The NFL is a league of match-ups. Each team, regardless of record, is able to do some things well, and other things not so well. Winning and losing comes down to each team's ability to do those things against their opponents. The 6-2 New England Patriots do not stop the run well (130 yards allowed per game, 31st in the NFL). The Steelers haven't run well top to bottom, either, but having faced three consecutive opponents who were ranked in the top 10 in rush defense at the time they played, the proverbial "iron sharpens iron" concept comes into play. One detractor to that is the Steelers best offensive linemen, David DeCastro, won't be on the field, but the Patriots are still learning how to live without nose tackle Vince Wilfork, and are susceptible to the run.
If any team has a seemingly less explosive group of receivers than the Steelers, it's the pre-Gronkowski Patriots. Even with stud tight end Rob Gronkowski, who's only played two games this season and is catching less than 50 percent of his targets (10-for-23), the Patriots offense has become constipated. Drops, miscues and general confusion has reduced their heavy short-passing offense to next to nothing. The Steelers are able to defend well in coverage, but have broken down on multiple big plays. Taking those out, it's a very tight defense. The Patriots don't have the big play capability to break the spine of that defense.
Steelers LOLB LaMarr Woodley has been decent this season. Not dominant, not terrible. He's drawing another favorable match-up, like he was supposed to have last week against Oakland. Facing third-year RT Marcus Cannon - who's replacing injured Sebastian Vollmer - Woodley likely barely knows who Cannon is, but the bigger mystery is the identity of this Patriots' line. With Volmer and left tackle Nate Solder arguably being the league's best tackle combination, and Logan Mankins still among the best guards in the game, the Patriots have allowed 23 sacks in seven games (they allowed 27 sacks all last year).
Clot the slot
The Steelers are likely to employ several different looks in their secondary, getting reserves Cortez Allen and Shamarko Thomas heavily involved. Brady, throwing without former Patriots Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez, has struggled hugely in passing to his various slot receivers. Look for the Steelers to continue to choke those inside receivers, and exploit one of the most odd and unexpected stats of Brady's career - four interceptions and one touchdown when targeting the slot this season.
It wouldn't be a surprise to see the Steelers shadow Gronkowski with cornerback Ike Taylor. They utilized Allen a bit in a 2011 win in Pittsburgh, and while Gronkowski still had a good statistical game, his yards did not come until much later in the contest, when the Steelers had built a lead. Gronkowski has a size advantage on any defensive back, but with William Gay and/or Shamarko Thomas possibly defending the slot, the Patriots will go after that match-up all game. Moving Taylor around, and giving outside responsibilities to Allen and Gay, may be an effective strategy.
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