Steelers vs. Patriots: Limiting early big plays essential

Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers have been decimated by big plays early in games this year. While the Patriots' passing offense is a curious shell of what it used to be, the Steelers must come out defensively and prevent big plays to slow the game down.

The Steelers have allowed a shocking six plays this season of 51 yards or more.

More of the problem, though, is the fact five of those six plays have come in the first quarter of their games. It's a 60-minute game but the confidence factor - both an increase for the opponent and a detraction for the Steelers - can force a defense off-schedule, and can lead to mistakes of over-aggression.

And the points those plays create don't help the cause, either.

Terrelle Pryor's 93-yard run is the shining example. Minnesota's Greg Jennings' 75-yard touchdown catch-and-run is up there as well. Andy Dalton's big throw down the season to tight end Tyler Eifert didn't help the Steelers at all. Perhaps these are only examples and not causes, but the Steelers lost all three of these games, and they trailed all of them in the fourth quarter.

Neither the Ravens nor the Jets made those plays, and the Steelers won both of them.

New England has been King Big Play over the last several years. Quarterback Tom Brady has been super-human against the Steelers, having tormented the Steelers, both in Pittsburgh and Foxborough, throughout his career.

This isn't the same Patriots team, or at least it's no more the same than the Steelers are the same team. Whether the team, head coach Bill Belichick or Brady himself will mention it, Brady has a throwing hand injury to some degree, and that, along with a general lack of weaponry at the wide receiver position, has the Patriots struggling to hit on big plays.

The once mighty passing game is turning Jacksonvillian in New England.

Brady is 15th in the NFL with 1,824 passing yards. His 5.94 yards per attempt mark is 30th in the NFL, leading Cleveland's Brandon Weeden, Tampa Bay's Mike Glennon and Minnesota's Josh Freeman.

Or, he's leading no one.

At least with the feast-or-famine Raiders, a quarterback who could make a big play was involved. It doesn't appear anyone on the Patriots has the ability to pound away on the Steelers' Achilles' heel; the big play.

But the Steelers will have to prove they can come out and play well from the start of the game. Hurt hand or not, lack of offensive explosion or not, the Patriots can hit plays down the field like everyone else.

The Steelers and Patriots kick off at 4:25 p.m. ET Sunday at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.

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