Pregame Zone Blitz: Primetime Patriots Showdown

PZB gives himself a poor grade after blowing a tackle and failing to wrap up Pregame Zone Dog after his escape into the neighborhood at halftime. Fortunately, the Steelers defense played much better, and it's led them to a familiar place. We've seen 6-2 in each of the last three seasons. It's not every year a team plays three consecutive road games, two of those coming on primetime, and two of them against inter-conference foes. It's a battle-tested 6-2, to be sure.

It's come at a price, though, and heading into the third 4-game stretch of the season, the Steelers are going to have to get creative in terms of their blocking schemes. LT Max Starks is done for the year (welcome aboard, Chris Scott), adding further logs to the crisis fire of the offensive line.

But PZB sees a certain tough guy offensive lineman, and gets geared up for a physical game against a strong opponent.

Opponent Web Sites/Forums

The Patriots signed former Bengals K Shayne Graham to replace injured Stephen Gostkowski

Stephen Verman from Pats Pulpit doles out the midseason Patriots grades. Almost like a "viewer discretion is advised" warning, he points out the grades were assigned before the team's Week 9 loss to Cleveland.

Patriots ageless RB Fred Taylor didn't receive much of a grade, because he hasn't played since Week 3. He looks to return this week, though, after being cleared from a turf toe injury.

Speaking of lower extremity injuries, QB Tom Brady missed practice Wednesday due to a "mild sprain" of his foot. Fortunately for the Steelers, they don't have to worry about Brady's 0.7 yard per carry rushing average.

Not that Brady will miss the game, says Pats Pulpit writer Greg Knopping. He does seem excited about the return of S Patrick Chung.

Last Game

Was the combination of Ike Taylor and James Harrison converging on Jordan Shipley the turning point in Pittsburgh's battle with its recent enemy, the fourth quarter? The Enemy reared its ugly head after the Bengals overcame their internal dysfunction and incredibly uninspiring play through three quarters to storm back from a 27-7 deficit. TO could not be stopped, Carson Palmer was throwing with precision and touch and the Steelers offense failed to finish off a beautiful clock-killing drive when RG Doug Legursky missed a block and Jeff Reed missed (another) field goal.

Palmer made the right read to Shipley down at the four yard line, after he beat Taylor on an inside move. Harrison said after the game he was supposed to rush the passer, but felt as if they were going to throw inside and short.

Ya think?

If the ball wasn't going to TO, it was going short and across the middle. That mentality has plagued the defense in most of their past 24 games (25 if you want to go back to Super Bowl XLIII). In the end, the defense made the play it needed to make.

Regardless of the discomfort it created.

Individual big plays (Manny Sanders, William Gay, Mike Wallace) sparked the lead, and it provides a sense of confidence going into a huge showdown against fellow 6-2 record New England.

The Patriots do not have a TO-like offensive weapon, but they have a lot of solid contributors. It's a bit of the opposite of Cincinnati; Jermaine Gresham isn't half of what Aaron Hernandez is at this point of their careers, though (more on him in a minute). The Steelers took the big-play offense of the Bengals, and now have to defend the methodical precision of Tom Brady and the Patriots. And let's not forget The Enemy, because this game will go down to the wire.

Harrison Holds: 1 Called - 2 Uncalled

The weekly tally of holds on All-World OLB James Harrison, both called and uncalled

Not Called:

  1. 1:28 remaining in 2nd quarter, G Nate Livings wraps left arm around Harrison after he stunts to the inside. CB William Gay flagged for illegal contact on the play, giving Cincinnati a first down.
  2. 2:38 remaining 4th quarter, LT Andrew Whitworth hooks Harrison's left (inside) arm as Harrison moves outside the pocket.

Called:

  1. 6:26 remaining in 2nd quarter, Whitworth pulls Harrison down on outside move, negates a completion to Owens.

Season Tally

Week 1 - 3 uncalled, 1 called

Week 2 - 1 uncalled, 0 called

Week 3 - 1 uncalled, 1 called

Week 4 - 0 uncalled, 1 called

Week 6 - 2 uncalled, 0 called

Week 7 - 0 uncalled, 1 called

Week 8 - 1 uncalled, 0 called

Week 9 - 2 uncalled, 1 called

TOTAL - 7 uncalled, 4 called

Opponent Spotlight: QB Tom Brady

No one wants to hear more about Mr. Patriot. Unfortunately, I think Steelers defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau is one of those people.

But he's gonna have to figure out a way to put a passer on ice. It hasn't happened in the last five games. What's worse, this is the third time this year a team has played the Browns a game before they've played the Steelers (Ravens and Saints before New England), and the Browns play a similar defense.

