By Greg Doyle, Patriots Daily Staff
The Patriots jump out of the frying pan of Cleveland and into the fire of Pittsburgh this coming Sunday after getting absolutely physically manhandled by the Browns last week and losing 34-14.
If physical teams that like to pound the ball are going to be a problem for the Patriots, there is probably no worse team in the NFL to face the right now than Pittsburgh. Maybe. Because perhaps on the other hand, there is no better team to face. If they have a problem with physical, running play, why not just get it out there and see if they’ve corrected it or not versus the best? That’s the test for the Patriots this week. Can they bounce back and handle a team that is good at tough, physical play on both sides of the ball and who wants to pound it at them on defense and is likely licking their chops seeing how they wilted against such play last week? If not, they have other physical teams who’ll try to replicate the Browns going forward such as the Jets, Lions and Dolphins. And many more if they make it to the playoffs.
If the Pats can stand up to Pittsburgh and counterpunch a bit themselves physically, well then, perhaps last week was just an aberration that is now behind them. Teams will have to think twice about what they’re gonna do. This very well could be the pivotal game for the Patriots this season whether they’re going to be a top team or merely a decent team. Lets look at some of the key Steelers they’ll face this week:
Ben Roethlisberger (#7), Quarterback: Big Ben, as he is known, is back after starting the season with a 4 game suspension following a host of personal problems. As most football fans know, Roethlisberger was accused at least twice of rape in recent years and at the very least appears guilty of very bad judgment. There were rumors of additional women who had claims against him who didn’t come forward as well. Fans and associates alike were quick to jump on the Big Ben Bashing Bandwagon in the wake of his scandals with reports of years of boorish behavior, arrogance, stupidity and an all around jerk-like persona from the Steelers QB. The hypocritical thing is Ben always tried to pass himself off through college and coming into the NFL as a God-fearing religious type from a very strict Christian family. Now Ben is back again, reformed, so he says. He tells us once again he has changed and is the God-fearing, Christian humble athlete he once professed to be but he really, really means it this time. Whatever. Not much of that is a concern to the Patriots. He’s back playing and his game hasn’t changed much. On the field, he is a big, physical quarterback who may be the toughest QB to actually get to the ground after hits in the NFL. Ben makes a lot of plays bouncing off of hits, breaking away from sacks, alluding coverage and he can throw quite well on the run. The Patriots have had some success against him and Roethlisberger has had his successes against New England as well. He does occasionally make really dumb decisions and can get on a cold streak at times. He’s also prone to get hot. The most important thing with him is not to let him run around. If you have a chance to wrap him up, you have to do it because if he breaks away he’ll likely make a play to a receiver whose man can’t cover him as long as required.
Rashard Mendenhall (#34), Running Back: Mendenhall was the Steelers #1 draft choice out of Illinois in 2008. At Illinois, Mendenhall had a good but not great year up until his last year there when he exploded for over 1,600 yards. After an injury shortened first year in the NFL, last year Mendenhall started to come into his own with an 1,100 yard season. He’s continued to improve this year and is a very dangerous running back who hits the hole as fast as any back I’ve seen in recent years. He really usually is at full speed by the time he is finished taking a handoff or pitch and its concerning for the Patriots given how they handled another big, hard running back last week in Peyton Hillis of Cleveland, which is to say not well. If anything, Mendenhall is more talented than Hillis and more of a threat. He is also improving and becoming above average as a receiver as well. One negative to Mendenhall’s game is he has had a past fumbling problem, but reportedly has worked hard to overcome it. He may be running behind a banged up offensive line. Left tackle Max Starks is out for the year and has been placed on IR. He’ll likely be replaced by former Bill Jonathan Scott who the Patriots usually had their way with when he was in Buffalo. Frankly, he’s not that good. Guard Chris Kemoeatu also was hurt Monday versus Cincinnati and could be out. Center Maurkice Pouncey got hurt Monday as well, but returned later in the game and should play Sunday. All this could affect Mendenhall’s effectiveness.
Mike Wallace (#17), Wide Receiver: Wallace is a very fast receiver averaging an amazing 23 yards per catch. He has quickly made the Steelers forget about Santonio Holmes, who was traded to the Jets this offseason. Wallace, who went to Ole Miss, gives the Steelers 60 minutes of stretch the field ability and game breaking type plays. Reportedly he runs a 4.33/40. In a year and a half of action, Wallace has produced 11 touchdowns so he is obviously a big playmaker. The Patriots defense this year has focused on preventing big plays and making teams beat them on offense with a consistent, if conservative, approach. Taking away the deep option for Roethlisberger that he has in Wallace will be a priority. They’ll like give whomever is on him help over the top with a safety. If Wallace is still able to make plays Sunday, its a sure sign the defense has simply failed to execute again this week and will probably lead to a long day for the Patriots defense.
Maurkice Pouncey (#53), Center: Pouncey is the Florida player who got away. Just a terrific center on the Gators recent teams, he is known as a team leader, tough guy, smart center and just all around tremendous player. There was even some talk of the Steelers making him a captain, which is unheard of for a rookie player. You’d have to think the Patriots liked him, but simply couldn’t get him and take Devin McCourty as well. Corner was a bigger need. But Pouncey could have played guard for a time as well. In any event, the Steelers have themselves a great player and anchor of their line going forward for probably a decade or more. The good news for the Patriots? Pouncey’s twin brother, Mike Pouncey, is now a senior at Florida and just about as good as Maurkice was there. Mike played guard while Maurkice was still at Florida, but has moved over to his brother’s center spot this season. The Patriots will like that position flexibility and could possible target the brother in this year’s upcoming draft.
Ziggy Hood (#96), Defensive End: Hood was the Steelers first round pick in 2009 and many are beginning to wonder if it was a rare Steeler draft swing and miss. Whether it was or not, we’re about to find out as Hood’s playing time will be extended going forward with usual starting end Aaron Smith likely out for the season. This year, Hood only has 6 tackles thru 8 games and no sacks despite starting the last two. The reviews have been mixed of his first two starting appearances. Without Smith and with a unproven Hood and some other aging players on the Steelers defensive line, they’re not what they used to be amongst the front three. Their linebackers are still very tough to run on however, but there is at least enough of a crack beginning to show there perhaps the Patriots can run just enough to keep the Steelers a bit honest and open things up in the passing game. Hood stepping his game up significantly would be an important way for the Steelers to prevent that, but the jury remains out if he’s a player or a bust.
Ryan Clark (#25), Safety: When the Patriots last saw the Steelers in 2008, Clark came up with a memorable hit on Wes Welker that pretty much set the tone for the Patriots blowout loss that day. Some on the Patriots weren’t happy with the hit and felt it was dirty. Clark wasn’t fined, however, and trying to figure out what’s a legal hit and what’s good solid defense in Roger Goodell’s convoluted NFL these days is nearly impossible. Still, the Patriots may be looking for payback on Clark, a player with at least some reputation for dirty play. There is no doubt Clark is a hitter and causes fear amongst receivers and if an offensive player gets a chance to light him up in return, they’d be more than happy to. Clark suffers from sickle cell anemia and after a game in Denver in 2007 had to have both his spleen and gallbladder removed due to negative affects from the thin air. He lost thirty pounds following the surgeries, but has regained his former level of play in the years since. When the Steelers travel to Denver, however, Clark does not go any longer.