Patriots Report: Points Will Be Tough In Pittsburgh
By Dave Fletcher
The Patriots havent had too many situations over the last two years where they needed to rebound after a loss. Such is the life of a team who wins 35 times over a 40 game stretch, including the playoffs.
This weeks game against the Pittsburgh Steelers is one of those rare instances when New England comes into a game with the bitter taste of defeat in its mouth. Last weeks 27-17 loss to the Panthers was an exhibition in ineptitude. Poor blocking on running plays. Dropped passes. Bad throws. Six false start penalties. Porous special teams coverage. Turnovers.
The Patriots need to better themselves in all these facets if they plan on winning many more games this season. Unfortunately, going into Heinz Field to face a Steelers team that has maimed its first two opponents of the season isnt going to provide the Patriots with any fast or easy answers.
It's been a while since I've seen a more dominating team than what Pittsburgh has been in these first two regular-season games, said coach Bill Belichick. (We need) to find a way to stay competitive in the game because (their wins over Tennessee and Houston) have been over by halftime.
The same could be said of the two games the Patriots and Steelers played last season. Pittsburgh went into halftime of their Halloween victory over the Patriots with a 24-10 lead. Likewise, the Patriots cruised to a 24-3 lead going to the locker room in the AFC Championship game.
Its tough to imagine either team will play similarly impressive first halves again given how early it is in the season. The Steelers are almost certain to attempt to set the tone early with running back Willie Parker, who has three straight 100-yard games including last years season finale in Buffalo. The Pats would love to counter Pittsburghs running attack with Corey Dillon, who has stumbled out of the gate this year with 99 yards in two games for a 2.7 yards-per-carry average.
Both these teams understand that the fundamental building block of a good offensive game is a solid rushing attack early, which is exactly why fans can expect this game to be won or lost -- depending on perspective -- through the air.
You talk to any defense and what they want to do first is stop the run, because when you run the ball you can control the tempo of the game, said Tom Brady. You can control the clock and you can throw on your terms. If you force the offense to throw on every down or almost every down, they can rush, they can queue up all their blitzes, they can start reading routes and route combinations, very similar to what happened last year when we played them in the regular season. We got forced into a one-dimensional game.
With Dillons struggles to get things going well documented, the Patriots offensive line would surely like nothing more than the opportunity to prove they are still as reliable as ever and that last weeks debacle was a fluke. However, even when the offensive line was clicking last year in the playoffs, Dillon managed just 74 yards against the Steelers.
It was the gimmicks that worked for the Patriots when they needed to move the ball on the ground. New England opened the game with a reverse to Deion Branch that resulted in a big play. They also effectively ended the game with another Branch reverse that ended in a touchdown. Look for the Patriots to again use misdirection runs and screens to keep the Pittsburgh defense off balance.
As badly as Dillon needs to get his touches -- he only had 14 carries in Carolina -- this may be the week Kevin Faulk gets some featured plays implemented into the first half game plan. Faulk has just 13 total touches in two games this season, seven rushes and six pass receptions. The best weapon the Patriots offense can throw at the Steelers this week is variety.
When asked about Dillons struggles this week, Belichick responded with a vague but telling answer. I don't think it's about any one player. I never have. I never will. It's about our team play. Our running game helps our passing game. Our offense helps our defense. Our special teams helps both units, so it's all tied together. I don't think you can boil it down to one player.
The translation? The key to getting Corey Dillon going again may come in giving someone else the football. Play actions and screens will punish Pittsburghs defense if it over pursues the run. The Steelers take pride in being stingy with the yardage they yield on the ground, as evidenced by the 87-yards-per-game average since the start of 2001.
Ultimately, Bradys ability to bounce back after a poor week throwing the football will be a huge factor. If history does indeed repeat, fans need not worry. In the teams four losses in 2003 and 2004, Brady threw 13 interceptions and seven touchdowns. In the four games following, all victories, he threw eight touchdowns and no picks.
After seeing over 40 blitzes from the Panthers last week, Brady is likely in for more of the same this week against Pittsburgh. The main difference being that Dick Lebeaus defense runs mainly out of the 3-4, whereas Carolina lined up in a 4-3 most of the time.
As for the Patriots and their defensive front, Belichick will probably opt for more of the 4-3 line against the run-happy Steelers. While Monty Beisel has shown some encouraging signs that he can stuff the run, Chad Brown has yet to demonstrate that he can consistently shed blocks and get to the ball carrier.
The Steelers have been calling essentially the same rushing plays that they did last year with Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley. But Parker seems to be doing a better job at breaking free for big plays thanks to his speed and mobility, attributes his ailing counterparts are beginning to lose. Parkers 5.8-yards per carry this season makes him the Patriots top priority to contain on defense.
What to look for: How many pass attempts does Roethlisberger end up with? Unlike the Patriots with Tom Brady, the Steelers havent asked their quarterback to win many games for them. His primary job is to hand the ball off and avoid costly miscues. If Roethlisberger throws the ball more than 20 times in a game, bad things can happen for the young quarterback. In the AFC Championship game, he threw three interceptions and fumbled once. In two games so far this year, hes only had to throw eight passes total in the second half thanks mostly to Parkers emergence and big leads. If the Patriots can get a second half lead and force Pittsburgh to throw the ball, they can drop seven or eight into coverage and potentially confuse Big Ben.
Notes: Randall Gay, Duane Starks, Tyrone Poole and Chad Scott are all listed as questionable on the injury report. Scott and Starks have stated that they will be ready to play, but Gay and Poole appear to be further away from returning. Belichick compared the injury situation in the secondary to last year, saying it was similar. When asked if Troy Brown might find himself back in the nickel package soon, he said If we have to put him (in the secondary), its an option. We hope that we dont get to that. The Pats havent lost back to back games since December 2002. The post-merger NFL record for consecutive weeks without two straight losses is 60, set by the San Francisco 49ers from 1995-99 The Steelers have won 16 straight regular season contests. The record is 18 straight, set by New England in 2003-2004 Belichick said earlier this week that hed like to see the NFL try to get better camera angles on goal line situations to help avoid instances like last Sunday, when he didnt feel he saw enough evidence to challenge Stephen Davis first quarter touchdown. It would be good if the National Football League, as part of the instant replay rule, had a camera -- like they do in tennis -- parallel to the goal line in every stadium so that as coach you knew at least that there would be a camera angle of that shot.
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