FOXBORO, Mass. -- Here are three keys to victory for the Steelers -- and three things that can't happen if they are to upset the Patriots at Gillette Stadium
The Steelers will win if ...
Tom Brady picks a different week to play like Tom Brady circa 2012: The Patriots are 6-2 in spite of Brady’s statistical struggles. The eight-time Pro Bowler has completed just over 52 percent of his passes in New England’s last four games, and he has thrown for just nine touchdowns while tossing six interceptions. Brady is still adjusting to his wide receivers, some of whom are both young and new, and he has never looked more human as a quarterback since becoming the Patriots’ starter.
They attack on defense: The Steelers were aggressive the last time these teams met, and they held Brady to a season-low 198 passing yards in a 25-17 win over the Patriots two years ago at Heinz Field. The Steelers surprised the Patriots by playing press coverage, and they were successful in disrupting Brady’s timing with his receivers. They should force the Patriots to adjust to what they are doing, and if the Steelers go down in what is a must-win game they should at least go down swinging.
Le’Veon Bell has his first 100-yard rushing game: The running game regressed in Oakland, but the numbers say that it should rebound this week. The Patriots are No. 31 in rushing defense (130.8 yards allowed per game), and they are still trying to fill holes in the middle of their defense that are a result of season-ending injuries sustained by nose tackle Vince Wilfork and inside linebacker Jerod Mayo. A big game by Bell would go a long way toward stabilizing the offense as well as the Steelers winning in New England for the first time since.
The Steelers will lose if ...
They can’t get to Brady: The Steelers are averaging 1.4 sacks per game and they need to more than double that number against a quarterback who has been surprisingly vulnerable in the pocket this season. Brady is on pace to get sacked 46 times, and he will have a new right tackle on Sunday. Marcus Cannon takes over for Sebastian Vollmer, who suffered a season-ending leg injury, and the Steelers have to take advantage of this matchup. LaMarr Woodley was unstoppable the last time the Steelers played the Patriots, and the left outside linebacker could be primed for another big game against New England.
The running game flops: The Steelers have gone 15 games without a 100-yard rusher so there are no guarantees for Bell, even if he is playing against one of the worst rushing defenses in the NFL. The Patriots have allowed just one 100-yard rusher this season (the Jets’ Chris Ivory), and they traded for defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga last week to help shore up their run defense. The Steelers have to stay committed to the run, which means they can’t fall behind early as they did last week in Oakland and become one-dimensional on offense. They also have to try to establish a ground game without their best run-blocker as right guard David DeCastro is out with an ankle injury.
They can’t stop the run: The Patriots’ backs aren’t exactly household names, but they are effective. Stevan Ridley, LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden are all averaging more than 4 yards per carry and the Patriots have rushed for more than 120 yards per game. Putting Brady in third-and-long consistently is paramount for the Steelers. And their run defense needs to make a stand after giving up almost 200 rushing yards in Oakland.