Last week was a tale of two halves for the now 6-2 New England Patriots. In the first half, fans saw Tom Brady have one of the worst performances of his career in throwing for only 25 yards. The team trailed 17-3 at the half at home to the Miami Dolphins. In the second half, the defense pressured Ryan Tannehill and forced turnovers to lead a 24-0 second half comeback and get a crucial division victory after the gut wrenching loss to the New York Jets. The consequence of the win was losing right tackle Sebastian Vollmer for the season with a broken leg.
Although the team has struggled on run defense after losing Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo to season ending injuries, the team made a trade at the deadline on Tuesday, acquiring defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga and a sixth round pick from the Eagles for a fifth round pick. Sopoaga should improve the run defense this week even though the Patriots have seen Aqib Talib, Tommy Kelly, and Shane Vereen all back on the practice field this week. The Patriots will look to go into the bye on a solid note against a struggling Pittsburgh Steelers' team.
The Steelers (2-5) are coming off a loss in Oakland last week where they gave up a 93 yard touchdown run to quarterback Terrelle Pryor on the first play of the game. Mike Tomlin's team is still strong on the defensive side as they are second in the league in passing yards allowed and fourth in total yards allowed.
It's the offense that has struggled to get going with criticism falling on offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Pittsburgh has one of the worst rush offenses in the league and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has called Sunday's game a “must-win.” Big Ben has been disappointing this season with only eight touchdowns to seven interceptions. He hasn't been helped by injuries to the offensive line, mainly losing center Maurkice Pouncey in the season opener.
Here are my keys to this Sunday's game (4:25 ET, CBS) in Foxboro:
What can Brown Do For You?: The main offensive weapon for the Steelers in the vertical passing game is wide receiver Antonio Brown. Many are surprised to see that Brown is second in the NFL with 56 catches and top ten in yard this season. He has been Roethlisberger's security blanket since he has 9+ catches in four of his last five games. However, that has not led to points since he hasn't found the endzone since Week 3 against the Bears. With likely no Aqib Talib for the Patriots, this will be an area of the game to watch because Brown is going to see his targets.
Also, keep an eye on Emmanuel Sanders. Sanders was a target for the Patriots in the offseason to the point where New England was going to give up a third round pick for him. Sanders has two touchdowns in his last three games and could be defended by Kyle Arrington. Watch Brown and Sanders in the passing game!
For Whom The Bell Tolls: The Steelers were pleased back in April when they were able to draft Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell in the second round. Bell missed the first three weeks of the season with a LisFranc injury, He made his debut in London against the Vikings back in Week 4. However, he has been somewhat inconsistent.
After his best performance of the season (yards wise) against the Ravens with 93 rushing yards, Bell ran for just 24 yards on 13 carries against the Raiders. With Pittsburgh's 30th ranked rush offense, Bell needs to take advantage of a beleaguered Patriots' rush defense to set up the play action pass for Roethlisberger.
Laying The Woodley: The one constant for the Steelers in the past decade has been Dick Lebeau as the defensive coordinator. The Steelers as we mentioned earlier are a top flight pass defense. The Patriots' problem has been protecting Tom Brady and his swollen hand. With Sebastian Vollmer now out, the Steelers are going to bring the blitz and involve a healthy dose of safety Troy Polamalu.
However, I am keeping an eye on linebacker Lamar Woodley. The Pittsburgh team has ten sacks and five of them have been because of Woodley. He has four sacks in his last five games! Other than that, there is not much to boast in terms of sacks since rookie first round pick Jarvis Jones doesn't have one sack so far this season.
I don't expect the Patriots' passing offense to improve at least this week. Danny Amendola has not been able to do much in terms of production and Tom Brady can't stay upright. It has become a reality that most games this year for New England are going to be battles for four quarters. That's why New England has to continue to pound the rock with Stevan Ridley.
Ridley was benched for the first quarter last week and still ran for 79 yards and a touchdown. He has four touchdowns in his last three games. Plus, the Steelers are 27th against the run (Patriots are 31st). The difference for me in this game is Ridley is more consistent than Bell and New England's defense still forces enough turnovers to pull this game out. Pats will be 7-2 heading into the bye week, but it won't be easy.
PATRIOTS 21 STEELERS 17