Patriots weeks comes with that special feeling for Steelers fans. One the one hand, we are thirsting for putting an end to New England's recent dominance over our team. But on the other, we cannot forget the beatings that we have had to endure in years past. This week won't be any different, as the Patriots led by Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are marching into Heinz Field for a fight of football heavyweights against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Things have looked a lot better for our Steelers lately, rebounding strongly from a disappointing start into the 2011 season. The visit to Arizona last week was successful on all fronts, as Pittsburgh displayed an offense firing on all cylinders combined with a defense that seemed to get back track to its takeaway and point-scoring ways. The resulting 32-20 win looked closer than it was, thanks to great individual efforts by Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and LaMarr Woodley among others.
But the win against the Cardinals is the past, and with New England a perennial championship contender is coming to town on Sunday. The Patriots sit atop the AFC having only lost a single game this season, relying majorly on a versatile air attack led by Brady and a surprisingly strong rushing attack. The Steelers on the other hand moved into the AFC's second seed with Baltimore's loss this week, making Sunday's match up a true measuring stick for this year's contenders in the AFC title race.
If recent history is any indication, New England will once again leave Heinz Field in celebration amid disconcerted Steeler players and fans. But who's to say that the fortunes can't change? Certainly, Pittsburgh will have to play on top of its game in order to overcome history and beat the Patriots at home. These Five Players to Watch will have to play a major role if Pittsburgh is to come away with a victory against Belichick and his troupe.
5. Antonio Brown, #84, Wide Receiver, 2nd Year
Much has been written lately about Mike Wallace and his ascent into the NFL receiver elite. But, not unbeknownst to Steelers fans, a second wide receiver has quietly made an impact on Pittsburgh's offense ever since being drafted in the 6th round of the 2010 draft. His name is Antonio Brown, and he has made a name for himself both through impressive special teams play and dependable receptions over the middle. He showcased his talents and rapport with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger last Sunday, when the two connected seven times for 103 yards - breaking the century mark for the first time in his young career.
In a great piece on Brown this week, our own Neal Coolong pointed out that the young wide receiver has been responsible for over 950 yards this season in both returns and receptions. Because aside from having been targeted 48 times in the passing game this season, Brown has quietly situated himself among the top kickoff and punt returners in the AFC. He has almost taken one to the house a few times already, and seven special teams points would surely be appreciated in a game that is anticipated to be high-scoring. And even if his returns are contained, Brown could easily be the difference maker on the Steelers offense this week. Patriots coach Bill Belichick is known for his defensive prowess, and it is not inconceivable to think that he might limit number one threat Wallace. But as was the case last Sunday, Wallace's deep routes open up the shorter routes that Brown has consistently been able to exploit this season. At the same time, the 32nd ranked pass defense of the Patriots has given up over 75 yards per game to their opponent's second leading receiver. What can Brown do for you? Reach the end zone, preferably more than once, and the Steelers' chances for a win greatly increase.
4. William Gay, Cornerback, #22, 5th Year
3. Lawrence Timmons, Linebacker, #94, 5th Year
Lawrence Timmons was supposed to have the year of his career, asserting himself among the NFL's best linebackers after signing a big contract extension this off season. Then came the injury to both James Harrison and his backup Jason Worilds, requiring Timmons to move outside for the past three games. He has not made much noise since, perhaps showing his inexperience as outside linebacker. Yet this week, Timmons got an unexpected endorsement from Harrison who is convinced that he "plays the outside linebacker position the way it needs to be played."
Against the Patriots, Timmons needs to make more of an impact than just provoking a post game quote. He will quite possibly be moved around more than outside linebackers usually are, allowing LeBeau to utilize his speed and athleticism. Despite playing outside instead of inside, he could regularly draw the assignment of covering either Gronkowski or Aaron Hernandez, two tight ends that have wreaked havoc and created mismatches among every defense they have played this year. Timmons is one of the few people in the league that could athletically match up with either, and I don't expect a defensive genius like LeBeau to miss out on that opportunity while ignoring last season's mistakes. And even if Timmons rushes the passer, don't expect him to test pro bowl left tackle Matt Light too often. Instead, he will likely test the Patriot's center position, where back up Dan Conolly has taken over for injured Dan Koppen with mixed results. Timmons, who has yet to record a sack this season, excels in rushes through the middle and could benefit there from the return of nose tackle Casey Hampton. Whether it's shutting down one of the tight ends or getting to Tom Brady, a convincing game by Timmons could go a long way toward securing a Steeler win.
2. Ziggy Hood, Left Defensive End, #96, 3rd Year
The future is now for Ziggy Hood. Despite starting the majority of last season because of an injured Aaron Smith, the young defensive end was once again relegated to a back up role when Smith returned this season. But when the unfortunate Smith was again forced on Injured Reserve with a neck problem this year, Hood stepped into the starting line up once again and has performed admirably. Just ask LaMarr Woodley, who is averaging almost 2 sacks a game since the return of the 2009 first round pick. Against the Patriots, Ziggy has the chance to make a name for himself not only among Steelers fans, but to the rest of the league.
One of the most troublesome aspects of Tom Brady's game is that he can read defenses and attack the blitz perhaps better than any other quarterback in the NFL. Rushing more than four to five people often results in necessary mismatches in the secondary, which are routinely exploited by the Patriots for big gains. But if the defensive front line can get to Brady on their own, he has had trouble. Just ask the 2007 Giants, who beat the Patriots behind a dominant defensive line performance. In the past, the Steelers had to rely on their linebackers to get to an opposing quarterback. But with young, dynamic defensive ends like Hood and this year's first rounder Cameron Heyward excelling in pass rushes, the future might look very different than the recent, disappointing past. How about this fact: For the first 5 weeks, Hood lead his team in quarterback pressures. Late last year, he recorded a sack in four consecutive games despite playing a position that requires opening holes rather than breaking through them. And Hood is capable of playing defensive tackle in the nickle and dime defenses as well; a talent that came in handy against the Cardinals and could be even more useful against a spread offense like that of the Patriots. If he can collapse the pocket consistently while not giving up ground in the run game, we might very well be looking at a Steelers win on Sunday.
1. Ben Roethlisberger, Quarterback, #7, 8th Year
Of course, winning is a team effort and if the Steelers are looking to come away with the victory, more than these five players have to bring their best game. For Roethlisberger to match Brady, his offensive line will have to give him ample time in the pocket. LaMarr Woodley needs to continue his great streak, making Brady uncomfortable before he throws. A timely turnover by Troy Polamalu, as we have seen so often, would be greatly appreciated. Brett Keisel might be having the best year of his career, and like Hood has been able to get to the quarterback. And James Farrior and Larry Foote need to ensure that the Patriots' 10th ranked rushing attack doesn't take the Steelers defense by surprise. Who are your Five Players to Watch this week?