BOSTON (CBS) – Whenever the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers meet, it is usually a matchup of two of the best teams in the NFL.
Sunday’s meeting will be no different.
The Patriots head into Pittsburgh at 6-1 fresh off their bye week. They’ve had plenty of time to game plan for the 5-2 Steelers, and can build off their familiarity with the Pittsburgh system.
But that does not mean it will be a cake walk at Heinz Field. Here are some of the key matchups in Sunday’s tilt.
Slowing Down Mike Wallace
The speedy receiver will create a lot of problems for the New England secondary. While he has not put up big reception totals in any game (he hasn’t gone over six in any game this season), Wallace makes the most of the balls he catches. He is averaging over 20-yards per reception, and has touchdowns of 81-yards and 95-yards this season.
“He’s a fun guy to play football with,” Roethlisberger said of Wallace. “He’s just got a contagious smile and he’s fast and he’s fun to throw it to and when you throw him the ball and he gets it in his hands and he’s behind defenders, you know no one is going to catch him. He does some great things for opening up other guys on our offense as well.”
“With him, sometimes they say ‘line up and use your speed, just go,’” Devin McCourty said of Wallace.
For the Patriots secondary, communication will be key to slowing him down.
Gresh & Zo Whiteboard: Slowing The Steelers
“Usually teams have a guy that can take off the top of a defense,” said McCourty. “With him, he’s a special kind of guy; I mean he flies. We have to definitely talk and always have a guy back there to stay on top of him.”
But the Patriots know he brings a lot more to the table than just a set of wheels.
“Wallace runs a lot of stuff besides deep routes now too,” said coach Bill Belichick. “He runs a lot of stuff in front of the defenders because they’re playing him deep. They run a lot of crossing patterns where if he catches the ball he just runs away from the defense. It’s not all go-routes. He runs his share of those but he does a lot of other things too. He’s really developed as a receiver. He’s improved a lot from where he was in college in terms of his route technique and it looks like his ability to read coverages and make decisions on different coverage-looks people are trying to give him. He’s done a good job. It looks like he’s improving every week.”
“Everybody in the league is taking notice that he is running better routes, running more routes, and they’re using him in different places which makes him even tougher to cover,” said McCourty.
While the Patriots defense has improved, their main problem has been giving up big plays in the passing game. Going against a guy like Wallace will not help, and neither will the guy throwing to him.
Getting Roethlisberger To The Ground
While Roethlisberger has not had great success against the Patriots (2-3 in five regular season meetings) Big Ben has put up some decent numbers against them in his career.
Roethlisberger has completed nearly 60-percent of his passes against New England, throwing 10 touchdowns to just two interceptions. While his 233 yards-per-game average through the air is nothing earth shattering, Ben is a tough guy to bring down with his 6-5, 241-pound frame.
“He’s big and he can move,” said linebacker Rob Ninkovich. “He’s going to be a challenge for us, to contain him and keep him in the pocket.”
“You have quarterbacks that either scramble to run or scramble to throw. I think Ben does both,” defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said. “What we have to do upfront is be able to get him down on the ground because he is a big guy. We have to be able to get him down on the ground without roughing him, without being too rough with the quarterback. We have to be smart on our end, but at the same time, we have to be able get him down on the ground because it’s very tough.”
“You watch film and there are a lot of guys falling off him. There are a lot of guys that think they have him, but they don’t have him, where at the last-minute he flicks the ball,” said Wilfork. “I think this is the only guy that you have him wrapped up and he can flick the ball 30 yards down the field still. You have to be very, very cautious with how you tackle him and make sure you get him on the ground without it being a roughing penalty.”
At the same time, Ben will have his eye on Wilfork.
“That’s going to be a heck of a job for whether that’s our center, or our guard,” Roethlisberger said of the Patriots All Pro defensive lineman. “He seems to move around. I even saw him blitz off the edge one time – I think it was against Oakland, they kind of ran a mixer look and he rushed against the tackle.”
“Whoever is against him, he is one of the premier guys in this league and I’ve got to be aware of him in the passing game as well now,” the Steelers QB said of Vince’s two interceptions this season.
