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Thursday, October 27, 2011
Updated: October 28, 9:55 AM ET
Steelers favor 'schoolyard' football

By Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

Every week during the season, Mike Reiss and Tedy Bruschi break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week's breakdown is on Sunday's road contest against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Mike: Let's start with a few statistics I think are good jumping-off points for this game. With the Patriots coming off their bye, it's interesting to note that teams are 3-9 in that situation over the past two weeks. But when you look closer at those results, it shows that most of those losses were expected based on the level of teams playing. The second statistic is that the Steelers are 5-2 despite having created only a league-low three turnovers this season. They rank last in the NFL in turnover differential at minus-9, with just three takeaways against 12 giveaways.

Tedy: I want to start by touching on the mental aspect for both teams, looking back at last season's game. The Patriots were coming off a bad loss to the Browns, and they were coached hard by Bill Belichick the entire week. They came out against Pittsburgh with something to prove. It's a different situation for the Patriots this season going into the Steelers game. They're coming off the bye, and that's why I think Belichick will work them hard this week with one extra day of practice on the schedule. Meanwhile, the Steelers are 5-2 after everyone was saying they were old, washed up and done following a season-opening loss to the Ravens. With the Ravens (4-2) losing at Jacksonville on Monday night, that allows the Steelers to create a little more cushion in the standings heading into next week.

Mike: This starts a three-game stretch for the Patriots that looks especially tough -- at Pittsburgh, versus the Giants, then at the Jets. And then you look at the Steelers, who host the Ravens after this one. The Steelers' wins have come against Seattle (home), Indianapolis (road), Tennessee (home), Jacksonville (home) and Arizona (road), while the losses have come against Baltimore (road) and Houston (road). This would be their best win if they can pull it off.

Tedy: Both teams know. You don't do schedule watching down the line -- Week 14, 15, 16 -- but you do know who is coming up in the immediate future. The Patriots know it's going to get tough. The Steelers know it, too. That adds a different dynamic to the matchup, and I think that's why we'll see the best from both teams Sunday.

Patriots offense vs. Steelers defense

Mike: This is a 3-4 scheme and one the Patriots are obviously familiar with. It will be the ninth meeting between the teams in Belichick's tenure as Patriots coach. Tom Brady didn't play in one of those games (he was injured in 2008), but he's 6-1 against the Steelers.

Polamalu
The Steelers' Troy Polamalu and Patriots offensive lineman Logan Mankins might have some unfinished business to settle.

Tedy: Brady and the offense have always had success in this matchup. Even when I was playing, the game plan was to spread out a complex defensive team with all its blitzes, and doing that helped simplify the looks. The player to start with is safety Troy Polamalu, because he can do so much in the box when teams are compressed in their formations. That's why you spread the Steelers out, and Polamalu has to show his hand early in terms of where his responsibility is. If he doesn't, and he's disguising, he'll have more distance to cover. I think that's what you'll see. Last season, Brady was 5-of-7 with two touchdowns when throwing the ball more than 15 yards. You have to stretch this defense and challenge it vertically; if you don't, Polamalu won't respect you and he'll stay in that box.

Mike: Last season during the Patriots' 39-26 win over the Steelers, we remember Polamalu and Patriots offensive lineman Logan Mankins getting into it.

Tedy: That was a quarterback keeper and Brady scored on the play, but Polamalu was trying to push Brady back over the end zone by the helmet. When Mankins saw that, him being the enforcer, he started a fight. Then James Harrison came in. What was interesting about that to me was how Brady responded. He got up, the play was over and he spiked that ball as if he was sending a message to the entire crowd at Heinz Field. You heard the boo-birds coming out, people taking it as a sign of disrespect. If I were a member of the Steelers' defense, I'd be thinking about that spike this week. If I were Mike Tomlin, the Steelers' coach, I'd show that to my entire defensive unit this year. That was a shove-it-in-your-face moment from Brady, because he's so intense.

Mike: In mentioning how the Patriots have had success spreading the Steelers out and attacking down the field, a key is pass protection with limited numbers. We'll be keeping an eye on starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who has missed five of the first six games with a back injury and could return this week. He is hopeful, and his return would be big against this attacking Steelers defense coordinated by the respected Dick LeBeau.

Tedy: We talked about Polamalu and accounting where he's coming from, and then I think you look to outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley. He has a league-high seven sacks on the season and 5.5 in the past three games. He's probably the Steelers' defensive MVP at this point. The other outside linebacker, Harrison, has gone down with an orbital bone fracture, and Tomlin said this week that he probably won't play. So if you're the Patriots, you have to stop Woodley. He's one of the top pass-rushers in the league.

Sebastian Vollmer
The Pats are hoping offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who has missed five of the first six games with a back injury, returns to action this week.

Mike: The Steelers also are hoping to have nose tackle Casey Hampton back, as this is a defensive line that is without unheralded end Aaron Smith, who has been placed on season-ending injured reserve. Ziggy Hood, a 2009 first-round pick, takes over that spot. And, of course, they have veteran Brett Keisel at the other end.

Tedy: Hampton has missed the past three games. His return will be important against the run, so you look at that Dan Connolly-versus-Hampton matchup if he plays.

Mike: When you look at the secondary, is it fair to say this is an area Brady should be able to exploit? We've certainly seen that before.

Tedy: I think so, because it's all about matchups. I wonder how the Steelers will deal with the Rob Gronkowski/Aaron Hernandez matchup. I think Polamalu is a spectacular player, but the edge has to go to the athletic tight ends in terms of coverage. Gronkowski had a big day against the Steelers last season (five catches, 72 yards, three touchdowns), and with Hernandez no longer on the injury report, he'll be a huge option. Anticipate multiple formations from the Patriots.

