Behind Enemy Lines: Pats - Steelers 1

Jim Wexell of Steel City Insiders answers a half dozen burning questions about the Steelers - Patriots matchup.

1) What happened to former Patriots punter Zoltan Mesko, and why did the Steelers decide to waive him mid season?

Jim Wexell:
What happened? Um, he sucked. It would've been a good plant by Belichick if only the kid could kick. Nice guy, though. And Mesko's twitter response was exceptional: "Looks like my schedule just opened up." In fact, I'd like to hire him as a writer -- just not as a punter.

2) WR Antonio Brown leads the Steelers and the NFL with 56 receptions, accumulating 630 yards along the way.  He only had 66 receptions all of last season. Is Brown getting the ball from Roethlisberger more now because of a comfort factor, the absence of Mike Wallace?

JW: He's their outside running game. I think someone counted that 18 of those receptions were made behind the line of scrimmage. The other factor is the Steelers are always behind. I'm stunned to read that line that he leads the NFL. Just hasn't impressed me in that way this season.

3) Mike Tomlin's team is having a down year, standing at 2-5 on the season. What has been the main culprit in the team's struggles so far?

JW: Many fans will say it's Mike Tomlin himself. I'll admit that he hasn't had a good year, and I'm pointing to his personnel moves and coaching "fixes" as my evidence. I really don't have a problem with his in-game decisions, as do so many fans who go on crusades over eight seconds, or something similarly minimal. The main culprit is what some have expected coming in: a lack of talent. The O-line for instance was paper thin and then lost it's captain on the first series. The left tackle was a big question mark coming in, and he -- Mike Adams -- has let everyone down. But it's hard for me to criticize Tomlin for that because on first guess I was a fan of swapping Adams to LT during preseason. They don't have a true threat at WR, and Heath Miller was out and now trying to work his way back to his high standards. The RB is a rookie who struggled with injuries and the most inexperienced O-line the team has put out there since the 1950s. The QB has lost his magic as fans wage war on each other to either blame him or blame the organization for what it hasn't done for him. Losing sucks, man. But no team can stay on top forever, no matter how much one has come to expect it from his/her team.

4)  With the Jets covering Rob Gronkowski using a taller safety to shadow him with success, the roadmap on how to defend him seems to be there.  How do you see the Steelers defending Gronk, and who will be the main players to watch in that matchup?

JW: The roadmap started back in 2011 when the Steelers used a tall, physical corner named Cortez Allen on Gronkowski. Go back and see how physical Allen was. You'll see some safeties working on him, and as his former college teammate Robert Golden said, "If you get physical with Gronk, it can definitely mess up his game, so we just have to get our hands on him." So look for that, but in critical situations look for Allen.

5)  The Steelers have another Top 5 defense (4th overall allowing 302.9 ypg) this year, but their run defense seems to be an issue (27th overall).  Their pass defense seems solid (2nd overall at 181 ypg). Are teams able to grind out yards on the ground but not through the air? Or is it because of circumstances where opponents don't want to pass because they're trying to run the clock out?

JW: There's some of the latter as a factor, I'm sure. But I wonder if this is where the evolution of the game has taken them. They replaced Casey Hampton with a more active nose tackle who can make plays in the backfield, but who's also easier to move on third-and-1. They also lost their strong-side ILB, Larry Foote, to an early injury and are playing a sixth-round rookie there. Ziggy Hood was not Aaron Smith at strong-side DE, and Hood's replacement, Cam Heyward, is a move similar to the Steve McLendon-at-NT move, in which a more active pass-rushing type is playing up front as opposed to the stop-the-run types who carried them to Super Bowls. James Harrison is also gone, replaced by two players who go back and forth as starters. Harrison was exceptional against the run.

6) New England is dealing with an extraordinary amount of injuries to key starters.  What are the key injuries to the Steelers this year that have impacted the team?

JW: C Maurkice Pouncey went down on the first series and now RG David DeCastro is injured, replaced by Guy Whimper. The aforementioned injury to Miller has hurt. The aforementioned injury to Foote has hurt.

Bonus: What is the best area to take advantage of a Steelers weakness in this matchup?
Pour blitzes over RG Whimper. He's a natural tackle who struggled when the team tried its best to turn him into a versatile backup in the preseason.

JW: PREDICTION: This is a great spot for the Steelers. Here we have two similar teams, in that star quarterbacks are trying to make up for surrounding inadequacies. But Tom Brady is 6-2; Ben Roethlisberger is 2-5. In the past, this would have gotten a young Roethlisberger into an adrenaline sweat for such a game, as he tries to prove he deserves to be called an elite QB. But I don't think he has it anymore. He has enough to keep it close, but he's not finishing, and his time management has never been a plus. That and the dreadful state of their OL makes me predict the Patriots, 20-17.

Jim Wexell is publisher of

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