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Steelers—Patriots: The Same Old Story or a Fresh New Chapter?

We all know the history of this matchup. The Patriots own the Steelers. They have won 6 of the 8 match-ups since Bill Belichick took the reins in New England.  Two of those matches were Conference Championships, one in 2001 and the other in 2004. The Steelers lost both, by 7 points (2001) and 14 points (2004.) The two regular season games they have won were in Week 8 of 2004 (34-20) and 2008 (33-10.) The 2008 win has a asterisk next to it because Matt Cassel, not Tom Brady, was the QB. That said, Cassel started in Week 2, his first start in a game since high school, and the Patriots won 10 of the next 15 games. The 2008 game is the only match between these two franchises in which the Patriots did not score at least 20 points.

But this is 2011, and the 2011 version of both teams have different strengths and weaknesses than in previous years. And as last night's game (Ravens/Jaguars) illustrates, anything can happen in the NFL.

Let's take a quick look at some of the factors that are the same.

The first and most obvious one is the QBs. Tom Brady is still Tom Brady, minus the flowing locks. But unlike Sampson, he seems to do just fine with or without the hair. Brady has quarterbacked every single match between the Patriots and the Steelers except the game in 2008.

Ben Roethlisberger came late to the party—he missed the first two match-ups because he was still in college. In 2004 he was a rookie. He took over for an injured Tommy Maddox in Week 1 and won the next 13 games, including vs. the Patriots. However, Roethlisberger was still in the 'game manager' phase of his career. Since then he has compiled an impressive body of work, and compares favorably with the top QBs in the league, including Tom Brady, despite his often unorthodox approach to the position. I'm not sure than anyone would dispute that Brady is a more consistent QB than Roethlisberger, but Brady also has the occasional off day.

Both teams have playmakers on offense. Ironically for an offense that puts up so many yards through the air, the Patriots are running the ball well, and not just this season. One could argue that one of the major factors in the Night of Infamy (Week 10 of 2010) was that the Patriots managed to gash the historically good Steelers run defense for 103 yards. This was double what they had given up to much better-known running backs during the previous 9 games. 

The Steelers haven't been lounging around on the offensive front, though, and have developed some outstanding offensive weapons, including Mike Wallace, who is in the discussion as the best wide receiver in the NFL today. And Wallace is far from the only WR threat. Heath Miller is one of the best TEs in the business.

Although the running game hasn't been particularly productive most of this season, the Steelers have a good stable of backs, including Isaac RedmanThe Most Interesting Running Back in the World, and Rashard Mendenhall, the Steelers' first-round pick in 2009. Although they have mostly not put up great numbers, the constantly shifting O line has a lot to do with that, and if the line can stabilize I expect the running game to pick up. 

The Patriots, in the meantime, have the top receiver this year in terms of yards, Wes Welker, two very scary TEs, and a couple of RBs that are easy to overlook. Especially Danny Woodhead. (Sorry, cheap shot short joke. As Tomlin would say, he's not small, he's just short.)

The Steelers defense is, as always, in the discussion for top defense in the league. The Patriots, not so much. But the Patriots seldom have what looks on paper like a scary defense, and yet they seem to get things done against the Steelers. On the other hand, this year's version of the Dick LeBeau defense, while not as stout against the run, appears to be much improved against the pass. The numbers certainly look better, but more importantly, the secondary is playing more physically and isn't so willing to concede the short stuff. The jury is still out, though, as to whether these changes are enough to overcome the Brady/Belichick duo.

But we'll be hearing lots about the awesomeness of the Patriots this week, first and foremost from Mike Tomlin. Whatever his players may do, Tomlin is not one to overlook potential playmakers in the opposition, and I predict that Steeler Nation will be ready to jump off the ledge by the time we listen to a few of his press conferences this week. So instead, let's see what is being said about the Steelers by the folks in Foxborough.

Bill Belichick isn't overlooking the Steelers, for sure.  In this article Belichick was quoted as follows:

They look good as usual -- the AFC champion last year -- a lot of the same players, same schemes. Big challenge, a lot to get ready for. They do a lot of things to make it tough on you. They're well coached, [they have] a lot of talent in all three phases of the game.

Both teams know each other well, so I don't think there will be a ton of surprises here. It will come down to preparation, execution and decision-making on game day. Hopefully we can do a good job of that.


In this James Walker article on the espn AFC East Blog, Walker queried Belichick on Mike Wallace. Belichick had quite a lot to say, including the following:

He’s a big play receiver. He’s really fast. Nobody is going to catch him, so you have to be careful about how much space he gets when he catches the ball. I think he’s improved a lot from when we played them last year, just as a football player, his patience and route technique...Obviously he’s worked hard and he’s being well coached and he’s got a good quarterback and other good receivers to complement him. 

In re the offense, he said: 

I’d say they’re pretty well balanced between those three groups that you mentioned – three tight ends, two tight ends, and one tight end, three receivers. That fluctuates from game-to-game but if you look at it over a broader view, they utilize all those personnel groups as well as multiple backs and different receivers...They utilize a lot of different personnel groups and different people within those groups so they give you a lot of different looks and they have a lot of good players. They have different skills but they’re all good...


There's more in the article, so follow the link to see what else he had to say. Apparently he had much less to say about the defense

I think defensively not too much has changed there in 20 years. Their defensive system today is similar to what it was in 1991 or 1992 – ’91 (the head coach) was Chuck Noll – but 1992 when Bill (Cowher) came in. It’s pretty similar to that. I don’t know how much has changed there.

It's hard to decide whether he really isn't interested, he really thinks that, or he's just playing his cards close to his chest. I would guess the latter. Their offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Bill O’Brien seems to have a bit more respect for the D:


They haven’t given up a hundred yards to a receiver, reception-wise, and they haven’t given up a 300-yard game to a quarterback.. They’re again stout against the run just like they always have been, so they’re a typical Steeler defense.

We’re going to have to have a great week of preparation and then put together a good plan and go up there and we’re going to have to play a really good game to have a chance.

Tom Brady was queried about the Steelers during a radio interview [you can see a partial transcript here] that was apparently mainly about his vacation in the Bahamas (or "How I Spent My Bye Week) and Rob Gronkowski's new notoriety (Gronkowski is, according to Brady, due for a little visit to Belichick's office.) But they did talk a bit of football, and he had this to say when asked to compare Derrelle Revis to Troy Polamalu:

They're very different players. Troy is a phenomenal player. I watched a bunch of his highlights with coach Belichick yesterday in our film study. He's as good as he's ever been. He flies around the field. He's incredibly fast and instinctive. He covers a lot of ground out there. You have to keep your eyes on him on every play. I'd say he's more comparable to Ed Reed than Revis. Revis they put him on a receiver and he takes him out of the game and he does a hell of job of doing that. ... [Troy] makes plays that very few guys in the league can make.


Finally, a few words from DE Andre Carter about playing against Ben Roethlisberger. Carter is new to the Patriots; he was last in Kansas City, where he played OLB:

[Roethlisberger is] the biggest quarterback [I've] ever faced.  He can be very dangerous for a pass rusher, whether it’s a defensive end or a defensive tackle.  You’ve just kind of got to know and understand, OK, what is he looking at and what is he trying to accomplish? I think in general, we’ve just got to continue to keep our motors running and just try to bring him down or get him flustered. … He’s a tough man, but overall, if you can get him flustered, put a hand in his face, just try to confuse him a little bit so he can make bad passes or force interceptions, that’s definitely the goal.


Here's hoping that Mr. Carter does not in fact achieve his goal, and that Bill Belichick's seeming assessment of the Steelers D was possibly incomplete...