Many thanks to those of you who offered up a question yesterday to ask the author and editor of Pats Pulpit, the NE Patriots site for SB Nation. Thanks to Tom for taking the time to answer our questions.
1)The 'five wide, empty backfield' set didn't work well last week because of overload blitzes by the Ravens. Do you think the Pats will try and stay away from that set this weekend seeing as how the Steelers blitz even more than the Ravens?
Pats Pulpit: The success of that formation depends a great deal on the success of the running game. When the running game is (was) a threat, opposing defenses would need to field personnel capable of defending against the run. With that threat reduced, and in some cases eliminated, teams have been able to select personnel better tailored to take advantage of those formations.
There's no telling what Bill Belichick and his coaches are planning. The last two weeks, I expected more short routes and check-down passes and lots of screens to offset the blitz. There were few of either.
It's not the number of blitzes, but the style and whether the Patriots blockers block the correct blitzers. Pittsburgh disguises their blitzes well, and that will be the challenge for New England's line, tight ends and running backs.
2)Have Maroney's injuries this year raised enough of a red flag that his potential to be a 'franchise back' is in question? If so, any thoughts on what NE might do with that #2 pick..i.e is Darren McFadden on the radar and do Pats fans want him?
Pats Pulpit: That depends who you ask. Certainly there have been rumbles among fans and the media. Maroney certainly seemed more effective when he had Corey Dillon and Sammy Morris to switch off, and people have been questioning his overall toughness. I haven't heard any Terry Glenn comparisons yet, but someone allegedly left a box of diapers by his locker last week.
Assuming the No. 2 pick remains the No. 2 pick, selecting McFadden is definitely tempting, but I think that would require a suitor for Maroney first. There's no chance New England is going to carry two first-round running backs on its roster. The Patriots have some big decisions come the end of the season, contracts for Asante Samuel, Randy Moss, Donte' Stallworth and others among them. There's just no way the Patriots could simply add McFadden to the team. Gaining McFadden would mean losing at least one other player, more likely three or four. It's probable that New England will trade a top-five pick.
3)If Vince Wilfork can't move the pocket, do you think an aging interior LB corps can do the job of stopping the Steelers short passing game and running game? Rephrased: can Wilfork truly command a double-team, and if not, how will the Pats compensate with their backers?
Pats Pulpit: If it's not Wilfork, it's probably Richard Seymour. Most teams probably want to double-team one of them. Either way, with Rosevelt Colvin lost for the season and Adalius Thomas shifted to the outside, there will be a lot of pressure on starters Tedy Bruschi and Junior Seau and backups Eric Alexander, Chad Brown and whomever else. Bruschi and Seau were among the team leaders in tackles last week against the Ravens, but I don't take that as a good sign.
After moving Colvin to injured reserve, the Patriots had just a couple days to rearrange their defense and practice with their new alignments, and they had a short week this week because of the Monday game. They did not practice Wednesday. That could be a factor heading into Sunday. Still, you can expect to see lots of different alignments with some natural 4-3s to get Bruschi or Seau a breather and Thomas lining up on the line.
4)If you had to guess, how long will Bellicheck continue coaching this team? What's his contract situation and how much longer do you expect to see him on the sidelines in Foxboro?
Pats Pulpit: Belichick will be in New England for the foreseeable future. After the league ruled on the videotape scandal, the Patriots leaked that they reached an extension agreement through 2013. The Patriots, their owner and Belichick have refused to disclose details, but he's getting paid .. a lot.
Barring any shocking development, I think it's safe to say that he'll coach as long as Tom Brady remains quarterback. Some speculate that Brady will retire young if he accomplishes certain goals. That could be a couple years, it could be a dozen.
5) How much does this game mean in the eyes of Pats fans? You've beaten Indy and Dallas - two of the small number of legit Super Bowl contenders. Would it be nice to beat the Steelers to show you have the upper hand on every upper echelon team in the league? If the Steelers win, will Patriots fans use the excuse that the Patriots weren't trying their hardest and therefore the game meant nothing?
Pats Pulpit: Like every game to this point, it means everything as long as the Patriots remain undefeated. I don't think there's a single fan that believes they need to win to show they have the upper hand. They have it as long as they maintain the No. 1 seed in the conference. Remember, the Steelers ended the Patriots "other" streak, and New England beat Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh on their way to their third Super Bowl. Most Patriots fans thought they had the upper hand then, too, despite losing to the Steelers during the regular season.
I don't know what anyone will say if the Steelers win, but it won't be that the Patriots weren't trying -- not on my site anyway. Whatever is said will depend on how the game plays out.
There ya have it Steelers Nation. Thanks Tom, and thanks you all for helping me out with this.