Behind Enemy Lines: Steelers Part 2

To find out all the latest with the Patriots' opponents this week, we checked in with insider Jim Wexell. Get inside for his take on Big Ben's status as a Top 10 QB, Why the AFC North has the top defenses, how the Steelers can exploit the Patriots defense and more...

How much of an issue has the Steelers offensive line struggles been?  Has it really affected the outcome of games like the reports indicate?

Jim Wexell: It's affected games as much as it has every game since 2008, when the last of the studs – Alan Faneca, Jeff Hartings, Marvel Smith – left town. Now, the depth might be better than it had been, so there's not much of a drop-off to the replacements. As we sit here today, Max Starks should be ready for his best game, Chris Kemoeatu has embarrassed himself enough lately and should behave himself this week, Maurkice Pouncey's playing well, and the right side's been together a whole two weeks, and with a couple of vets ready as backups. Yet, Belichick is licking his chops.
Ben Roethlisberger was once considered a Top 5 or even a Top 3 quarterback in the league. When you look at what's going on in the passing game around the NFL and the record setting pace everyone is at, Big Ben ranks just T-6th in passer rating (85.3) and  8th in yards/game (276.7). Even Eli Manning claims to be a Top 5 QB now. A quick informal poll has most rankings set like this: Aaron Rogers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, and either Matt Schaub, Eli Manning, Ryan Fizpatrick, Matt Stafford or sometimes Roethlisberger.  
Is Big Ben falling off in performance this year, and where should he be ranked in say a Top 10?

Patriots LB Rob Ninkovich pressures Buffalo Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick   9/25/11 (Rick Stewart/Getty Images)
JW: I realize Ben got married and, you know, things have changed a bit, but there's no way on God's beautiful earth that any of those quarterbacks after Rodgers, Brady and Brees is better than Roethlisberger. Rivers has to win something with that cast he has. And when Stafford gets in big games, make sure he doesn't crap the bed like he did in big games in college. These guys have to get to big games first before we can even compare with what they did in those big games, and THEN debate careers.
Ryan Fitzpatrick? Did you throw that in there just to get me all riled up?

Since 2000 the Patriots have the best regular-season road record  59-32 (.648) on the road of any team in the NFL. Tom Brady hasn't lost to the Steelers since 2004 and is 2-1 regular season and 2-0 postseason against them in Pittsburgh. While the past is the past, how does this history affect the perception of the upcoming game in Pittsburgh, of the players or the coaches?

JW: Does double road usage mean it's a home game? Just messing with you. Um, the question is, Are the Steelers a-scared of the Patriots? Well, I can't speak for them but I am. History is the only reason for that.

 Tom Brady has the Patriots passing attack ranked number 1 in the league, on pace to set new NFL records. His last three games against Pittsburgh he passed for over 350 yards each time.  What can Pittsburgh do to slow / stop this trend from continuing?

JW: Let them run the ball successfully. I say that in jest of course but it seems to have become the unintentional game plan this season. Instead of forcing teams to pass into their soft secondary, they've given up bits of hope in the run game. But other than that, bring some big boys up the middle. Pressure from up the middle seems to get Brady off his little footpad back there, and then the Steelers can only hope he's not throwing laser beams the way he was last year. No one but Aaron Rodgers can be that sharp twice.

The AFC North division has the four best defenses in the NFL, ranked statistically.  Is this more of an anomaly of the schedule, or are all of the defenses in the division really that good?

JW: The schedule is hideously easy. AFCN teams play the NFC West and AFC South. You can break it down from there.
With the Patriots possessing the worst (yards/game) ranked defense in the league, what do you think the Steelers will try to do to exploit that vulnerability?  And will it be a shoot out because of the way these two teams are built?

JW: Belichick will crash the right side of the Steelers' offensive line and stuff the run and make them throw on 2nd-and-11 and then 3rd-and-18. Hopefully the Steelers use Ike Redman at tailback, because he's a better tackler than Mendenhall. Oops. I meant to say he's a better blocker. Seriously, we've all seen this movie before.
Prediction: (and why): If this were any other team but the Steelers – outside the Patriots' division – that team would have a chance to beat Belichick and Brady coming off a bye with a porous offensive line. But the fact that the B&B boys respect and hate the Steelers so much, they will be able to withstand a really wired home crowd and a live home underdog. Make no mistake, the Steelers will be busting out of their unis for this one. Tomlin really wants this bad. So does Ben. That's what gives these guys a chance against a team that is an seismic mismatch for them. Brady picks apart zones and blitzes, and he just goes ballistic against zone-blitzers. I'm predicting Patriots 27-20 just to buck the world that thinks it will be a high-scoring game. But if I were the Steelers, I'd throw every curve ball in the book at them – pass early, often; don't let them cream the run and then blitz in long third downs. And the Steelers need to stay loose. Maybe if they already have chalked it up as a loss and realized the important game is next week versus Baltimore, they can let it all hang out and then get the crowd involved in the fourth quarter, because the crowd hates the arrogant Patriots more than any team since the arrogant Cowboys in the 1970s.  Only difference is the Steelers can't beat the friggin' Patriots.

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