Last year, Gronkowski shredded the Steelers for three touchdown receptions, two of them in the second half, of a 39-26 drubbing of the soon-to-be AFC champs. The Patriots used him aggressively down the seam, and used shorter passes and the threat of yards after the catch to get Gronkowski isolated on CB William Gay.
The Steelers are playing much better as a secondary under first-year secondary coach Carnell Lake, and have greatly limited yards after the catch. They are tied for best in the league with 14 plays of 20+ yards allowed. The Steelers will use multiple defenders on Gronkowski and Hernandez, but expect much of it to come from Timmons and Polamalu.
It's a full unit match-up with both sides presenting different looks due to injuries. Patriots CB Ras-I Dowling was placed on injured reserve and veteran CB Leigh Bodden was released this week. So the Patriots will go with a very young secondary, something they've done in the past to a good level of success.
Bodden's release was an interesting move, considering the talent of the Steelers receivers. Even with the possible absence of WR Hines Ward, the Steelers' Wallace, Sanders and Brown can succeed short and long. Look for Sanders and Brown to work inside the Patriots' zone defense, waiting for the Patriots to use McCourty in press coverage on Wallace. He's struggled with it this season, giving up seven plays of 25 yards or more.
Two of the game's best square off representing completely different styles. Brady is precision-perfect, and is as fluid and dynamic as anyone in the game. Roethlisberger leads his offense with off-schedule improvisation. Both had huge games the last time the teams played, but Brady's came in the first half while Roethlisberger put up big numbers when the Steelers trailed in the second half.
The match-ups of each passer against the opposing secondary favors the offense. Brady has beaten every defense he's faced this year, and Roethlisberger will see a young secondary with no experience as a group. The key will be mistakes, which would favor Brady, but Roethlisberger has been red-hot the last two weeks, throwing nine touchdowns to just one interception.
The Patriots' offense is equipped like a Swiss Army Knife. They can get set in a double-TE formation and split out to four receivers with just Green-Ellis in the backfield. They run when they have the defense spread out, and Green-Ellis's power and quickness between the tackles gives the Patriots a strong running game. Given the Steelers overall struggles with stretch runs, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Patriots try this approach. That would in turn bring Polamalu to the line, thus opening up New England's excellent tight ends down the field. Farrior, who's listed as questionable with a calf injury, must step up as the lead run defender and mirror Green-Ellis around the field. If Farrior can't play, Larry Foote would play the buck in Farrior's place and Stephenson Sylvester would play the mack.