Patriots - Steelers: Keys to the Game

With all of the possible scenarios programmed into the simulators, played on on playstations and bantered about on talk shows, why not take a look at some more. The Steelers have shown their strengths before against two fairly subpar teams in weeks one and two, now in week three they have their first real test. Are they up for it? Chris Goodhue takes a look at the numbers and shares some keys to the game.

PHOTO: New England Patriots TE Daniel Graham (82)Kansas City Chiefs defenders Scott Fujita (51) and Kawika Mitchell (50) Nov 22, 2004 (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

Patriots - Steelers: Keys to the Game
By Chris Goodhue, Patriots Insider

To stop the Pittsburgh Steelers this Sunday, the Patriots will have to play a lot tighter than they did last week against the Carolina Panthers. Committing 12 penalties in a game will kill your chances of winning more times than not, and veteran teams like Pittsburgh will almost always take advantage.

The key to Pittsburgh has always been and will always be the running game. As of two weeks ago, RB Willie Parker was a relative unknown, but he was given a chance to prove his worth after injuries sidelined both Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley. Parker has more than rewarded the Steelers as he has torched opposing defenses for 272 yards and 2 TD's while averaging 5.8 yards per carry.

Granted, Parker's success has come against 2 teams with extremely low expectations in Tennessee and Houston. Given the fact that he's running behind one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, which is coached by one of the best linemen of all-time in Russ Grimm, one could make the case that he has just been a beneficiary of circumstance. The Pats have been adequate at stopping the run, ranking 5th in the AFC in yards allowed per carry (3.4) and yards allowed per game (98). LB Monty Beisel will have his hands full taking on guards Alan Faneca and Kendall Simmons in the hope of freeing up Chad Brown to shut down Parker on the inside.

The success of the Steelers' running game has allowed them to do exactly what they did last season, and that is to ease the pressure in Ben Roethlisberger. Pittsburgh lost a big target in WR Plaxico Burress to the Giants this offseason, while promoting speedy Antwaan Randle-El to number 2 on the depth chart and bringing in Cedrick Wilson in from San Francisco to play the slot. He also has a new target in TE Heath Miller, who was the Steelers' first-round pick from Virginia. With all these changes, one would have to assume there will be an adjustment period, and apparently the best way for them to adjust is to run the ball with reckless abandon and limit Roethlisberger's attempts.

Just like last year, Pittsburgh has called running plays more than 65 percent of the time that they have the ball. Roethlisberger has attempted just 32 passes in the first two weeks, however he has made the most of his few throws. He has completed 71.9% of his passes for 472 yards, with 4 Td's, zero interceptions, an astonishing 14.9 yards per attempt and a QB Rating just 4.7 points south of perfect at 153.6. The status of corners Tyrone Poole and Randall Gay is unknown at this point, so the depth of the secondary may be tested as Duane Starks and Chad Scott will most likely take on greater roles to help stop the Pittsburgh passing game.

The defense of the Steelers has always been famed for their ability to get to the quarterback. In the first two games, Pittsburgh has sacked the opposing QB an alarming 11 times, including 3 by third-year strong safety Troy Polamalu. The Patriots more than had their work cut out for them against the Carolina pass rush, and stopping Pittsburgh's might be an even greater challenge. The offensive linemen need to keep their heads on straight; stay disciplined, and not get distracted by the wild environment that is Heinz Field. Without a doubt, the blitz-crazy Steelers will command extra blocking from tight ends and backs as they will try to limit the weapons that Tom Brady has at his disposal as well as screwing up the timing of the offense and forcing turnovers. The Steelers are +5 in turnover differential so far this year, 3rd best in the AFC.

On the positive side, Daniel Graham is an exceptional blocker for a tight end and will give Steeler OLB's Joey Porter and Clark Haggans a challenge on the edge when they bring the house. Brady may also be able to beat the rush with screen passes to Kevin Faulk as well as sending Ben Watson out into the flats and creating match-up problems for the Steeler secondary. The Pittsburgh pass defense has been average so far, allowing opposing QB's to complete passes 64.2% of the time and giving up 7.2 yards per attempt. The Steeler defensive backs may be caught on their heels by short slant routes as well as hook and hitch patterns, as they will most likely be preventing the big play in a cover 2 or 3 while the front seven rushes Brady.

For Tom Brady to be at his best this weekend, the Patriots will have to find a way to open up the running game for Corey Dillon. New England is averaging an AFC-worst 2.4 yards per carry, and have gained only 112 yards on the ground, which is next to last in the conference. It may be possible that the Pats will use 3 or 4 receiver sets with a lone setback to spread the field and allow Dillon to hit the holes against a nickel or dime package from Pittsburgh. This will allow him to outrun fewer linebackers and put some hits on the multitude of defensive backs.

They also could neutralize the aggressive defense with some draws and delays from Faulk. The Steelers have yet to allow a rushing touchdown this season and are in the middle of the pack in rush yards allowed per game with an average of 105. If the Pats can run the ball with success and control the clock, this will be a very winnable game for them.

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