By Greg Doyle, Patriots Daily Staff
The Steelers have shown an ability to persevere this year and its somewhat surprising. Called old by many experts, ridiculed and dismissed after their 34-7 opening day loss to the Ravens and riddled with injuries, somehow they find themselves at 5-2. And now they play the 5-1 Patriots at home with a chance to take over the number one spot in the AFC, at least in a tie. It should be an excellent game.
Wide Receiver Mike Wallace, #17: Wallace is a threat for 60 minutes every week (bad pun intended). Seriously, Wallace has become one of the top deep threats in the NFL and with the Patriots struggles in pass defense this season, that has to be a top concern heading into this game. The Patriots pass rush looked better last week and that could be a key to not allowing Wallace to get deep on them. Safety James Ihedebo also has offered some stability to the middle of the defense which was a definite problem early on. In any event, the Patriots like to try to take away things offenses do best and in the Steelers case that is throw to Wallace. Easier said than done.
Steeler’s Offensive Line: One of the main reasons for the Steelers struggles in recent years, when they’ve struggled, is continued injuries and poor play among their offensive line. This year is no different. In the opener, they lost Tackle Willie Colon for the season who was their second best lineman after Center Maurkice Pouncey. Pouncey is still there, but the rest of the line has been like a revolving door. Guard Doug Legursky is likely out for the game, while the other Guard Chris Kemoratu has been in and out of the lineup. He will likely play this week, but is still bothered by arthritic knees. Its gotten so bad for the Steelers they re-signed Tackle Max Starks, who they unceremoniously had cut in camp, and he has proceeded to start all three games since returning. At the other tackle spot the Steelers are starting rookie second round pick Marcus Gilbert, who has been inconsistent. With all the lineup changes, aging on the downside players and injuries, if ever there was an opportunity for the Patriots to become the attacking, more aggressive defense this should be it.
Nosetackle Steve McLendon, #90: With Steelers regular and long-time nose tackles Casey Hampton and Chris Hoke out last week, McLendon made his first NFL start. This observer happened to have the chance to view much of that game and McLendon performed quite well. Just 25 years old out of Troy State and having played just 4 games in the NFL before this season, exploiting McLendon seemed to be an area the Cardinals could exploit. But it never really happened and if anything McLendon was disruptive in the run game and a presence in the middle of the Steelers defense. Hampton could return this week, but probably only in a limited role. Hoke is likely still out. So, the Patriots may have better luck against McLendon. It was only one game, but the early results seem to suggest the Steelers found another good lineman thru their player development system.
Linebacker LaMarr Woodley, #56: Woodley may be the best player on either side of the ball for the Steelers. James Harrison (who is almost certainly out this week) has gotten a lot of the accolades in the past, but his play has slipped and Woodley has surpassed him. Originally a second round pick out of Michigan, Woodley racked up 35 sacks the last 3 seasons and has 7 this year 7 games in. A true playmaker, the Patriots have done a decent job against him in 3 games. He only has one sack against them and that came in 2008 when Matt Cassel was quarterbacking for an injured Tom Brady. This week, the Patriots will want to have a good game plan to contain Woodley. If there is any area that has slipped on offense from last year for the Patriots its ball security. They’ve turned it over a bit more often than last year, including two games of four turnovers. If they allow Woodley to create havoc, that issue could rear its head again for New England.
Injuries: As mentioned above Hoke, Harrison and Legursky are all likely out for the game. Also not practicing on Wednesday for the Steelers are Wide Receiver Hines Ward and Linebacker Jason Worilds. Ward would be a big loss as, while not the player he used to be, he is still an effective third down and red zone weapon for the Steelers, as well as being a team leader. One suspects he’d play, however, given his durability and toughness over the years. Worilds is a role player for the Steelers, but a loss given that he is a backup to Harrison and a top special teams player. The Patriots seem to have gotten relatively healthy over the bye. Corner Ras-I Dowling and Tackle Sebastian Vollmer returned to practice on Wednesday. Only Linebacker Dane Fletcher was a surprise absentee for the Patriots. Also, PUPers such as Brandon Deaderick and Ron Brace on the Defensive Line and Running Back Kevin Faulk could make their season debuts this week and have begun practicing. QB Tom Brady recently called Faulk the most clutch player he has ever played with.
Steelers Fans: Despite being 5-2, a review of the Steelers message board Stillers.com has Steelers fans talking very unconfidently:
“The Pats will send somebody out to tie up Ike, and then dink and dunk in the 5-10 yard range and make our linebackers look like a bunch of sniveling idiots, not allowing Troy to get into the action. When we try to adjust, look for some pinpoint 20-yard outs by Brady and some dumpoffs to the running back and/or sweeps. We are toast.”
Over on steelernation.com Southern Steeler is feeling the same way:
“I’ll believe that we can beat them when I see it. Until then………
Well Southern, that has been the trend.
HeinzMustard says the opposite however:
“The Steelers are better than what we think and the Patriots are worse…..
Mustard or Ketchup on your crack Heinz?
The Patriots have basically owned the Steelers during the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady years. They seem to have figured out how to spread out the Steelers normally tough defense and beat it senseless. And its true, the Steelers have no beat a good team this year and lost to the only two winning teams they’ve seen. Yet, somehow, I think this will be a close game. Call it the Steelers are due versus the Patriots feeling. Especially at home. You can’t just spread a team out and expect its always gonna work, no exceptions (though it seems to so far). I think the Steelers should be able to score some points on the Patriots and if the Patriots turn it over as they have at times this year, they’ll lose. I’ll call for a close Pats win on a last second field goal 23-20.