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Patriots Potential Playoff Opponents: Pittsburgh Steelers

12.28.11 at 11:43 pm ET
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With the Patriots securely in the postseason, it’€™s time to start sizing up their possible postseason opponents. This is part of a weeklong series of features on the rest of the AFC playoff teams and how they might match up with New England. We’€™ve already profiled the Baltimore Ravens and Houston Texans. Today, we’€™ve got a look at the Pittsburgh Steelers:

The skinny: The Steelers, are, well, the Steelers. Tough, physical and hard-nosed, they are the same team that the city has boasted about for the last 35 years or so. With an 11-4 mark, they have already clinched a postseason spot, and are currently sitting at No. 5 in the AFC playoff race. (Although they could still finish anywhere between No. 1 and No. 5, depending on what happens the final week of the regular season. Pittsburgh has a couple of forgettable losses under its belt (at Houston and at San Francisco), but nothing too ugly, and no more than any other playoff team. Bottom line? Other than the health of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (who is a question mark in the regular-season finale against the Browns on Sunday because of a high-ankle sprain), there are few questions about the Steelers heading into the postseason.

Offense: Love him or hate him, everything flows through Roethlisberger (301-for-473 for 3,856 yards, 21 touchdowns and 14 interceptions). The 29-year-old suffered a high-ankle sprain late in the season, which has hampered his effectiveness and made him a question mark for the playoffs. (Simply put, they are not the same team with veteran backup Charlie Batch under center.) Rashard Mendenhall (220 carries, 890 yards and nine touchdowns) is the guy they turn to when they want to run the ball, and Mike Wallace (71 catches, 1,182 yards and eight TDs) and Antonio Brown (63 catches, 1,018 yards and two TDs) are the most frequent targets when Roethlisberger throws. The Steelers are middle-of-the-pack when it comes to offense, as they’€™re ninth in the league in passing offense (257 yards per game), 16th in rushing (116.1 yards per game) and 20th in overall scoring (20.8 points per game).

Defense: They do what they do. Pittsburgh has always had one of the best defenses in the league under defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau, and the Steelers did a very good job slowing the New England offense when these two teams met back in October. (In that one, the Patriots had 43 yards rushing and 198 yards passing, both season lows in a 25-17 loss for New England.) Overall, the Steelers are one of the best defenses in the league: Pittsburgh is tops in the league in passing yards allowed (172.2 yards per game), ninth in rushing defense (101.7 yards per game) and second in the league in scoring defense (14,5 points per game).

Why the Patriots should be afraid: The Steelers play excellent team defense against both the run and the pass, and they rarely beat themselves. They are a veteran team that’€™s a playoff-tested bunch, as many of them have won at least one Super Bowl, and many of them have won at least two.

Why the Patriots shouldn’€™t be afraid: Roethlisberger’€™s health makes Pittsburgh a colossal wild card. (If he’€™s not at 100 percent, they are not the same team.) And while New England has struggled in Pittsburgh during the regular season, they have easily handled the Steelers in the playoffs — the Patriots are 3-1 against Pittsburgh in the postseason. And as poorly they played at times in the October loss, New England was in the game down the stretch — in fact, if the Patriots had done a better job of clock management late in the game and decided to challenge a Tom Brady pass for Rob Gronkowski that was indeed a touchdown (he was ruled down at the one), New England could have had a shot to tie things up late.

One guy to look out for: Heath Miller had a good start when these two teams met back in October, catching six passes for 76 yards in the first half against the Patriots. While Miller (49 catches, 608 yards, two touchdowns) isn’€™t one of Roethlisberger’€™s primary targets, the tight end remains a dangerous presence in the passing game.

Potential playoff villain: Linebacker James Harrison, who has 56 tackles (46 solo) and nine sacks in 10 games this season has redefined the term ‘€œchip on your shoulder,’€ and has no love lost for the Patriots. In a controversial interview with ‘€œMen’€™s Journal’€ this summer, Harrison blasted New England, He called former Patriots’€™ Rodney Harrison and Tedy Bruschi ‘€œclowns’€ and played the ‘€œSpyGate’€ card. ‘€œI should have another ring,’€ Harrison said. ‘€œWe were the best team in football in 2004, but the Patriots, who we beat during the regular season, stole our signals and picked up 90 percent of our blitzes (in the AFC title game). They got busted for it later, but, hey, they’€™re Goodell’€™s boys, so he slapped ‘€˜em $500,000 and burned the tapes. Was he going to rescind their Super Bowls? Man, hell no!’€

Read More: Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger, Charlie Batch, Dick LeBeau
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