It's time for our weekly Q&A session with a blogger who covers the Patriots next opponent. Up this week is Blitzburgh Blog, the very first team-specific NFL site to join the Bloguin network. I asked Bam, one of the site's lead bloggers, a series of questions about the Steelers, and he, in turn, asked me a few about the Pats. His responses are below, followed by a link to Foxboro Blog's Q&A session on Blitzburgh Blog.
1. How has this team grew from its four games without Ben Roethlisberger to the four games it has played with Big Ben?
I don't think the team as a whole has changed much since the start of the season. The Steelers were in survival mode the first four games of the year without Big Ben, but the Steelers always play with a chip on their shoulder and that mindset hasn't changed since Roethlisberger has returned. The passing game is certainly much improved, but with or without him the goal of the team is still the same and everybody goes about their business the same way.
2. Do you think Rashard Mendenhall has the opportunity to develop into one of the best backs in the league? Why or Why Not?
Mendenhall has all the talent and all the tools to be one of the elite RBs in the league. He's got a great balance of power and speed and has become a receiving threat at times as well. His numbers aren't overwhelming and that is due to inconsistent play from the offensive line. In front of a great offensive line, he would be putting up huge numbers. It's depressing how many times he has to break a tackle or two before even reaching the line of scrimmage.
3. For the casual fan, does the loss of Aaron Smith hinder this defense in any shape or form? How important is he to the Pittsburgh front seven?
The loss of Aaron Smith is huge. The Steeler think he's important enough that they chose to waive their 4th round pick from April's draft in Thaddeus Gibson just to keep a roster spot open for Smith in case he is able to return eventually this season. 3-4 defensive ends never get a lot of credit, but Smith's importance and value are well known among Steeler fans and the organization. The good news is that the Steelers have an up and coming star in second-year man Ziggy Hood to step in for Smith in the interim. It's a downgrade, but the drop off isn't as big as it was when Smith has been injured in the past.
4. Has 60 minutes (Mike Wallace) developed into Big Ben's favorite target or is it still Hines Ward?
Wallace is one of the best speed receivers in the NFL and Big Ben's favorite deep target, but if the game is on the line and Roethlisberger can only throw to one guy it will always be Hines Ward. 86 can still make big plays and is as dependable as he ever was.
5. What is the one strength Pittsburgh has over New England? What is the one weakness New England can exploit?
Pittsburgh's biggest advantage over any opponent right now, including New England, is their ability to stop the run. Teams are averaging 58.3 rushing yards/game against the Steelers. The next best rush defense belongs to the Giants who are giving up 80.9 yards/game. That is insane. As good as the defense has been, they have struggled in the 4th quarter mightily this season. Quarterbacks have been able to pick them apart late in games and I'd expect Tom Brady to be able to do the same. I'm not sure if the defense eases up or what the problem is, but almost 50 percent of the points the Steelers have allowed have come in the 4th quarter of games.
6. Are the Steelers the best in the AFC as of right now? If not, then who?
I don't really like picking one team out of the bunch at this point. I'd give the Steelers as good of a chance as anybody, but I have a lot of respect for Baltimore, New York Jets, Indianapolis and of course New England. Any of those teams could easily knock off the Steelers each week and vice versa. I certainly feel that defense is the most important factor of an elite team, though, so I'd give the edge to Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and the Jets at this point.
7. In your opinion, will the Patriots win the AFC East, win the wild card, or miss the playoffs?
I'd say it's a toss up between winning the AFC East and winning the wild card. The Patriots are definitely a playoff team. They are too well coached and Tom Brady is too good of a quarterback to miss the playoffs this season. The defense and some of the inexperience on the roster would worry me as a Pats fan, but I've been around long enough to know New England will get the most out of what they have on the roster.
8. With Joey Porter gone, how much animosity is still in this Patriots-Steelers rivalry?
I don't feel that there is a lot of animosity at this point and I don't even think much of it has to do with Porter's absence. The Patriots have never been a natural rival of the Steelers. The teams were both peaking at the same time in the early part of this decade and a few playoff matchups made for a rivalry feel for a while, but I don't see the matchup as a rivalry at this point. As you guys are (probably) aware, the Patriots aren't a particularly well liked team so Steeler fans always get excited to play New England, but I think every team in the league feels the same way.
9. What is the percentage chance James Harrison will hit Tom Brady, causing another fine from Commissioner Goodell?
I'd say pretty high, if only because Harrison seems to get fined about every other week and hits to Brady have been a lightening rod in the past. James Harrison is a hard-nosed physical football player that Patriots fans would love to have on their roster. It's unfortunate that he's become the poster boy of headshots and "illegal" hits because it is taking the spotlight away from how good of a football player he is. Harrison was understandbly very upset at the $100,000 worth of fines he's paid this season, but he will still knock Tom Brady into next week with a clean hit if he's given the chance. We're at the point, though, where we expect any hard hit by Harrison to be called dirty by opposing teams and the NFL.
10. What is your one main key and your prediction of what will happen Sunday night?
It is still early in the week when I'm writing this and I haven't had a ton of time to analyze the Patriots matchup given the Steelers played the Monday night game this week. I think the Steelers are ripe to give up a few passing yards to Brady and that the Steelers offense won't be able to solely rely on the defense to win this game. The game will come down to how healthy and productive the Steelers offensive line can be against New England. If Roethlisberger has time to make some plays and the Steelers can pound the football with Mendenhall like Cleveland did, then I certainly like the Steelers chances. The Pats offense is probably a tad better than Pittsburgh's right now, but the Steelers defense is a lot better than what we've seen from New England so far. That will be the biggest difference. I'm expecting a close game with both teams scoring in the 20s. I'll go with the Steelers holding off a big comeback from the Pats 24-21.