This Sunday, the Steelers will begin the most difficult 2-game stretch of the 2011 season. They face the New England Patriots this weekend, and then they’ll face the Baltimore Ravens the following week. The Steelers will host both games at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.
Both the Patriots (5-1) and the Ravens (4-2) are in the top 10 in most NFL power rankings. The Steelers are also in the top 10 in those rankings. In fact, these 3 teams are the top 3 teams in the AFC in most rankings. So the next two games will say a lot about AFC supremacy.
The problems with facing the Patriots is that they always seem to have the Steelers’ number. The Patriots have won 5 of their last 6 games in Pittsburgh (including 2 AFC Championship games).
Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady is 6-1 against the Steelers during his career, and he always poses a difficult challenge for the Steelers.
The problem with facing Brady is that he violates one of the Steelers’ defensive philosophies. The Steelers believe in stopping the run to force their opponent to become one-dimensional. They believe that if they can force the opponent to pass the ball, they have a high probability of causing turnovers and winning the game.
However, Tom Brady and the Patriots seem to embrace that challenge. They seldom run against the Steelers, and are content to throw on just about every play. They use the short passing game in place of their running game, and challenge the Steelers to stop them. And Brady almost never throws an interception.
The Patriots rank 1st in the NFL in overall and passing offense, with averages of 474.5 yards and 350.5, respectively. Brady leads the AFC in passing, and wide receiver Wes Welker leads the NFL in receptions.
Welker is always challenging, but the bigger challenge for the Steelers will likely be Patriots’ tight end Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski is ranked 23rd in the NFL in receiving yards, and he already has 5 touchdowns. That’s more TD catches than Steve Smith, Larry Fitzgerald, DeSean Jackson, A.J. Green, Jason Whitten, Roddy White, Reggie Wayne, or Vincent Jackson. Moreover, Gronkowski caught 3 TD passes the last time the Steelers faced the Patriots.
Fortunately for the Steelers, the Patriots defense is ranked 32nd in the NFL against the pass. That’s dead last. They’re allowing their opponents to pass for 322 yards per game.
If the Steelers are smart, they’ll take a page from the Patriots’ playbook, and challenge the Pats to stop their passing game. Frankly, I don’t believe that the Patriots’ defensive backs have the speed to stay with Steelers’ receivers Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders.
Steelers fans don’t usually expect to see the Steelers offense engage in high scoring shootouts. But in this game, that may be exactly the formula that’s needed to win. And frankly, I think it’s the type of game that offensive coordinator Bruce Arians dreams about.
Arians loves the passing game. Loves, loves, loves! In fact, if he could never call a running play, I think he’d do that.
If Arians is allowed to unleash his sprinters so Ben Roethlisberger can launch long bombs, Arians will likely die of happiness. Moreover, the Steelers will likely win the game.