Game Day Matchups

Neal Coolong breaks down the top matchups of tonight's Patriots-Steelers game.

QB Ben Roethlisberger vs. FS Brandon Meriweather

After Cleveland's Peyton Hillis ran all over New England in their Week 9 drubbing of the Patriots, conventional wisdom is the Steelers should attack on the ground. But the Steelers best advantage may be in the passing game. Roethlisberger doesn't have enough pass attempts to qualify for league-leading stats, but his 8.6 yards per pass is second in the NFL behind San Diego's Phillip Rivers. Roethlisberger's He's looking for the big play, and with the Patriots' lackluster secondary, it wouldn't be a surprise if he looks deep early and often. He should be confident; the Patriots are giving up an average of 7.6 yards per pass (6th highest in the NFL) and they've allowed 28 pass plays of 20 yards or more (6th highest in the NFL).

Meriweather is a big part of that defensive slide. He plays aggressively, and can be caught out of position. Roethlisberger is likely to key off of him, and force him to commit. The Steelers' split ends, Mike Wallace and Antwaan Randle El, can get outside the hashes and go deep while TE Heath Miller and WR Hines Ward can go underneath Meriweather, forcing him to a decision.

C Maurkice Pouncey vs. NT Vince Wilfork

Pouncey lost some time to an injury in Pittsburgh's win over Cincinnati in Week 9, but should be healthy for this one. It's a good thing, with the way Browns C Alex Mack, one of the best in the game, abused Wilfork, Pouncey as well as the Steelers have to feel like they can establish the run. The Browns gashed the 6-2 Patriots behind the complete removal of Wilfork from competitive play. Even with the loss of LT Max Starks, the Steelers look to have an advantage with their offensive line, and the effort will be led by Pouncey.

Wilfork has to be stinging from the beating Mack and the Browns put on he and the Patriots. A veteran as talented and accomplished as Wilfork should respond positively. His challenge with Pouncey is the rookie's quickness off the snap. It wouldn't be surprising to see the Patriots employ more four-member defensive lines with the goal to protect Wilfork, but much of the battle will be one-on-one with him.

SS Troy Polamalu vs. TEs Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski

Polamalu has gone from other-world talent to an odd slump over the last four weeks. Passers are challenging him more, and setting up more plans to get him guessing. The Patriots live and die by their tight ends' ability to stretch the field and create mismatches. Hernandez is more of the complete pass receiver of the two, and if he's able to get open down the seam, it draws Polamalu further away from the line. That could open up WR Wes Welker on the Steelers' cornerbacks.

Gronkowski is the red-zone target of the two, notching three touchdowns all close to the goal line, but a fumble at the end of the first half killed any momentum the Patriots could have had against the Browns. He has far fewer catches than Hernandez (34-14) but both can attack a secondary in the same way, and from the strong side. The Steelers' pass rush is still a factor, but the Patriots can get both of them down the field, putting pressure on Polamalu and forcing him off the line.

ILB James Farrior vs. RB Danny Woodhead

Farrior has been playing great football the last four games, and is quietly one of the best pass defenders on the Steelers' roster. The emergence of Lawrence Timmons this season helps that, but Farrior is the least heralded linebacker on the team, and one the Patriots will look to get matched up on the speedy Woodhead.

He's been utilized in spot situations, third downs in particular, and has produced a few big plays. With more than half of the Patriots' receptions going to Hernandez and WR Wes Welker, they use Woodhead as an escape outlet, and with good reason. He's tough to bring down in space. While the Steelers won't dedicate one player to stopping Woodhead, QB Tom Brady will look to get Woodhead the ball if he reads Farrior covering him.


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