Roethlisberger, Wallace look to exploit Pats struggling defense
Tom Brady has produced incredible numbers against Pittsburgh's tight defense
Injuries a key factor as banged up Steelers defense tries to quiet Brady
Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Wallace will look to exploit struggling Pats defense
New England Patriots (5-1) at Pittsburgh Steelers (5-2)
1) Everyone knows how good Tom Brady is, but the Steelers might know better than anyone.
Considering the Pittsburgh Steelers have rolled out arguably the best defense year to year over the last decade, you might think they've given Tom Brady a tougher time than most. And you'd be wrong.
In fact, the Steelers have brought out the best in the NFL's best quarterback.
"There's no magic dust we put in our cereal in the morning or anything like that," said Brady, who with 2,163 yards through six games is on pace to join Dan Marino and Drew Brees as the only players in NFL history to throw for 5,000 yards in a season. "We've played them when we haven't played well. Like in 2008."
Ah yes, 2008.
That would be the season Brady blew out his knee in Week 1.
Indeed, the Matt Cassel-led Pats were no match for the Steelers, but New England is 6-1 in the series with "Tom Terrific" under center, the lone defeat coming midway in the 2004 season -- a lopsided 34-20 win in Pittsburgh on Halloween Night -- when the Patriots came in undefeated. New England went on to finish 14-2 and destroy the 15-1 Steelers 41-27 on the road in the AFC title game en route to a second straight Super Bowl title; the last of its three-in-four-years dynasty, in fact.
Brady's career numbers against Pittsburgh show 68 percent completions for 2,175 yards, 14 touchdowns, three interceptions and a 107.6 passer rating. In his last two outings, including a 39-26 win at Heinz Field in 2010, he's hit 72 percent of his passes for 749 yards, seven TDs, no picks and a 125.6 rating.
Come Sunday morning, check his cereal.
2) The Patriots can't cover ... and here comes Mike Wallace.
The Patriots might rather see the "60 Minutes" version show up unannounced in their film vault instead of seeing the Steelers' wideout of the same name race through their sieve of a secondary.
On paper, it looks like a combustible combination.
Wallace has become Ben Roethlisberger's go-to guy and big-play target. He not only ranks second in the AFC with 36 catches, but's he's averaging 20.3 per reception and has five touchdowns, including a 95-yarder.
"Oh man, he's the best right now," Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey beamed. "I think he might be the fastest guy I've ever seen in my life, besides Usain Bolt."
Wallace, in his third season out of Ole Miss, pretty much started this tear of tearing secondaries for yardage the day he came into the league. He averaged 19.4 yards per catch as a rookie in '09 and 21 yards per in '10, when he finished fifth in the league in receiving yards, but just -- get this -- 41st in catches with 60.
Now, let's match those numbers against the ones the Patriots -- who are last in total defense (423.7 yards per game) and last against the pass (322.2 ypg) -- are posting at an historically bad pace. Dig deeper and you'll find New England is yielding 8.47 yards per pass attempt, a figure that is the worst by a defense since the 0-16 Detroit Lions of 2008 and 10th-worst since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970.
"But they're blowing people out by so much," Pouncey said. "Of course, they're giving up yards. Everybody's trying to catch up."
No question, it's worth noting that New England normally jumps out to cushy leads, which means teams have to pass more. And they're defensive numbers did improve over the previous two games -- wins over the New York Jets and Dallas -- a stretch during which the unit allowed an average of just 316 yards.
But that doesn't mask the fact the Patriots have some serious issues in coverage that need to be addressed before they rear themselves at inopportune times.
Like against Wallace.
Or in a divisional round home playoff loss. Again.
3) Tight end matchup problems.
We're not talking about Rob Gronkowski, who apparently has no trouble matching up.
Make that hooking up.
You might have heard that Gronkowski, the Patriots stellar second-year tight end, used the bye week to take a trip to Arizona, where he played college football, and met up with porn star BiBi Jones. Gronkowski not only had pictures taken with the skin-flick chick, but also let her wear his No. 87 Patriots jersey.
Can you say "trending on Twitter?"
Upon return to Foxboro, Gronkowski reportedly had separate meetings with Belichick and Patriots owner Robert Kraft. How do you think those sit-downs went?
Actually, everyone wanted to know how his weekend went.
"I'm here to talk about the Steelers," Gronkowski told the New England media. Over. And over. And over.
The Steelers, meanwhile, definitely were talking this week about Gronkowski, the Pittsburgh-area prep star who as a rookie caught five passes for 72 yards and three touchdowns in New England's 39-26 road win at Heinz last season. The tight end duo of Gronkowski and second-year standout Aaron Hernandez, who also had a terrific rookie season, has combined for 56 catches for 690 yards and eight TDs through six games. Gronkowski's five scoring catches are tied for third-best in the league and equals the most among tight ends. Both guys have become quite adept at finding and sitting down in holes in opposing secondaries.
