This week, the Steelers will face their perennial AFC rivals the New England Patriots. Anytime you are discussing AFC supremacy, these two teams are likely to be included in the conversation.
Both teams need a win this weekend to stay in the race for division titles. The Steelers are one game ahead of the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North, but the Ravens play the Cincinnati Bengals this weekend, and will probably get a win. Meanwhile, the Patriots are one game behind the New York Jets in the AFC East. They need a win to stay within striking distance of the Jets.
These are the match-ups that I believe will have the highest likelihood of impacting the outcome of the game.
Steelers’ linebackers James Harrison & LaMarr Woodley vs. Patriots’ QB Matt Cassel
We all know that Matt Cassel has been a more than adequate replacement for Tom Brady. However, Cassel has really not faced many above average defenses. The toughest defense that he’s faced this year is the Indianapolis Colts, and he lost that game. The Steelers’s defense is much better than the Colts.
Cassel had proven to be susceptible to pressure. He’s been sacked even more often than Ben Roethlisberger has this year (and I didn’t think that was possible). That has got to have Steelers’ linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley watering at the mouth. Each is among the NFL’s leaders in sacks, and they have a friendly competition going against one another. They’ll both be looking forward to adding to their sack count against Matt Cassel. Advantage: Steelers.
CB Ike Taylor vs WR Randy Moss.
Despite his hands of stone, Ike Taylor is one of the best cover corners in the NFL. He has the size and speed to guard even the biggest and fastest receivers. He’ll need every ounce of his size and speed this week when he faces Randy Moss. Moss epitomizes the tall, fast receiver. If there is a receiver in the NFL who is more dangerous than Randy Moss, I don’t know who he is. After a terrible stint with the Raiders, Moss has been reborn with the Patriots. This may be the best match-up of the game. Advantage: Patriots
Steelers’ defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau vs. Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick
One of the best match-ups of the game won’t even take place on the field. Instead, it will take place along the sidelines as Steelers’ defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau matches wits with Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick. Belichick has owned the Steelers since he became head coach of the Patriots. Some would argue that his success is due to his cheating, but that’s a discussion for another time.
Belichick runs a complicated 3-4 defensive scheme, so he is not as unfamiliar with what LeBeau does as many opponents are. Belichick always develops game plans that are perfectly crafted to beat the Steelers. Against any other foe, Dick LeBeau would have the advantage, but against the mad scientist Bill Belichick, well……… Advantage: Patriots.
WR Santontio Holmes vs. Patriots’ CB Deltha O’Neal
Deltha O’Neal couldn’t guard the Steelers’ receivers when he was a young cornerback playing for the Cincinnati Bengals. He certainly can’t contain them as a 75 year old cornerback for the Patriots. Unless Holmes breaks his leg during the game, he should burn O’Neal like firewood. Advantage: Steelers.
DE Travis Kirschke vs. G Logan Mankins
It’s not often that Travis Kirschke’s name is mentioned as a key match-up. However, this week he will play a pivotal role in the game. Starter Brett Keisel is out with an injury, and Kirschke will be called upon to fill in for him. Kirschke must hold stout against the run in order for the Steelers to contain the Patriots offense. Kirschke, along with backup defensive ends Nick Eason and Orpheus Roye, have played surprisingly well each time they’ve been called upon this season. Advantage: Neither.
Steelers’C Justin Hartwig vs. Patriots’ NT Vince Wilfork
Justin Hartwig was brought in to handle the big AFC nose tackles who seemed to overpower Sean Mahan last year. Hartwig has held his own so far, but he will receive a good test from Patriots’ nose tackle Vince Wilfork. Wilfork is a former 1st round draft pick, and at 6’2″ 325 lbs, he is built very similar to Steelers’ NT Casey Hampton. He is short for his size, which allows him to get under his blockers and use incredible leverage to collapse the line of scrimmage.
Hartwig has held his own against Browns’ NT Shawn Rogers and Chargers’ NT Jamal Williams, two of the best in the game. Moreover, he practices everyday against Steelers’ NT Casey Hampton, so he should should be well prepared for his battle with Wilfork. Advantage: Neither.
Overall, I anticipate that the Steelers’ defense will contain the Patriots’ offense, while the Steelers’ offense overwhelms the Patriots’ defense. Final score prediction: Steelers 24, Patriots 14.
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