After surviving against both the Eagles and Ravens, the Patriots prepare for another heavyweight battle with the 9-3 Pittsburgh Steelers this Sunday at Gillette Stadium. The Steelers are one of the top teams in the AFC but they'll need to play better on the road this week, where all three of their losses have come this season.
The only real problem the Steelers have faced this fall is a Jekyll-and-Hyde trend that's seen the team lose a trio of road contests to lesser foes in the Cardinals (6-6), Broncos (5-7) and Jets (3-9). While the team is in prime position with a month to go to claim the second or third seed in the AFC, it closes out the year with three of four on the road beginning with Sunday afternoon's trip to Foxborough.
The season's three road losses, and a home scare in a monsoon that resulted in a last-minute 3-0 win over the Dolphins, have veteran Steelers talking up the importance of putting it all together in the final month in order to roll back into the postseason hitting all cylinders.
"It's December," wide receiver Hines Ward told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "Teams are starting to separate themselves."
Offensively, the Steelers use a Ben Roethlisberger-led attack to average nearly 25 points a game. Big Ben has bounced back from his own season of horrors from last fall to put up his best numbers in his fourth season. He's completing nearly 67 percent of his passes, has a passer rating of 102.9 and a 25-11 touchdown-to-interception ratio. The one negative number that jumps out, one that's hurt him in the three losses is that he's been sacked 35 times for a total loss of more than 250 yards. While his confidence in his own athletic ability helps him keep plays alive that other passers couldn't, it also leads him to take some bad sacks on occasion.
Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes and tight end Heath Miller are Roethlisberger's top targets through the air, although Holmes has missed the last three games with a high-ankle sprain. All told, the passing attack ranks just 22nd in the NFL after 12 weeks.
Willie Parker ranks second in the NFL in rushing to give Pittsburgh the league's No. 2 ground game. But the former undrafted free agent's numbers have slowed in recent weeks. Part of those results from a couple games played on the abysmal turf of Heinz Field. However, Parker will get to face a Patriots rush defense that's coming off its worst performance of the season, giving up 166 yards on the ground to the Ravens.
"He can pretty much go anywhere," coach Bill Belichick said about Parker. "He's fast; he's explosive; he's a good inside runner; a good outside runner. He's got excellent speed so he can turn a short run into a long one. He's not a three-yards-in-a-cloud-of-dust guy. He's fast, he's athletic, plays well in space and he's got good power."
The rest of Parker's drop-off can be attributed to some suspect play over the last month from an experienced offensive line that's generally considered one of the better in the game. The group's lackluster efforts of late, playing without injured left tackle Marvel Smith (back), have also contributed to Roethlisberger getting sacked 19 times in the four games before the unit pitched a sack shutout Sunday night against the Bengals. The Patriots defensive front has been MIA in the past two weeks but it should be able to generate some pressure on Roethlisberger this Sunday.
Defensively, Pittsburgh once again sports the type of unit that the team has become known for over the last decade. That means a 3-4 front that pressures opposing passers, shuts down the run and covers up for a secondary that's the weak point of the unit. Adding to the secondary concerns is the fact that Troy Polamalu has missed two weeks with a sprained knee and he will be out again for the Patriots game.
The secondary isn't filled with playmakers, shown by the team's combined eight interceptions, but the group has succeeded in avoiding giving up the big play. The unit ranked atop the league in pass defense heading into last week and is the only team to allow just a single pass of more than 40 yards this season. It's not always pretty but for the most part, and combined with a pass rush that's registered 33 sacks split among a dozen different players, it's gotten the job done. Of course, it clearly faces its greatest test in this matchup with Tom Brady, Randy Moss and the high-powered Patriots.
A year ago nothing went right for the Steelers as they came down quickly from the glow of another Super Bowl title. But things have rebounded this fall and Pittsburgh is once again in line behind the Patriots to lay claim as one of the top teams in the AFC, and by definition then, all of football. To take the next step back up the championship ladder, the Steelers need to show they can compete not only on the road but also against the best team in football. On the other hand, the Patriots will be looking to send a message to the Steelers, as it's quite possible these two teams could meet again in the postseason.