Whenever the Patriots beat the Colts, it's always with a certain level of respect as two of the best players ever to play the game just tried to lead their offenses to victory. Whenever the Patriots beat the Jets, it's with a smug feeling, as if the team gets to say, "Hah!" until the next time they play. Whenever the Patriots play the Steelers? It's oddly satisfying. Hopefully the Patriots can walk away with another satisfying victory.
1. Patriots Secondary - The Patriots boast the worst yards-per-game passing defense in the league and have just released their #3 cornerback Leigh Bodden and placed their #2 (when healthy) cornerback Ras-I Dowling on injured reserve. Now, the Patriots will b e squaring off against one of the best passing offenses they'll face this season. Can Devin McCourty find his swagger against Mike Wallace? Who will defend the tight ends? Is there enough quality depth to succeed? It will be interesting to see which players emerge and step up their performance. The wild card will be Antwaun Molden, the expected #3 cornerback, and how he performs with increased playing time. The Steelers have great depth at receiver and have tight ends and running backs who can catch the ball. Hopefully the secondary can counter the potent Steelers offense.
2. Jerod Mayo and the Linebackers - Mayo is expected to play, although I doubt he'll be a full time player coming off of his injury. Look for Mayo to play around half of the snaps, depending on how he feels. Will he be effective? How will Brandon Spikes play and can he continue his success? Will Gary Guyton continue to defend the outlet receiver well? The linebackers, like Rob Ninkovich, will be extremely important in jamming tight end Heath Miller at the line of scrimmage and passing him off to the secondary. This unit has to remove Ben Roethlisberger's safety nets.
3. Patriots Offensive Line - The offensive line has not be exceptional this season and, while they have helped the run game, have not been able to keep Tom Brady's jersey clean. This line has to step up this week to not only pave the road for the running backs, but also keep Brady standing upright. The Steelers have a great pass rush and a strong defensive line so all blockers must be spectacular in order for Brady to have time and for the offense to operate at a high level.
4. Patriots Slot Receivers - While Pro Football Focus ranks Steelers CB Ike Taylor 71st in the league (out of 98), Taylor has only allowed 8 receptions on 38 attempts with one pass defended and one touchdown allowed. The majority of Taylor's negative score is related to the number of penalties he's committed and he should do well in coverage on the outside receiver (most likely Deion Branch). However, the Steelers are weak in the secondary behind Troy Polamalu and the Patriots will most likely try and exploit the slot coverage with numerous passes to wide receiver Wes Welker and tight end Aaron Hernandez. Look for those two players to have huge days on offense.
5. Third Down Defense - Last season, the Patriots had the league worst third down defense and allowed a 47.1% conversion rate. This season, against much more efficient offenses, the defense ranks 23rd with a 42.5% conversion rate allowed. The Steelers can go score-for-score with the Patriots and it is imperative that the defense stops them from getting any momentum on drives. The defense has to stuff the Steelers run offense and shut down the pass attack on third down and get off the field. The longer they stay on the field, the more likely the Steelers will break out for a huge play. The defense must get off the field.
This game looks like a fight for the inside lane to homefield advantage. Hopefully, the Patriots learned a lot during the Bye Week and come out ready to win.