PITTSBURGH - A few things I'll be watching for when the Patriots take on the Steelers tonight:
Weather and the field: Heinz Field is notoriously one of the worst playing surfaces in the NFL. It has been raining most of the day – more heavily in the past hour. You can tell the middle of the field between the 10 yards lines has been resodded at some point. The footing for the players could be really poor as the game goes along. Be happy it’s early November. After the high school playoffs games are playing later in the month, the field is a nightmare in December.
Which team do the conditions favor? I’d go with the Steelers. The Patriots aren’t going to be able to run the ball in this game. This much they knew because the Steelers have the league’s best run defense. In these conditions, I’d rather be more balanced because if the ball becomes slick, you need to be able to run the ball. Also, playaction will be much more effective and that’s where you get a slips on the part of defensive players. The counter argument is that it’s better to be a passing team in the rain because you know where you are going – the defense doesn’t – and that it could slow down the Steelers’ pass rush. Against a 4-3 team, I would agree because those defenders are using traction and leverage to bring pressure. James Harrison does for the Steelers, but they bring most of their pressure on zone blitzes, which are straight-line rushes. The Patriots can’t throw 50 times in these conditions and expect to win.
Patriots need to stop the run: If New England can hold Steelers RB Rashard Mendenhall in check and make the Steelers one dimensional, it levels the field as far as the conditions.
Bring pressure: Patriots have just 13 sacks this season. The Steelers’ line is beyond banged up. If New England can’t get three sacks – and Ben Roethlisberger is tough to bring down – against this group, it could be a long season. That secondary needs help in the form of quarterback pressure.
Protect Brady: If Tom Brady is able to take his five-step drops without much pressure, there will be holes to exploit in the secondary of the Steelers. That’s just the arithmetic of a zone blitz team. Give Brady consistent time in the pocket and we could be headed for a shootout.
Steelers 27, Patriots 24. Would not be surprised to see Bill Belichick and the Patriots have an inspired effort after what happened in Cleveland. And the Steelers’ secondary is ripe for the taking by a more accurate Brady. This is going to be a good one. Just feels like the team to have the ball last will win. Patriots might miss Stephen Gostkowski in this one.