By Gregory Hunt
The New England Patriots will play their final game before their bye week when they meet the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday at Gillette Stadium. It will also be the start of a break from division play, as they won’t meet another AFC East opponent until they travel to Miami to face the Dolphins December 15.
The Steelers are having an uncharacteristically poor season, coming into this game with a 2-5 record. Last week at Oakland, a fourth-quarter comeback fell short as Pittsburgh lost to the Raiders 21-18. The Steelers are 14-8 all time against New England in the regular season, but only 1-3 against the Patriots in the playoffs. Including the playoffs, New England quarterback Tom Brady is 6-2 against Pittsburgh, but the Steelers won the most recent meeting 25-17 at Heinz Field on October 30, 2011.
Pittsburgh On Offense
Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger presents a special challenge for the Patriots. At 6-foot-5-inches, 241 pounds, Roethlisberger is so big and strong that it’s virtually impossible to tackle him in the pocket unless you hit him square. Arm tackles won’t bring him down, and if he escapes one and gets out of the pocket, he’s so adept at throwing on the run that he seemingly makes a big play every time this scenario occurs. However, this season the big plays have been few and far between – in seven games, Roethlisberger has thrown just eight touchdown passes against seven interceptions. Roethlisberger’s favorite target is wide receiver Antonio Brown who has 56 catches, more than the next two receivers combined, Emmanuel Sanders (31) and Jerricho Cotchery (22).
The Pittsburgh running backs have been a non-factor this season. The leading rusher is Le’Veon Bell, who has been dealing with an injured foot. He has only 208 yards rushing, averaging a mere 3.3 yards per carry. He is also the leading receiver out of the backfield, but he has caught only 13 passes for 82 yards.
Pittsburgh On Defense
Historically, the strength of any Steelers team is its defense and this 2013 team is no exception. This unit is ranked fourth in the NFL in total defense, but it does have one major weakness – it doesn’t force very many turnovers. It has recovered only one fumble this season, which is tied with the San Diego Chargers for last in the NFL. Its four interceptions are tied for 25th in the league with the Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens.
Surprisingly, this team doesn’t get very many sacks, either. It has only 10 sacks on the year – fewer than every team in the league except the Chicago Bears – and half of those sacks have come from linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who will be celebrating his 29th birthday the day of the game.
If the Patriots continue to struggle on offense as they have for most of the season, expect this game to be a defensive struggle. The Patriots won’t be able to run the ball as easily as they did against the Dolphins last week, so in order to move the ball Brady will need to be more accurate with his passes than he has been in recent games. Hopefully, tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receiver Danny Amendola will step up their games and demonstrate that they are fully recovered from their injuries. The Patriots are undefeated at home this season (4-0), so that might be the edge that gives them a victory.
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Gregory Hunt is a Boston native and a life-long fan of the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics. He’s also particularly fond of lacrosse, IndyCar racing and women’s college basketball. He currently works for Examiner.com where he serves as the Senior Manager of Content and Media Access. He also writes for Examiner.com as the New England Patriots Examiner. His work can be found on aExaminer.com.