|Setting the scene: Patriots-Steelers||10.30.11 at 11:03 am ET|
Clear skies and temperatures in the mid-to-upper 40s are expected as two of the four AFC division leaders square off on the natural grass of Heinz Field. There will no doubt be plenty of Halloween costumes in the sellout crowd at the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny, just like there was on Oct. 31, 2004, when the Steelers were a nightmare, beating the Patriots 34-20, at Heinz.
The field condition on a grass surface is always of concern to Pats coach Bill Belichick. It was worth noting that after his Friday morning press conference – and shortly after donning his Tony La Russa Cardinals jersey – he met for several minutes with Don Brocher inside the equipment office of the Patriots locker room.
It would hardly be surprising to discover the subject of Heinz Field came up, as likely did what shoes and cleats would be best suited for the conditions.
Also remember, the field – which has a notorious reputation around the NFL for coming apart – hosted a Big East battle between UConn-Pittsburgh on Wednesday night and Western Pennsylvania received an icy, wintry mix from the early onset of the Nor’easter that belted New England late Saturday night.
It is not uncommon for Brocher to make sure each player has a choice of two or three spikes. Testing the field early on will be particularly important for the visiting Patriots on this October afternoon.
It remains to be seen whether or not the field conditions impact the Patriots decision to play linebacker Jerod Mayo, who missed the final two games before the bye week with a left knee injury. The injury was initially reported as a strain of the MCL, with Mayo expected to miss several weeks to let it heal.
One wonders if the grass field at Reliant Stadium will pass through Belichick’s mind before kickoff since it was on that sketchy field in Jan. 2010 that Wes Welker slipped making a cut and tore his ACL.
In addition to Mayo, Belichick also has decisions to make on running back Kevin Faulk (coming off a 2010 ACL tear) and DL Brandon Deaderick, both of whom have been activated off the PUP list this week.
The field is traditionally covered by a tarp whenever inclement weather hits so the field is expected to be good at the start of the game.
The Patriots will be will be significantly shorthanded in the secondary as Josh Barrett was ruled out Saturday night with a thumb injury. Add to that the decision by the Patriots to place rookie corner Ras-I Dowling on injured reserve Saturday and the release of veteran corner Leigh Bodden on Friday, and the Patriots will have their work cut out trying to stop the aerial attack of Ben Roethlisberger.
The wind is not expected to play a factor, with breezes of between 5-10 MPH expected for the game so you can expect Roethlisberger to test the Patriots secondary early and often.
While the Patriots will be thin in the secondary, the Steelers will also be playing significantly short-handed Sunday as star receiver Hines Ward will be out with an ankle injury and veteran linebacker James Farrior will not play due to a calf injury. The team ruled both out Sunday morning, hours before the 4:15 p.m. ET kickoff at Heinz Field.
Ward is considered one of the very best blocking receivers in football and has 26 catches for 258 yards and two touchdowns this season while the 35-year-old Farrior has played in all seven games for the Steelers this season and hasn’t missed a reguar season game since 2005, a string of 93 consecutive games.
Also missing from today’s game will be star linebacker James Harrison, who is out with an eye injury. He was injured in Week 4 and hasn’t played since, with today marking his fourth straight game on the sidelines. In all, the Steelers list six players as out today with injuries.
With a win today, the Patriots will set another NFL standard in the Brady-Belichick era as the two will become the most successful coach-quarterback tandem in NFL history. Brady and Belichick have won 116 games together, matching the total of Dan Marino and Don Shula.
Brady and Belichick have combined for a 116-33-0 record while Marino and Shula needed 35 more games to reach their win total, going 116-68-0 in their time together in Miami.
Other nuggets: The Steelers are 4-0 this season at Heinz Field, and have won six straight at home, dating back to last year’s playoff run to the Super Bowl, when they beat the Ravens and Jets at Heinz… Tom Brady, with 2,163 yards so far, is on pace to throw for 5,768 yards. Only two NFL quarterbacks have thrown for 5,000 yards in a single season – Marino (5,084 in 1984) and Drew Brees (5,069 in 2008)… Brady has 16 touchdown passes in six games so far. That’s a pace of 43 touchdowns in a season. He set the NFL record of 50 in 2007. If he even reaches 40, he would become just the second QB in NFL history with two seasons of 40 or more TD passes, joining Marino… Welker has 51 catches so far this season. He is on pace for a remarkable 136, which would be second in NFL history to Marvin Harrison’s 143 in 2002. Welker is still on a record receiving yards pace, with 785 in six games. If he keeps it up, he would finish with 2,093, obliterating Jerry Rice’s record of 1,848 in 1995. No receiver has even broken the 1,900-yard plateau.
And finally… The Patriots, with their 3-0 mark this month, enter today’s game with a remarkable 32-5 record since 2003 in the ghostly month, including a 23-2 in their last 25 October tilts.
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