Although the Steelers are allowing just 279 yards per game and have the NFL's No. 1 pass defense, they'll be facing Brady and that spread with a banged up defense. Linebacker James Harrison (fractured orbital bone) is set to miss his fourth straight game, backup Jason Worilds is nursing a quad injury and strong safety Troy Polamalu is recovering from a concussion.
No New England running back had rushed for 1,000 yards in a season since Corey Dillon rumbled for 1,635 in 2004, as the Patriots won a second straight Super Bowl. Green-Ellis broke that drought last season with 1,008 yards and along the way joined Baltimore's Ray Rice as the only back in the league to log at least 175 carries without a fumble.
With 391 yards through six games, Green-Ellis is on pace to be the first Pat with back-to-back millennium rushing seasons since Curtis Martin (1996-97). Green Ellis also knows how to score. Only Adrian Peterson (20) and and Arian Foster (19) have more than Green-Ellis' 18 touchdown runs the last two seasons. Some excerpts of a chat with SI.com:
You guys are 18-1 when you score a touchdown. That's a 94.7 percent winning percentage when you find the end zone. Is the winning formula for the Patriots that simple?
"I think it's just a good thing we're playing really well as a team. It's never just one guy around here. When we play well as a team, good things happen."
The Patriots haven't had many 1,000-yard rushers lately, especially in the Tom Brady era. What did it mean for you personally to get that last year?
"It didn't mean too much of anything, really, because we didn't achieve our goal as a team [losing in the playoffs]. Obviously, it wasn't enough to get us where we needed to be, so we have to continue to work hard to get better this year. ... Personally? It was just a milestone, I guess, that people like to talk about. But really, all I want to do is go out there and compete at the very highest level and at the end of the season, when the yards add up, where they fall is where they fall."
You guys faced the Steelers last year, what problems do they present defensively?
"Oh man, Pittsburgh is a very good defensive unit and they do a lot of things well as far as defending the line and working together in the secondary. Those guys have been together for a while, so they have great continuity and they play well as a unit. We always have to be on our A-game when we face them. Everybody knows that."
Invariably, Troy Polamalu is going to blitz and it'll be up to you at times to step up and block him. How do you prepare for that guy?
"Troy is just all over the field. He's a very instinctive guy, so you just have to be on your Ps and Qs and find him. And he has a high motor so he never stops, which means you have to continually block him. ... He's not going to line up in one spot. He could be back deep. Could be on the line. Could be coming on the blitz. You just have to do a good job of blocking and finding him, you have to stay on him and keep blocking because he won't stop."
You were at Ole Miss with Mike Wallace, right?
"Yeah, we were roommates. Actually, we grew up together in New Orleans. It's always been a competition between the two of us. I mean, we'd compete against something even when we were riding in the car. And things haven't changed much. We talk every day. Each week, we try to watch each other's games. A lot of his games are at 1 o'clock, so I get a chance to watch them; that or I see one of his touchdowns on the NFL Red Zone. But we go back and forth. I'll call him up and say, 'You could have done this,' and he'll call me and say, 'You could have done that.' We both are each other's worst critiques. But it's about getting better week."
How much will you talk this week?
"Probably right up until the game."
Did you like the nickname "Law Firm" when you first got it?
"Yes, it was cool. ... I mean, when fans or someone gives you something like that, I think you should kind of embrace it. And when it becomes who you are, you just kind of go with it."
A lot more people know your name now. I don't hear anyone calling you Jarvis Ben-Ellis or whatever by mistake.
"I never paid much attention to that media stuff anyway."
Speaking of attention, one of your teammates -- a certain tight end -- had a little media stuff come his way this week after a pretty interesting bye weekend. How much ribbing did he get in the locker room from the fellas?
"Oh man, we've moved on. He's getting ready for Pittsburgh like we all are. That's about it."
Steelers icon and former Super Bowl MVP Hines Ward needs just 40 receiving yards to hit 12,000 for his career, a number reached by only 18 players in NFL history. Of those 18, only two have logged more yards while playing for only one team during their entire career. Here are the top five receivers, by yards, with just one team:
|Most receiving yards with one team|
Of Pittsburgh's five wins this season, none have come against teams currently with winning records. Mike Tomlin's crew is too good, too sound and too due for a breakout game, especially at home. Strange as it might seem, a visit from Tom Brady -- and an afternoon against that porous Patriots defense -- might be just what the Steelers and the rabid Heinz Field crowd has been waiting for.
"We're not sure just yet who we are, but we know we get better as the year goes on," Pouncey said. "So this is a big game for us, especially knowing how they beat us last year."
And knowing also a showdown with the AFC North rival Baltimore Ravens is up next. The Steelers aren't the look-ahead types.
Pick: Pittsburgh 31, New England 27
Last week's pick: NY Jets 23, San Diego 20
Last week's result: NY Jets 27, San Diego 21
Season record: 6-1
SI Now Live Friday December 20, 2013
SI Now: Olympians on Liberty Mutual, gearing up for Sochi