The Patriots will head to Pittsburgh coming off their bye week to face the Steelers in Week 8.
Pittsburgh is 5-2 and sits atop the AFC North, but has only played two teams with winning records so far this season. Pittsburgh opened the season with a 35-7 loss to the Ravens (now 4-2) in Baltimore, and dropped their Week 4 matchup against the Texans (now 4-3). The combined record of the five teams Pittsburgh has beaten -- Seattle, Indianapolis, Tennessee, Jacksonville and Arizona -- is 8-24, and three of Pittsburgh’s wins have come against the three worst yards-per-game offenses in the league (Colts, Seahawks, and Jaguars). Sunday presents a real challenge for both teams near the midway point of the season.
Here are three areas to watch on Sunday:
* Tom Brady against the Steelers pass defense is the key matchup. Pittsburgh has the only defense in the NFL to allow fewer than six yards per pass attempt (5.8) and have only allowed three pass plays of at least 30 yards. While the Steelers have done a good job limiting the big play, they haven’t made many of their own. The Steelers defense has two interceptions this season, tied for the fewest in the league, and their plus-6 touchdowns-allowed-to-interception differential is 27th in the NFL. On a defense that doesn’t make big plays, third down takes on an added importance. The Steelers are allowing first downs on 35.1 percent of third down dropbacks, 19th in the league (30.1, 6th in NFL in 2010), while the Patriots’ offense has converted 47.3 percent of third-down dropbacks, third-best in the league.
* Over the last few years, the Steelers have earned a reputation for shutting down the running game. From 2008-2010, the Steelers allowed 3.4 yards per rush, best in the NFL. Like their pass defense, one calling card of Pittsburgh’s rush defense was its ability to limit the big play, allowing an NFL-best 11 runs of 20-plus yards over that same three-year span. However, the 2011 Steelers defense, marred by injuries to key run-stoppers like Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, and James Harrison, has been a shell of its former dominant self. The Steelers are allowing over a yard more per rush this season, and their 4.5 yards-per-rush average ranks 19th in the league. Pittsburgh has also allowed five runs of at least 20 yards through seven games, almost half their total from the previous three years combined. Even when the Steelers were at their best, the Patriots still ran well against them. The Patriots averaged 5.1 yards-per-rush and gained 225 yards on the ground in their two games against Pittsburgh since 2008.
* Wide receiver Mike Wallace is on pace to shatter the Steelers' receiving yards record of 1,398 yards (Yancey Thigpen in 1997). Through seven games, Wallace has 730 yards and is on pace for 1,669. Wallace is tied with Calvin Johnson and Carolina’s Steve Smith for the league lead with six 30-plus yard receptions. Sunday’s matchup will be a test for Bill Belichick, who is renowned for his ability to take away an opposing offense’s most potent weapon. Keeping Wallace at bay should be a priority for New England’s secondary, as the rest of Roethlisberger’s options pale in comparison to the speedy wideout.