The previous two quarterbacks, Baltimore's Joe Flacco and New Orleans' Drew Brees, have done quite well in their games against Pittsburgh, and neither of them had good games against the Browns. Brady was a pedestrian-at-best 19-for-36 for 224 yards. Flacco and Brees combined to complete 69.5 percent of their passes for 561 yards and four touchdowns against the Steelers the week after playing Cleveland.

The Steelers lost both games.

Enter Brady, who's having a strong year despite having no established big-time players outside of Wes Welker alongside him. He has an entire law firm in the backfield (BenJarvis Green-Ellis) and he uses all the weapons he has, as evidenced by the six receivers who have 10+ catches, including two rookie TEs, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski.

It's classic Brady in yet another season. And this could be his finest scope of work he's put up in his Hall of Fame career. But it's debatable whether he's ever had less talent surrounding him entering one of these games. The Patriots are not a strong defensive team, which has always given him a time of possession advantage, but they're on the wrong side of a 34-27 deficit in that category. While overall, he's performing well, his stats indicate he's sliding a bit. He hasn't completed better than 61 percent of his passes in the last four weeks, reaching a low point all around against a Cleveland team that ran the Patriots through a wood chipper.

But we've seen this before. Pittsburgh's opponent is either beaten by Cleveland or barely escapes with a win, and does well against the Steelers the following week. Games like this just dare Brady to be the hero. We're likely to see all of five running plays the whole game, and Brady will dink and dunk his way down the field, not taking pressure but doling out dozens of seven and eight yard completions.

Steelers Spotlight:  CB William Gay

Big Play Willie Gay is the modern-day Deshea Townsend. Perhaps not lavish praise through the eyes of fans of Pittsburgh's opposition, but not every team has the luxury of a nickel back who can cover the slot receiver, cover outside the hashes, blitz the passer and tackle in the open field.

Sunday, he's going to be asked to do all of that, against a team that has no offensive players who stand out statistically. But they win because they can spread the field and force mismatches against teams who do not have quality players below their starters.

Gay will be asked, at various times, to cover Welker, Deion Branch, Brandon Tate, The Law Firm and whatever other player the Pats will put out there. He's going to have to wrap up after short pass completions. He's going to be targeted in the passing game, and be subjected to double-moves. They're going to spread the field as wide as they can and with as many offensive players as the rules allow to negate the Steelers pass rushing advantage. New England's offensive line has not been outstanding this season, and they've been living and dying with swing passes and throws to the slot receiver.

This game will be all about coverage and the secondary, and as the adage goes, you're only as strong as your weakest link. Not to suggest Gay is weak, but he's not starting for a reason. Play for play, though, he's had arguably a better season than either Taylor or Bryant McFadden, and his active participation in this game is a requirement, and will likely be an indication of success or failure in Week 10.  

I See You

I see you, Maurkice Pouncey. In a game chock-full of great See-Worthy performances (James Harrison, Manny Sanders and Rashard Mendenhall), you stood out for one all-encompassing reason; we held our collective breath when we saw you grabbing your knee on the turf at Paul Brown Stadium.

You've become our most valuable offensive linemen. Some would argue most valuable offensive player. PZB? We see you because you got it taped up and got back in the game. Mendenhall ran his butt off in the fourth quarter, largely in part to the effort you inspired up front. It would have been nice if we got three points out of that last drive to seal the victory, but you did your part.

Mendenhall had one of the most impactful performances he's had as a pro, and as far as PZB can see, that was your best game. It couldn't have come at a better time. When the Steelers lost another tackle (Starks could be joining RT Willie Colon on the IR), and Jonathan Scott had to move to LG to replace Chris Kemoeatu, you solidified the line for one last drive, with Cincinnati's offense poised to break out, you pushed hard enough to get a makeable field goal situation, one that, if made, would have put the nail in the coffin of the game.

The line seemed to rally around your return. Starks was out (and now out for the year), and back-up TE Matt Spaeth was one step away from moving to tackle. Somehow, you led a push to run the ball successfully in the fourth quarter, which turned from normalcy in 2004 to after-thought, to rumor to myth by 2010.  

We see you, Maurkice, and take care of that knee. There seems to be an injury bug fluttering around the line.

Key Stats

  • The Steelers have started 6-2 in each of their previous three seasons
  • Since 2001, the Steelers have made the playoffs each year they've played the Patriots in the regular season
  • New England's opponents are completing 70 percent of their passes
  • Hernandez and Welker have 78 receptions between them. The rest of the Patriots receivers have 79.

Quick-Hitters

Ochocinco: How does a team justify keeping him on its roster? At the point RT Andrew Whitworth had to make like a Jerry Springer bodyguard and fend off Ochocinco from attacking Palmer in the middle of the freaking game, I thought enough was enough.

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