1. Is the Patriots' pass defense as bad as the stats suggest?
Jon Scott: Certainly the Patriots' pass defense has been suspect at best, and downright awful at worst. The unit consists of a group of players bundled together in the wake of injuries and roster turnover. Former second-round pick Darius Butler struggled this season, and was replaced by undrafted 2009 mid-season pickup Kyle Arrington. Arrington is in for Devin McCourty who was forced into action to replace Leigh Bodden, who landed on I/R this season. So you're looking at first-year players/starters in McCourty, Arrington and Sergio Brown (safety). Brandon Meriweather has been a shell of his former self and was benched for not doing what the coaching staff told him to. Injuries have hampered the other players.
If Pittsburgh can find time to protect Ben Roethlisberger, I expect he'll find some open targets in the middle of this New England defense. It could mean the difference in the game.
2. Will the Patriots even attempt to run? Or will they throw every down? And what does Bill Belichick think of his lack of balance?
Scott: Certainly the Patriots will make efforts to run. Tom Brady is at his most dangerous coming off the play-action pass. The Patriots, as you implied, tend to lean more on the pass against teams with solid run defenses. Because the Patriots fell so far behind the Browns, they virtually abandoned the run. With Fred Taylor sidelined due to a toe issue and Kevin Faulk out for the year, the Patriots have had to lean on BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead. Green-Ellis is having a career year, as is Woodhead. Green-Ellis is averaging over 4 yards per carry while Woodhead has a 5.2 per carry avg.
Even with their individual success, New England still only averages about 107 yards per game (15th in the league) compared to Pittsburgh's 117 yards per game (12th overall).
3. How's the performance of the offensive line in general and Logan Mankins in particular?
Scott: Mankins had his first game back last week against Cleveland. He's been out of football since he started his holdout in training camp. Despite watching the games on TV from his couch, Mankins has performed admirably. He's not yet back in Pro Bowl form, which is why Dan Connolly will continue to rotate in with him until Mankins has his sea legs back.
Overall, the Patriots offensive line has performed as expected. The team lost starting RT Nick Kaczur for the season due to a back injury. Second-year player Sebastian Vollmer has done well in his place. Even without Mankins and Kaczur, Connolly, Vollmer and the rest of the Patriots offensive line have protected Tom Brady long enough to allow him to find targets. The Browns game showed that Brady is susceptible to a strong pass rush up the middle, something the Browns were able to bring even without using an all-out blitz.
4. Considering the youth on defense, the lack of a running game, the holdout of Mankins, and the trade of Randy Moss, does the 6-2 record stand as Belichick's best coaching job yet?
Scott: Certainly there is a lot of good fortune mixed into this record for the team. The Patriots have really struggled dealing with roster changes this year. I would say that the team has benefitted from the time they had Moss with the offense, allowing Brady to find players downfield. Certainly the special teams performances have helped, and that's on Scott O'Brien, an old friend of Belichick's from his days in Cleveland.
I believe the assistants need some of the credit here, especially Matt Patricia, the linebackers coach, who many believed was the defensive coordinator in waiting, much like Eric Mangini was when he was in Foxboro.
To answer your question, yes, Belichick's ability to coach this team up is pretty impressive considering this team has far less talent than the Super Bowl squads of yesteryear. Without guys like Vince Wilfork, Tom Brady, Matt Light and Co., the Patriots would be in a world of hurt right now.
Scott: Troy Brown has been replaced by Wes Welker. Welker has done more for New England in his first three seasons than Brown, but they both filled a similar role for the offense. Brown was Brady's go to guy. Welker has become that target now.
There is no Mike Vrable on this team. No outside backer has come close to Vrabel's production on the field, yet. There's hope that Jermaine Cunningham can turn into that kind of player. It was thought Shawn Crable would be that guy, but Crable has yet to make any significant impact. You can add Tully Banta-Cain to the Vrabel discussion, but again, still just a shell of Vrabel's production.
Tedy Bruschi has been replaced by Jerod Mayo, who is a statistical machine for New England this year. Mayo is having the kind of season he had as a rookie when he won defensive player of the year honors. Bruchi had the knack of knowing where to be on plays to disrupt a pass or make a key interception. Mayo isn't there yet, but he's improving through 8 games he has 103 total tackles (per coaches tape). He leads the NFL with 96 league-recognized tackles.
Faulk really hasn't been replaced, but Danny Woodhead – a New York Jets castoff this season – has done a good job of diminishing the loss of Faulk. Woodhead is a pint-sized bundle of elusiveness. A two-time Harlon Hill trophy winner (Division II version of the Heisman), Woodhead is good at making something out of nothing. Just when you think he's about to go down, he squirts through a hole the size of a grapefruit to gain 4 or 5 yards. Expect to see more of this kid going forward.
6. What's been the cumulative impact of the loss of so many good assistant coaches over the last few years?
Scott: The impact is the lack of adjustments you see the team making mid game. It seems the Patriots need a whole intermission to re-group instead of adjusting the game plan on the fly. The lack of coordinator experience is especially troubling and starting to show up in the stats. The Patriots' offense struggles to barely make 320 yards per game when last season it was averaging 397 per game. The secondary is a mess, and despite Corwin Brown's experience, losing Dom Capers was a big deal. Bill O'Brien has yet to show he knows Tom Brady as well as Josh McDaniels (Broncos).
Patriots 20 – Steelers 17
I expect a very physical battle in this matchup. I would have predicted a big Pittsburgh win but Bill Belichick has a knack for eliminating back-to-back losses. He knows this Pittsburgh defense and he doesn't have to contend with a former coordinator (Rob Ryan and Eric Mangini) knowing every little nuance of the Patriots game plan this week. Factor in the injuries to the Steelers' OL, and I think the Patriots will be fortunate enough to find a way to win.