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10 things you have to know about Steelers-Patriots

11.01.13 at 11:52 pm ET

Here’€™s everything you need to know about Sunday’€™s Steelers-Patriots game.

Our three favorite matchups on the afternoon:

‘€¨’€¨1. Running back Stevan Ridley against offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels ‘€“ For reasons that remain unclear to us, the Patriots stapled Ridley to the bench for a sizable portion of the first half last Sunday against the Dolphins. The result? New England had one of its worst offensive halves in recent memory. To be fair, it wasn’€™t all because Ridley wasn’€™t in the game (the defense had six sacks and three takeaways in the second half), but it wasn’€™t a coincidence that the offense enjoyed a spike in the third and fourth quarter when No. 22 was in the game. Ultimately, he only played 2 1/2 quarters and still ended up with 14 carries for 79 yards and a touchdown. Whether it was the result of a benching for high stepping into the end zone the week before against the Jets or a simple game-plan wrinkle, the idea of keeping a 1,200-yard rusher on the bench while your passing game is sputtering is questionable at best. The Patriots will have chances to run the football against the Steelers — Pittsburgh is one of the worst teams in the league when it comes to defending the run (the Steelers allow an average of 121.9 rushing yards per game, 27th in the league). Unless there’€™s some sort of clear issue — health or otherwise, and he wasn’€™t on the injury report all week — there’€™s no reason not to give the ball to Ridley at least 20 times Sunday.

2. Right tackle Marcus Cannon against outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley ‘€“ This is the singular matchup that could define this game. Cannon figures to be the long-term replacement (at least for the rest of the season) for Sebastian Vollmer at right tackle, and while he’€™s struggled occasionally in the past, he’€™ll face a colossal challenge this week against Woodley, Pittsburgh’€™s best pass rusher. The Steelers aren’€™t the same group of defensive titans they used to be — they have just 10 sacks on the season as a team, one more than league-worst Chicago — but have done an excellent job containing opposing passing games. Opposing teams average 181 passing yards per game against Pittsburgh, second-best in the league. If the Patriots are able to find a way to blunt Woodley’€™s pass-rushing skills with an extra tight end (or trying to keep him off balance with runs and screens in his direction), then it’€™s a winnable matchup for New England. If not, Woodley can mess up New England’€™s offensive game plan quickly.

3. The Patriots run defense against the Steelers running game ‘€“ If the Patriots are looking for a good week to break new defensive lineman Isaac Sopoaga in gently, this is it. New England has had major issues when it comes to stopping the run over the last four games — in the last month, the Patriots have gone from 13th in the league in run defense (105 yards per game allowed) to 31st (130.8 yards per game). But they should get a break this week against the Steelers, who have struggled to run the ball all season. Pittsburgh finished with only 35 rushing yards last week against the Raiders, and is 30th in the league in rushing with just 68.7 yards per game on the ground. None of their backs (Le’€™Veon Bell, Felix Jones or Jonathan Dwyer) average more than 3.6 yards per carry, and as a team, they have 147 carries for 481 yards and three rushing touchdowns. As a team, they average 68.7 rushing yards per game, and Bell is the closest thing they have to feature back, as he has 208 rushing yards on 64 carries this season.

4. Under-the-radar opponent Patriots fans need to know ‘€“ wide receiver Antonio Brown isn’€™t the sort of guy who us usually mentioned when you talk about No. 1 receivers around the league, but he’€™s managed to carve out a nice niche for himself through the first half of the 2013 season. The cousin of Patriots rookie Kenbrell Thompkins, Brown is exceptional when it comes to his skill set, but the 5-foot-10, 186-pounder is a smart and dependable pass catcher who leads Pittsburgh with 56 catches on 73 targets for 630 yards and two touchdowns over the first seven games of the season. He leads the Steelers in receptions for a first down (32) and yards after the catch (212).

5. By the numbers — Aaron Dobson is on pace for 52 catches, while Thompkins is on pace for 46. Both would be tops for a rookie wide receiver under Brady. Deion Branch had 43 catches in 2002, while Julian Edelman had 37 in 2009. (One more: over the last four weeks, without Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, the Patriots have given up 646 total rush yards to the Bengals, Saints, Jets and Dolphins ‘€” an average of 156.5 yards per game.)

6. Quote of note ‘€“ ‘€œWe’€™ve been at it for awhile ‘€“ 12 weeks ‘€“ and this is when the teams start to separate themselves. You have mental toughness, discipline, doing the right thing, making right decisions ‘€” that’€™s when this becomes part of football season. I think that’€™s been a good strength of ours over the years ‘€” getting better and improving as the season’€™s gone along. Making sure you get your rest, you get the right treatments, you understand what it takes during November and December to win. Here’€™s where teams, you go one direction or the other. The good ones have something to show for it in January and the bad ones are watching in January.’€ — Quarterback Tom Brady

7. Patriots fans should be worried about ‘€¦ breakdowns in pass protection. Brady has been sacked 23 times through the first eight games of the season (he’€™s on pace to be sacked 46 times, which would be a career-high). That includes 16 sacks the last four games. As previously mentioned, the Steelers haven’€™t been able to generate the same sort of consistent pressure on passers as they have in previous seasons, but as a group, the Pittsburgh defense is still more than capable of making things tough for quarterbacks. (Good team defense is one of the reasons the Steelers are one of the best teams in the league against the pass.) If defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and the Pittsburgh defense can devise a way of knocking Brady off his spot consistently, it could make for a long afternoon for the New England passing game.

8. Steelers fans should be worried about ‘€¦ the same thing on the other side of the ball. While the Patriots have struggled against the run — particularly as of late — they’€™ve played pretty good pass defense over the course of the season. (New England is fifth in the league, allowing an average of 215.5 passing yards per game.) In the second half last week against the Dolphins, the Patriots likely gave Pittsburgh a pretty good idea of what its capable of when they’€™re facing a one-dimensional offense with a subpar offensive line. New England had six second-half sacks on the way to a 27-17 win over Miami. Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked 26 times through the first seven games — he’€™s the fourth-most sacked quarterback in the league, trailing Miami’€™s Ryan Tannehill (32, including six last Sunday at the hands of the Patriots), Geno Smith (28) and Seattle’€™s Russell Wilson (27).

9. One more thing ‘€“ In year’€™s past, the Patriots have had success against the Steelers’€™ defense when they’€™ve been able to use Pittsburgh’€™s hyperaggressive defense style against them with fakes, draws, play-action and screen passes. It’€™s something to look for on Sunday afternoon.

10. Prediction ‘€“




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