Mike: The Steelers are first in the NFL when it comes to fewest passing yards allowed (171.9 per game), and they are 19th in terms of average yards allowed per rush (4.5). Based on those numbers, you wonder whether the Patriots can get a little bit of a running game going.

Tedy: That has to be one of the big goals for the Patriots, to try to keep the Steelers' defense off balance. Once an offense becomes predictable, that's when the Steelers' defense is at its best. In obvious passing situations, that's when they can bring the pressure. So you try to keep them off balance, not only with the formation selection and personnel groupings, but also play selection. An example would be spreading them out, but running out of that look with BenJarvus Green-Ellis.

Mike: As a former linebacker yourself, any thoughts on the Steelers' linebackers? I know when we talked about the Cowboys a few weeks back, you mentioned their linebackers in the same sentence as this group.

Tedy: When you think about the Steelers, the cross-fire zone comes to mind, and how LeBeau uses the linebackers to make plays. He always does a great job. We talked about Woodley and Harrison, and then you have Lawrence Timmons, James Farrior and Larry Foote. This is one of the best linebacker corps in the NFL. Linebackers have been LeBeau's signature. You have complexity in terms of schemes, and they're going to come at you from all angles.

Patriots defense vs. Steelers offense

Mike: Let's start right at quarterback with Ben Roethlisberger. I was asked this week where he'd rank among NFL quarterbacks, and I said he'd have to be in the discussion right after the Bradys, Mannings, Rodgers and Brees. It might not always look conventional, but he produces results.

Tedy: He keeps plays alive longer than the norm, and the Steelers often are at their best when it's "schoolyard" football and Roethlisberger and Hines Ward can improvise. So it's the type of situation where after the initial structure of the play has broken down -- maybe Roethlisberger has avoided a sack or two -- they're making big plays. A big goal of the Patriots' defense this week will be to finish Roethlisberger like they did last season with five sacks. If you're close, and you have a hand on him, you're not necessarily finished. He can keep that play alive.

Ben Roethlisberger
Ben Roethlisberger, who is 147-of-234 for 1,937 yards this season, relies heavily on wide receiver Mike Wallace.

Mike: Roethlisberger is 147-of-234 for 1,937 yards this season, with 12 touchdowns and six interceptions. Overall, when you think of the Steelers, it used to be a trademark of big, physical offensive lines and running the football, but this offense couldn't necessarily be categorized that way.

Tedy: This is a passing team, if you ask me. The Steelers try to re-establish the running game, but with the inconsistency along the offensive line, it's been tough. Last week against the Cardinals, they used their seventh offensive line combination. When you have that, it's hard to have a pound-it type of mentality. The other thing to factor is that Roethlisberger is pushing for a little more hurry-up, as he feels comfortable with it. Maybe they will get to it this week against a Patriots defense that has been up and down versus the pass.

Mike: The Steelers have some young receivers doing good things. Mike Wallace (third round, 2009), Antonio Brown (sixth round, 2010) and Emmanuel Sanders (third round, 2010) are all producing. To me, this is an example of good scouting and player development over the past few years in this area, so you tip the cap to Kevin Colbert, their general manager. Wallace is the leader of the charge, as he has a team-high 36 receptions for 730 yards (20.3-yard average) and five touchdowns.

Tedy: Wallace might be the No. 1 deep threat in the entire NFL. I know how much the Patriots respect him. All you have to do is look at the fourth quarter of last season's game, when he was on fire. What Belichick did toward the end of the game was vice him, as if he was a punt-team gunner. So the Patriots had two guys on him at the line of scrimmage, jamming him, because Belichick was sick and tired of seeing Wallace catching ball after ball and drawing a pass interference penalty. He's a problem, and I think the Patriots understand that.

Mike: From an overall perspective, it looks like the Steelers have cleaned up some of their turnover issues, even though the turnover differential (minus-9) doesn't look great.

Tedy: They had a lot of turnovers in the first few weeks when it looked like Roethlisberger was still on lockout vacation when it came to ball security. So that factors in to why that statistic looks as bad as it does. But to still see them at 5-2 with that type of statistic is a testament to who they are.

Mike: Tight end Heath Miller is a personal favorite; I like the way he plays the game. He's sort of unheralded from a national perspective, but he's a solid combination tight end. And we should mention the running backs. Rashard Mendenhall isn't lighting up the stat sheet (94 carries, 351 yards, three TDs).

Tedy: And you can't forget Ward (26 catches, 258 yards, two TDs); he's someone you always have to account for as a defense. One thing to keep in mind is that Ward left with an ankle injury Sunday in Arizona, so his availability for the game is something to watch. In the end, here is what it comes down to against the Steelers: They want to get in your face, push you around, talk trash and intimidate you. It's all about, "Will you push back?" That's what I think Brady was doing last season when he spiked that ball.

Mike: Let's get to our predictions. I do believe the Patriots will lose at least one of the next three games, and I think this could be the one. I envision Pittsburgh receivers having success down the field, assuming Roethlisberger has the time to attack that area of the field. On the flip side, the unknown is whether the Steelers' defense can come up with an answer for the spread attack, which has hurt them in the past. Brady has been hit 13 times over the past two games, and I could see Pittsburgh, at home, finding a way to do what it hasn't in recent years -- generating enough pressure to slow down the offense this time. Steelers 27, Patriots 24.

Tedy: Brady and Roethlisberger will both have big nights. It's just a matter of who will have the bigger impact. It will be Brady. This week the season turns for CB Devin McCourty, and he makes a big play that changes the game. Patriots 30, Steelers 27.

Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th anniversary team. Mike Reiss is the Patriots blogger for ESPNBoston.com. You can reach Mike by leaving a message in his mailbag.