Q: What do the Steelers have to accomplish to beat the Patriots schematically?
Jon Scott: There are a lot of so-called experts who have weighed in on this topic this year. Some make sense, but I can't say it's any one thing in particular that can slow New England down. For the Patriots, they morph their attack to what your weaknesses are. The biggest need is to address the pass coverage down the seam – which has been an issue in the past, a-hem Anthony Smith. Whether that's rolling the coverage one way or the other will be tough to decide. The patriots have four legitimate quick-catch wideouts, so blitzing (even exotically) tends to be counterproductive. Straight pressure with maybe one blitzer and a solid defense down the seams tends to work.
Q: What has been the biggest issue with the Patriots' defense?
JS: Short answer; just about everything. Longer answer is that they can't get pressure on opposing QBs without bringing extra bodies. When they do blitz, their defensive backs are exposed. Another problem has been when the Patriots' DBs play soft coverage. Typically they give up a first down even when it's 3rd-and-long just because they play too soft and don't guard the markers. That has enabled teams to extend drives and hence gain more yards. Lack of pressure from the front four has been the most obvious culprit though.
Q: How does the Pats' defense and specifically the secondary match up against Steelers WRs and TEs? Is this the biggest advantage for the Steelers on offense?
JS: A solid running game – or threat of one – usually opens things up for opposing receivers. Rashard Mendendall may have his ups and downs, but the Steelers need to find ways to get him on track or the wideouts will face blanket coverage all day. It's important for Pittsburgh to remain balanced even if they fall behind. Balance opens up play-action which is where Heath Miller can come into play. The Patriots' secondary is full of no-names and new faces. After cutting Leigh Bodden Friday, the Patriots corners are almost completely revamped. Gone are Darius Butler, Brandon Meriweather, Bodden, James Sanders. Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders will see the likes of Devin McCourty (who's struggling this season), Kyle Arrington, Patrick Chung and Josh Barrett. That's a win for Pittsburgh nearly every time.
Q: Rex Ryan's team did well when it didn't blitz Brady. Is blitzing him suicide?
JS: Ryan, like Dick LeBeau, likes to disguise his blitzes. The key to getting Brady off target is to find a way to overwhelm the middle. Center Dan Connolly has filled in for the injured Dan Koppen and Connolly has struggled at times. In the Dallas game, Marcus Spears had a field day on the inside abusing Connolly, sometimes Logan Mankins and sometimes Brian Waters to get pressure on Brady and disrupt the flow of the play. I wouldn't say blitzing Brady is suicide -- unless you show single man coverage against a Rob Gronkowski or a healthy Aaron Hernandez. Don't forget, Danny Woodhead has exposed teams that blitz by using his 4.33 speed after getting a dump-off from Brady. In a spread formation, straight pressure is the best bet -- at least if the DBs can cover.
Q: Which of the Patriots' front-seven defenders should worry the Steelers?
JS: The Patriots have morphed into a hybrid 4-3 front with the fourth DL typically being an outside backer in a down position. Albert Haynesworth, Shaun Ellis, Andre Carter and Mark Anderson joined the Pats this offseason. Carter is showing promise on the outside rush. Vince Wilfork tends to remain the big man in the middle. Ellis is improving based upon the double teams Wilfork receives. With All-Pro LB Jerod Mayo sidelined due to a knee issue, Brandon Spikes has seen more time. None of those players should worry the Steelers.
Q: What is the strategy/secret behind the Pats' OL's ability to provide Brady enough time to read the Sunday NY Times when he drops back to pass? Is it OL talent, scheme, primarily using the 3-step drop/quick passes to tire/frustrate the pass-rushers and then mixing in something down field, something else?
JS: One thing Brady does, like Peyton Manning before him, is to adjust the protection on pass plays. OR, Brady will check out of long pass to a short one when he reads pressure. That's really been the key to the Patriots' success in protecting Brady. When the Pats had 3 players go to the Pro Bowl in 2008, it was mildly surprising because none of them was particularly dominant, but they excelled as a unit. But Brady was able to find time to pick defenses apart so people assumed it was protection .Often it was a three-man rush, or a four-man rush with a back (Kevin Faulk) staying in to help pick up the pressure.
(Read Jim Wexell's answers over at PatriotInsider.com ... or as soon as published.)