By Jeremy Hritz
While there was uncertainty at the beginning of the 2013 season as to what type of team the Pittsburgh Steelers would field, predicting a 2-5 record after seven games seemed to be as unlikely as the Steelers going 19-0 and winning their seventh Super Bowl title.
What seemed improbable during the offseason is now a bitter realty as the Steelers travel to Foxborough, Massachusetts to take on Tom Brady, the one quarterback in the NFL that has proven that he can have his way with the Steelers defense, losing only twice in eight games. However, heading into this contest, Brady has not been playing as well as he has in past years, completing only 55.7% of his passes for 1824 yards, nine touchdowns and six interceptions.
While Brady has not been at his best, the New England Patriots have still managed to go 6-2, losing only two games in nail-biters to the Cincinnati Bengals, 13-6, and to the New York Jets, 30-27. In all reality, just as the Steelers are a few plays away from having a winning record, the Patriots are only a couple of snaps away from being undefeated.
In other years, facing the Patriots in their current form would be a reason for optimism for the Steelers, but based on their lousy performance in 2013, despite Brady’s struggles, there isn’t much reason for faith that they can get a win today.
Ben Roethlisberger put himself on record this week, stating the obvious that this game is a “must win,” and it is. Unfortunately, for the Steelers, every game forward is a must win, but the team has simply not shown that they have what it takes consistently to operate at playoff-caliber. The 2013 version of the Steelers has subscribed to the mantra of two steps forward, two steps backward, inflicting irreparable wounds that the team simply is not built to overcome in the fourth quarter. As Dave Bryan pointed out earlier in the year, in order for the Steelers to be successful, they have to establish an early lead to have a realistic opportunity for a win, and they have not been able to accomplish that week after week.
Is there any reason to feel confident about the Steelers in their matchup with the Patriots?
Last week, Roethlisberger was sacked five times, and this was with David DeCastro in the starting lineup for much of the game. This week, the Steelers offensive line will be without DeCastro, as Guy Whimper will step in at right guard. With all of the issues that the Steelers have had in protecting Roethlisberger and in igniting the running game, they are facing a formidable challenge in New England, regardless of the Patriots struggles against the run. The Pats have shown that they can get after the quarterback, as their 24 sacks indicate and force turnovers.
The other element of this Patriots team worth noting is their efficiency in running the football. While they aren’t explosive in their ground game, they have demonstrated the ability to chunk yardage, averaging 4.2 yards per carry. The Steelers have shown that they can be exploited in this area, and if the Patriots can grind out three to four yards per carry, it will open the field up for Brady, and the Steelers could be quickly free-falling to 2-6.
This is an uneven Steelers team that is frustratingly error-prone. The predictabilities and patterns that they have shown this year are keeping Roethlisberger upright, surrendering the big play, and turning over the football.
While the Steelers are playing more for respectability right now than they are the playoffs, and while logically it seems that they will lose in New England, the Patriots struggles in stopping the run this year as evidenced by their 31st overall ranking, gives some hope that Le’Veon Bell and the running game can get it going, especially against a vulnerable middle of the New England defense. It was only a few weeks ago that the Steelers had similar success up the middle against the Ravens.
It’s going to be an ugly game from both squads, but the last time that these teams faced one another, the Steelers defense got the best of Brady. Couple a decent defensive effort with a quality game from Bell, and the Steelers earn an upset in Foxborough.
Steelers 24, Patriots 21