable, back spasms) and LaMarr Woodley sometimes line up on the same side in a tough 1-2 punch.
3. Front seven looks to rebound from dismal effort. After a performance that did not meet its own standards in Cleveland, the Patriots' front seven on defense faces a big, physical offensive line that can build momentum with inside runs. So defensive linemen and linebackers have stressed the importance of getting off blocks and tackling this week. The Steelers lost starting left tackle Max Starks to a season-ending neck injury this week, which is a big void for them to fill.
4. Ben Roethlisberger and keeping plays alive. The Steelers quarterback has a knack for keeping plays alive. Last week in Cleveland, the Patriots had a third-down play in which they pressured Colt McCoy but couldn't wrap him up. If they thought McCoy was tough to bring down, Roethlisberger is that much tougher.
5. Shayne Graham's debut in New England. Heinz Field is considered one of the more challenging stadiums in which to kick, which shines a bit of a brighter spotlight on veteran Shayne Graham's debut with the Patriots. The 32-year-old Graham is familiar with the surroundings from his time with the Bengals (2003 to 2009) in the AFC North. The Patriots are also breaking in a new snapper in Matt Katula.
6. Who's providing the interior rush in sub packages? Second-year defensive lineman Myron Pryor missed the entire week of practice with a back injury and it seems unlikely he will make the trip. Pryor's primary role is to rush from an interior position in sub packages next to Mike Wright (questionable, groin). Veteran Gerard Warren is one possibility to fill that void, playing a similar technique to what he did in Oakland, while rookie free agent Kyle Love could also be active for just the third time this season.
7. Patrick Chung at safety. One of the top playmakers on defense, Chung appears primed to return after missing the past two games with a knee injury. His presence should help the defense, as well as special teams.
8. Logan Mankins going the distance. The Patriots worked a three-man rotation at guard last week in Logan Mankins' return, with Mankins playing seven of nine series at left guard (45 snaps). That moved Dan Connolly (5 of 9 series) into a backup role at left guard and right guard, and he rotated in for 29 snaps at both spots. Will the Patriots continue to rotate or again adopt a rotation?
9. Getting Julian Edelman more involved. The second-year receiver has played sparingly on offense this season, and at a time when the offense is struggling to find a consistent groove, play-caller Bill O'Brien could be inclined to add a few plays specifically to get him in the mix. Part of Edelman's disappearance has been tied to the team running more two-tight end sets, but this is the type of game in which a third receiver might be a better approach than a second tight end.
10. Re-establishing an edge on special teams. The Patriots had one of the NFL's best special teams performances through the first four weeks of the season. The next four games, however, were filled with special teams mistakes. The Steelers are big and physical on special teams, and rookie Emmanuel Sanders has added a speed-based spark. The Patriots must answer that challenge.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.