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Pregame Zone Blitz: Steelers Take On Brady, Patriots In AFC Showdown

ORCHARD PARK, NY - SEPTEMBER 25: Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots warms up before their NFL game against the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium on September 25, 2011 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
ORCHARD PARK, NY - SEPTEMBER 25: Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots warms up before their NFL game against the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium on September 25, 2011 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
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Now it's real.

This isn't the Cardinals or the pre-MNF Beatdown Jaguars. This is the Patriots. This is the Steelers kryptonite. Long-time tormentor Tom Brady brings his multi-faceted offense to Heinz Field looking for a whole lotta mo' whippings, like he did last year.

The Steelers counter with a better secondary than they've had in years, a mega-hot QB and a huge, history-built chip on their shoulders from several Patriots touchdowns and wins over the years.

PZB's got some cool stats, some fiery rhetoric and plenty of reason to ignore work and get your pregame started Friday afternoon. 

Opponent Web Sites/Forums

It's hard to disagree, the Patriots have made themselves at home at Heinz Field.

Pats Pulpit writer Richard Hill provides some excellent analysis on Steelers WR Mike Wallace

Alec Shane of Pats Pulpit seems genuinely afraid of the Steelers.

Last Game

That Other Offensive Line (TOOL), you know, the one the Steelers put out there about every other game or so? That was the one out there against Arizona.

Of course, guys like Cardinals DT Darnell Dockett wreck the best laid plans. He's done it before against the Steelers, and a lot of other teams. Fortunately, the Steelers have QB Ben Roethlisberger's escapability - a non-word that Ben has coined in games where TOOL shows up.

The Patriots defensive line is similar to TOOL. Sometimes it's great, sometimes it appears catatonic. It's not certain what will happen if the Steelers' TOOL and the Patriots' TOOL were to do battle, but maybe that's what will happen Sunday.

Some of the key plays in Pittsburgh's 34-20 win came from guys who didn't have the ball, or involved on the tackle. WR Hines Ward chucked off OLB Clark Haggans, who then could not get a jam on TE Heath Miller. Ward also drew the cornerback to the middle of the field, leaving Miller wide open for the touchdown.

It's the small things that win football games. The Patriots, though, are as smart as it comes defensively. Don't let rankings fool you, they concede yards for minutes in the second half of games where they have a big lead - which is many of their wins. The Cardinals played a sloppy, lifeless football game, and the Steelers got the big win. It'd be dumb to expect that from the Patriots, a team that thrives on whipping Pittsburgh at Heinz Field.

Us Against The World

How utterly ridiculous is it that James Harrison makes a football act and gets fined $75,000, and Richard Seymour, despite whatever happened to provoke him, slugs a player on national TV in full view of the cameras and knocks him to the ground -- and gets fined $25,000. Weak. Very weak.

Peter King

Pittsburgh vs. New England is a statement that both excites Steelers fans and induces heartburn. The Patriots ARE the world. With still plenty of capital to burn off three Super Bowls in the 2000s, Brady is still the golden boy of the NFL. He's saying all the right things this week, talking about how good the Steelers are, and how tough it is to play at Heinz Field.

If you believe he's being genuine about that, I've got some Oceanside property in Utah I'd like to sell you.

Dating back to the Spygate allegations, the elimination of all evidence suggesting the Patriots were stealing signals from the Steelers during their 2004 AFC Championship victory won't ever sit well in SteelerNation. But the Patriots, with Brady, have pounded the Steelers since then.

Just as Joe Flacco can't beat Ben Roethlisberger, Roethlisberger can't beat Brady. It's time to fix that.

Opponent Spotlight: QB Tom Brady

Who else?

This is the part where writers insert about 200 words of hyperbole talking about Brady's accomplishments, his place in history, his performances against Pittsburgh. PZB shies away from hyperbole (snicker), but will instead discuss where Brady's success against Pittsburgh comes from.

At the head of one of the most dynamic offenses the NFL has seen, Brady doesn't call plays as much as he calls first-look formations. With the versatility the Patriots have - they can line up in a double-TE formation, and audible to an empty-back 5-receiver set - Brady simply takes what the defense is giving him. The Steelers typically play conservatively, knowing if Brady gets the defensive personnel he wants, he'll go no-huddle and continue gashing the Steelers everywhere on the field.

The difference last year to this year is the Steelers' ability to play much deeper into their sub-packages. Their nickel defense is much stronger than last year's, and the twist of moving CB William Gay to the deep safety position usually held by SS Troy Polamalu gives them an advantage in the short middle of the field.

Brady will pay attention to that, and do something teams don't typically try to do against the Steelers - throw the ball deep. Early and often, Brady will stretch the Steelers secondary wide and deep, aiming to utilize his TEs underneath when the Steelers get pinned back into their Cover 3 defense.

It's hard to say he won't be successful. That's what Brady is. A pass rush is next to impossible against the Patriots due to five quality pass protectors and a lightning fast release from Brady.

Knowing that, the key for the Steelers will be to wrap up after the completion. If Brady is going to complete 80 percent of his passes, Pittsburgh cannot allow yards after the catch. If they can tackle, they can slow the Patriots down. If they can't, well, we all saw what happened last year.

Steelers Spotlight:  QB Ben Roethlisberger

This game is going to be decided by the offenses. Both teams have great offensive personnel, and the match-ups favor the offenses of both teams. This is a center-stage game for Roethlisberger, and he loves the spotlight.

The Patriots don't want to have to sit in nickel all game, but the extra work Roethlisberger had with his receivers this week was aimed to force the Patriots to do exactly that. The Steelers success in this game will depend on Roethlisberger's ability to keep the chains moving, and force Brady's offense to spend large chunks of time on the cold benches at Heinz Field.

The Patriots linebackers are solid all around, but they can be exploited in delay passing routes across the middle. Roethlisberger needs to recognize that, and be patient with his throws. This obviously requires at least decent pass protection, but the clock in Ben's head has to be going off after 2.5 seconds. Get rid of it then, or get out of the pocket.

He makes his plays off-schedule, meaning, when everything has broken down. So in a way, inviting a little chaos into the backfield benefits the passing offense. He's had a lot of that, especially in the second half, in the last two games. It wouldn't be surprising if the Patriots dropped seven into coverage, and just tried to get pressure with the line, but Roethlisberger can still make plays if he buys himself time.

He can match Brady yard-for-yard, and if he remains patient, he'll lead the Steelers to points.

I See You

I see you, Antonio Brown. We've all seen plenty of you this week (you got the first down in the Play of the Week highlighted earlier this week), but one play stood out from perhaps the best all-around performance of your career.

You snared an errant Roethlisberger pass on third down to extend a drive at a critical point in the game. If you don't move the chains in that spot, the Steelers are punting, up three, to a team that would have seized all momentum. In a game where the running game just wasn't working, those kinds of plays were paramount to closing off an opponent.

This says nothing of the fact it was a highlight-reel worthy catch, whether it was on first down in a 20-0 game. Shows a lot of confidence in responding to the now-clicheed question, "what can Brown do for you?"

He can return kicks, punts and make one-handed drive-extending drives. That's what.

Key Stats

  • There are only three players in history with more touchdown receptions of 40+ yards than Mike Wallace's 13 - Jerry Rice (15), Bob Hayes (17) and Randy Moss (20).
  • Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have 117 wins together, tied for the most all time wins by a quarterback and coach (Dan Marino and Don Shula).
  • The Steelers are 5-0 in games when Mike Wallace scores a touchdown. They are 0-2 when he does not.