When the Patriots run
Stevan Ridley has again demonstrated that he is the best of the New England backfield bunch. The 5-foot-11-inch, 220-pound tailback aggressively attacks the line of scrimmage. Ridley isn’t patient and doesn’t have the best vision, but if he locates a crack, he will bounce through it and burst onto the second level. He’s not a traditional power runner but he will break through arm tackles and has some nifty spin and slide moves. Ridley is definitely a rhythm runner who gets better and stronger the more carries he gets. There’s no reason the third-year back can’t become a consistent 20-carry-per-game player. Brandon Bolden (5-11, 220) very much looks the part of an NFL tailback but lately hasn’t acted the part. He has shown flashes of both power and speed but has looked indecisive and unfocused. LeGarrette Blount (6-0, 250) always looks decisive and focused. He’s quicker than he looks but he’d much rather run over you than around you. New England’s interior three needs to get a good push against Pittsburgh’s struggling front seven. It starts with center Ryan Wendell. The 6-2, 290-pounder plays with great balance and leverage but at times can get overpowered. Pittsburgh nose man Steve McLendon (6-4, 280) is active and athletic. Inside linebackers Vince Williams (this rookie explodes into blockers and ball carriers) and Lawrence Timmons (he has a penchant for making big plays) can lower the boom.
When the Patriots pass
This won’t be an easy week for Tom Brady to have that breakout performance everybody has been anxiously awaiting. The Steelers have a superb secondary and they can still pressure the pocket. It helps that Brady has his full complement of pass catchers. Big tight end Rob Gronkowski (6 feet 6 inches, 265 pounds) can run every route, and his hands are both soft and strong. He can be a beast after the catch. Danny Amendola lines up everywhere. He has underrated speed and quickness and great hands. He’s also fearless, but that’s a double-edged sword because for every big play, there’s a corresponding big thump. Julian Edelman has exceeded expectations out of the slot. He uses his quick feet and perfect route-running to move the chains. Aaron Dobson has the skill set (size, speed, and strength) to be a star. Fellow rookie Kenbrell Thompkins is big, fast, and inconsistent. He was invisible last week. Starting Pittsburgh corners Cortez Allen (he has size and blazing speed) and Ike Taylor (he has the strength to jam and the speed to cover) are solid. Safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark are exceptional. Polamalu can cover like a corner and hit like a linebacker. He lines up all over the field and must be accounted for on every play. When healthy (not a given), he’s the gold standard. Clark is always around the action. He lacks speed but has great instincts and is a solid hitter.
When the Steelers run
Rookie Le’Veon Bell is the real deal. His numbers aren’t impressive but the 6-foot-1-inch, 244-pounder has been slowed by injuries and an underachieving line. He may look like a fullback but he can shake and bake like a tailback. He’s a perfect Steeler. Felix Jones (5-10, 215) is more quick than fast. He lacks power and vision and will get stuffed at the line a lot. He’s not very creative, but if he does find a path, he will produce. You could do a lot worse than Jonathan Dwyer as your third-string back. The 5-11, 229-pounder hits the hole hard and always gives maximum effort. Pittsburgh’s line is a mess. All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey and tackle Levi Brown are out for the season and three guards — Ramon Foster, David DeCastro, and Guy Whimper (don’t laugh) — got hurt last week. Teams have attacked the middle of the Patriots’ defense, but the Steelers might not have the muscle. Isaac Sopoaga is the new man in the middle for the Patriots. The 6-2, 330-pounder is a run stuffer. Sopoaga has short, muscular legs, a big upper body, and huge arms. When motivated, he can toss blockers aside and meet runners head-on. He has the strength to bull-rush and be disruptive in the backfield but doesn’t appear to go all out on every snap. The same can be said about middle linebacker Brandon Spikes, who remains the Patriots’ best run defender in space. The 6-3, 250-pounder is long overdue for one of his game-changing collisions.
When the Steelers pass
Much the way the Patriots always will have a chance to win as long as Tom Brady is upright, The Steelers always will have a chance when Ben Roethlisberger is in uniform. The 6-foot-5-inch, 241-pounder has one of the strongest and most accurate arms in the league. A tough player with surprising athleticism and quick feet, Roethlisberger is a master at extending plays. He rarely goes down on first contact, and it’s not uncommon to see Roethlisberger making plays and completing passes with a defender draped all over him. Roethlisberger will feel some heat Sunday (he’s been sacked 26 times), as his protectors have been substandard. The Steelers do have a couple of game-breaking receivers in Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. Brown (5-10, 186) has great quickness and acceleration and strong hands. Sanders (5-11, 180) has excellent speed, body control, and leaping ability. Jerricho Cotchery is a solid possession receiver who disappears for stretches. Watch out for him on third down. Tight end Heath Miller has long been a Roethlisberger favorite. The 6-5, 256-pounder has lost a step and absorbed a ton of abuse. New England’s secondary continues to impress — even without Aqib Talib the last few weeks. Corners Alfonzo Dennard (he’s tough and instinctive), Marquice Cole (who knew he was this athletic?), Logan Ryan (he’s getting there), and Kyle Arrington (he’s better than he’s shown recently) are solid. Safeties Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory have been sensational.
Steelers’ key player: Antonio Brown
An explosive receiver with exceptional acceleration, Brown will line up everywhere and has dependable hands. If he gets behind the defense, it’s a quick 6.
HOW HE BEATS YOU: With speed and instincts. Brown bolts off the line, can run every route in the book (he’s adept at screens and go-routes), and has exceptional open-field vision and moves.
HOW TO SHUT HIM DOWN: By getting physical. Brown is rail-thin and lacks power, so you have to rough him up at the line and on his routes before he roughs up your secondary.
STEELERS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Squeeze play: Pass rushers Brett Keisel and LaMarr Woodley have to come after Tom Brady and come after him hard. Marcus Cannon, you’ve been warned.
2. Infield hits: Establish a ground game. Le’Veon Bell has fresh legs, so let him attack the middle and see if Isaac Sopoaga is up to the task of stopping him.
3. Home runs: Send burners Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders on some deep routes to prevent the Patriots from stacking the box to stop the run.
PATRIOTS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Triple play: New England has three capable running backs. Use them all to wear down an aging and battered Steelers defense. Yes, we said aging and battered.
2. Strike zone: Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones have to make their hits on Ben Roethlisberger count. Glancing blows are a waste of time with this monster.
3. Bonus babies: Get Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins involved. Just because the older guys are healthy doesn’t mean you forget about the speedy young guns.