Speaking of quarterbacks…
Brady Knows The Steelers
Tom Brady has success against most teams in the NFL, but he is one of a few that can actually make the Steelers defense look average.
“I see they are averaging 475 yards per game so I don’t think anybody has figured that out too well,” Steelers long-time defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau said this week. “You have to keep him in the ball park. You can’t let him hit the big ones; (you) have to make him go the hard way. We have played them when they got in the low 20s and we played them when they got up in the 30s and we did a whole lot better when we kept them in the 20s so that is what we have to do.”
That is easier said than done with Brady.
The Patriots quarterback is 4-1 against the Steelers in his career, completing nearly 70-percent of his passes to go with a 104.1 passer rating.
“He is very accurate. He has seen everything and does a great job of gathering pre-snap information,” said Lebeau. “He holds the snap and gets you to show and with his accuracy he knows where to go and he is very good at what he does.”
Of course Brady is not looking at his past performances, just ahead to this weekends game.
“It’s a good defense; a very good defense. They’re first in the league against pass defense,” Brady said of a defense allowing a league low 171.9 passing yards per game. “They’re pretty damn good if you ask me.”
“These guys make it tough on you,” he said. “I think they’re very physical, they cover well. They have continuity in the defense. If you watch the Super Bowl last year, they get after the quarterback. That’s the hallmark of this defense. They rush the passer, they stop the run. They’re a big physical defense that plays hard.”
Last season Brady led the Patriots to a convincing 39-26 win in Pittsburgh, connecting on 30 of his 43 passes for 350 yards and three touchdowns. All three of his scores went to rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski, who has a pair of multi-touchdown days already this season.
Brady did not have Aaron Hernandez for the majority of the game last season, and the Steelers still struggled to contain Gronk. This year, Brady will of those threats at his disposal.
Brady should keep his success against the Steelers going, as long as he keeps the ball away from the guy with the big hair.
Troy Polamalu Is Everywhere
Polamalu is the defending Defensive Player of the Year, and already has 43 tackles on the season.
The dangerous safety has yet to pick off a pass, but the Pats offense will need to be aware of where Polamalu is at all times.
“He’s very instinctive. I think that’s the thing that separates him. A lot of guys can have good physical skills [and] he has that,” Brady said of the Steelers safety. “He runs, he’s quick, he’s good in man-to-man coverage, he’s got great zone awareness.”
“He’s very dangerous. He’s an impact player, very disruptive player,” Belichick said. “Defensively he fouls up a lot of things – blitzing, pass coverage, tackling, he’s a hard hitter, knocks balls loose but he’s around the ball a lot.”
No matter where Polamalu lines up before the snap, he is always a threat to get to the ball, or whoever has it.
“You have to keep your eye on him because he has a knack for the ball,” said Brady. “Just because his assignment is on one side of the field, doesn’t mean he won’t be on the other side if he thinks that’s where the ball is going. He’s tough and he makes a lot of plays for them and he’s made some incredible interceptions and plays over the years. He’s a guy we always need to understand where he’s at and where he is lurking and what he’s trying to get accomplished.”
“At times it looks like he might be a little out of position or maybe it’s not even his play to make but he just has the speed and the anticipation to get to a point on the field where the play is,” added Belichick. “Again, whether that’s actually his responsibility or not, he just can feel it coming and anticipate it and his awareness is outstanding. He has tremendous speed and burst and hitting ability. He can get there in a hurry and when he gets there he can do a lot of damage. You have to be aware of him on every snap.”
Keeping Polamalu in check is no easy task, but the Patriots have kept him relatively quiet for such a disruptive defender.
Tune in to the Patriots-Steelers on 98.5 The Sports Hub and WBZ-TV on Sunday at 4:15pm. Pregame coverage begins Sunday morning at 11:30am on WBZ with Patriots Gameday, with coverage on The Sports Hub kicking off at 1pm. After the game, tune in to the Patriots Postgame show on 98.5 and Patriots Fifth Quarter on MY TV38.