Saturday, October 29, 2011
Patriots' areas of interest vs. Steelers
By Mike Reiss ESPNBoston.com
Here are six key areas for the New England Patriots in their game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on Sunday (4:15 p.m.):
1. Pass protection in the spread offense. If past matchups are any indication, the Patriots will have the spread offense as a big part of their attack in hopes of neutralizing the Steelers' attacking defense and safety Troy Polamalu's ability to disrupt plays as a blitzer. To do so, they'll need to protect quarterback Tom Brady with limited help. If the offensive line can do that, the Patriots should have favorable matchups with their pass-catchers, with tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez big parts of that. Outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley has seven sacks, 5.5 of which have come in the last three games.
The Pats must slow Steelers receiver Mike Wallace, who is averaging more than 20 yards per reception.
2. Bringing down Big Ben. The Patriots generated good pressure against quarterback Ben Roethlisberger last year and should be able to do so again. Defenders were excited in the locker room Friday when talking about plans to hopefully "pin their ears" back in this game. The Steelers' offensive line is not a top unit, and injuries have created instability up front. But generating pressure is only part of the challenge when facing Roethlisberger; bringing him down is especially tough because of his size (6-foot-5, 241 pounds).
3. Accounting for the speed of receiver Mike Wallace. The Patriots haven't faced a receiver who can burn like Wallace. The third-year target out of Mississippi is averaging more than 20 yards per reception and had a 95-yard touchdown catch-and-run last Sunday against the Cardinals. James Ihedigbo has started the last two games at safety alongside Patrick Chung, and the safeties figure to be tested more than they were against the Jets and Cowboys.
4. Antwaun Molden and the third cornerback role. Friday's surprising release of veteran Leigh Bodden opens the door for Molden to be the nickel corner, which is how it unfolded in Oakland when Bodden didn't dress. How does he respond in Pittsburgh? Molden, a third-round pick of the Texans in 2008, has mostly been a special-teams player to this point in his career. Now he's moving up the ranks in New England, and if the Patriots are in a sub defense for the majority of snaps, he figures to be tested.
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5. Impact of new players on the roster. After releasing Bodden on Friday, the Patriots opened a roster spot to activate one of their players on the physically unable to perform list -- running back Kevin Faulk, defensive linemen Ron Brace, Brandon Deaderick or Marcus Cannon. Promoting Faulk, whose excellence in pass protection would be an asset against the pressure-based schemes over the next month (Steelers, Giants, Jets), would make a lot of sense assuming he's ready to go. Brace and Deaderick would add depth and help in not having to rely on Vince Wilfork to play as many snaps.
6. Establishing some early balance. For all the talk about spread offenses and Brady's past success against the Steelers, the Patriots don't plan to ignore the running game. The Steelers have shown some vulnerability in that area, ranking 19th in the NFL with opponents averaging 4.5 yards per carry. Players have talked this week about matching the Steelers' physicality, which ties into that aspect of the matchup.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.