Behind Enemy Lines: Patriots - Steelers II

Jim Wexell of was kind enough to give us the lowdown on New England's next opponent. Jim answered questions about the following: Injuries on the Pittsburgh offensive line; the impact of fines on James Harrison; the Steelers biggest weakness and how the Patriots might exploit it.

Behind Enemy Lines – Steelers

If you missed Part 1 with Jon Scott, CLICK HERE for an inside look at the Patriots.

1) The Steelers are dealing with a host of injuries right now. What are the most significant injuries and how are the Steelers handling that?

Jim Wexell: Well, you must know that you just sent this obsessive-compulsive on a statistical goose chase to answer your question. But it's a good question: Has the injury to Aaron Smith or Max Starks hurt the team more?

First, Smith. The defensive end has missed 10 quarters. Without him, the Steelers have allowed 4.7 points per quarter, 2.5 yards per rush, and they sacked the QB once every 17 dropbacks. With Smith, the Steelers allowed 3.5 points per quarter, 2.7 yards per rush, and sacked the quarterback once every 13 dropbacks.

Now, Starks. The left tackle has missed 8 quarters. Without him, the Steelers scored 4.8 points per quarter, gained 4.1 yards per rush, and have allowed one sack every 6 dropbacks. With Starks, the Steelers scored 3.4 points per quarter, gained 3.9 yards per rush, and allowed a sack every 18 dropbacks.

The one glaring disparity in all of these numbers is the sacks allowed without Starks, so I'm going to answer that the injury to the Steelers' left tackle has been the team's most significant.

2) Ben Roethlisberger had the well publicized off-field issue which led to a long suspension this season. Is He back in form, or is Big Ben still trying to shake some of the rust off?

Wexell: You capitalized He, not me. I don't even call him Big Ben. But Roethlisberger has disappointed me somewhat because he looked so good in training camp. I've expected better, particularly in communicating with his receivers regarding hot reads against the blitz. I expected that problem to iron itself out just on experience in the league alone. Maybe he misses Santonio Holmes more than I expected. But to answer your question, he still looks a bit rusty. I'll stick with that because I won't be surprised when he really breaks out -- provided the loss at LT doesn't get him killed.

3) Willie Parker was once considered "the man" in Pittsburgh, but he was let go in favor of newcomer Rashard Mendenhall. How has the Pittsburgh backfield changed since these teams met last (2008)?

Wexell: I haven't really been a fan of their running game since Jerome Bettis was in his prime. He declined and then the offensive line was rebuilt. What Parker did was done with speed alone. They're attempting to restore the run game here and the last drive against Cincinnati on Monday night was some of the best work I've seen in that regard. But I'd have to see it happen against another team before I become optimistic. They have no consistency at fullback or in their line or in their design. Maybe they can get it rolling with a blue-chip, all-around talent such as Mendenhall, but till now it's only been spotty.

4) The Pittsburgh defense is well known for being one of the best in the league year after year. In 2008, the last time these teams met, New England was able to put up more rushing yards (122) and the third highest total (267) against them all season but still lost 33-10 due to 5 turnovers. Is this defense as good as advertised, and are they as good as that 2008 team?

Wexell: The Steelers' run defense is as good as advertised. The Patriots must've gouged them out of a spread offense with draw plays during a rally to put up that kind of total. Without DEs Smith and Brett Keisel last week, the Bengals used 3 WRs as their base offense and the Steelers countered with their nickel. It allowed Cedric Benson to rip off 20 yards in 4 carries before NT Casey Hampton was inserted as a nickel DT. From that point on, the Bengals gained only 34 yards on 14 carries. As for the rest of their defense, I'll get into that in Question 6 concerning the Steelers' biggest weakness.

5) James Harrison and Brandon Meriweather each received big fines for their hits on opposing receivers a couple of weeks ago. While Meriweather has been able to steer clear of the fines, Harrison doesn't seem so lucky. Is Harrison becoming the poster boy for the league, and what is he saying now?

Wexell: Harrison doesn't understand what the league wants, and, judging by Roger Goodell's fluffy non-answers to Michele Tafoya, I'm not sure the league does either. Frankly, I'm tired of the topic and tired of the league's behavioral science experiments. The league should be more worried about plays like Meriweather's, but they seem to want to try to legislate the incidental stuff.

6) What is the biggest weakness on this Pittsburgh team and how can the Patriots best exploit it?

Wexell: Tom Brady and Bill Belichick know it's the Steelers' cornerbacks and the big cushions they're asked to allow. Brady will certainly go after Bryant McFadden and nickelback William Gay, and if they get inside Ike Taylor's head, he can bottom out in a hurrry as well. I wouldn't be surprised by a 50-pass game plan out of New England.

I have no strong opinion either way. I don't have confidence in the Steelers, considering the aforementioned matchup problem. But I wouldn't doubt the Steelers come out with their best offensive showing of the season against a young defense at Heinz Field after a 3-game road trip. Let's go with Steelers 27-24 on Jeff Reed's 18-yard field goal that clangs in off the upright at the gun.

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