Sunday, November 30, 2008

Steelers- Patriots Preview

One of the most unfriendly foes in recent years for Steeler fans to see on the schedule has been the New England Patriots, and today the Steelers match up against the Patsies yet again in what has lately been a very one-sided matchup. I can't even call it a rivalry it's been so one-sided. However, today's game will sport a much different look than past games have, mainly because of the man under center for New England, Matt Cassel. In the wake of Tom Brady's nasty knee injury, Cassel was forced into taking the reins for New England. Many fans figured the Patriots season was as good as over. But Cassel has turned in some very surprising results, and has likely earned the right to be overpaid by some foolish team this offseason when he hits the free agent market. While he has been very good for much of this season, Matt Cassel still is no Tom Brady, especially the Tom Brady of a year ago who declared war on secondarys league-wide.

Here are my collected random thoughts for today's game:
-Sure Cassel has had a surprising amount of success this season with a 90.5 passer rating and twice going over 400 yards, but he hasn't faced a defense with teeth like the Steelers D yet. Really his worst game of the season came against a very mediocre San Diego Chargers squad in Week 6, so I will be watching him like a hawk early on to see how he handles this tough, tough defense. Particularly, the play of Troy Polamalu, LaMarr Woodley, and James Harrison will be worth watching. Cassel has never seen a set of blitzing 'backers like the latter two, and has never seen a player go all over the field and cause the havoc that Troy can cause.

-I have heard a pretty good deal made about the Patriots' inept running game, but I'm not sure I really see that as being a big deal. The Patriots don't have a dominating running back, but against this Steelers D, is that really going to matter? I mean nobody runs well against this team, and while I think Kevin Faulk could be effective today in smaller bursts, the Pats are more than used to having to operate without a running game. This might actually end up hurting the Steelers, as they typically use this stingy rush D to throw teams off their games, but that won't work against New England.

-Randy Moss sparked early season questions about his work ethic shortly after Cassel took over, but he has come on strong lately, and had an absolutely monster game last weekend for New England. Ryan Clark figures to be brought over to help with Moss quite a bit today. It's still unknown whether Bryant McFadden and Deshea Townsend will play, but being that both practiced most of the week, I think we will see them both, and that will give the Steelers a much better chance of containing Moss and his counterpart, the wildly productive Wes Welker, who has 80 receptions on the season.

-It's now being reported that Willie Parker will play today for our Steelers, which is definite good news. I don't expect a ton out of Willie or Mewelde Moore, but it helps to have them both in the backfield along with the bigger guys, Gary Russell and Carey Davis. Parker figures to have limited touches due to his injury, so a healthy dose of these other guys should be expected, which I think may be a bonus for the Steelers running game, as Parker, with the exception of the San Diego game, has been ineffective for much of the season when he's been the every-down guy.

-Last week agains the Bungles, Ben Roethlisberger looked like he had gotten past the shoulder injury that hindered his early-season performance. The Steelers need Roethlisberger to continue to play at that level, because the Patriots are most vulnerable against the pass right now. In their last game, the Patriots were gouged for 341 yards by noodle-armed Chad Pennington, so I bet Ben and Bruce Arians will test that secondary early on with Santonio Holmes and Hines Ward.

-This game presents a giant opportunity for the Steelers to establish themselves as a legit AFC contender. Granted, most "experts" already consider the Steelers to be among the 2 or 3 favorites in the AFC, but I'm not yet convinced to this point. The reason for my skepticism is that twice this year the Steelers have matched up against elite-level teams (Giants and Colts) and both times they came close, but just couldn't get the job done. And in the Ravens game (a team that I am not sold on being a title contender, merely a playoff contender), while they did pull off a win, it was an OT nailbiter at home on primetime that didn't swing me much. A win today in New England, any kind of win even if it is 2-0, would establish the Steelers in my mind and at 9-3 would position them for a run at a bye.

-Bill Belichick, after being absolutely pwned for years in Cleveland but our Black and Gold, has similarly returned the favor since taking over the Patsies. He consistently out-coached and out-gameplanned Bill Cowher basically every time they locked horns, and last season, he similarly (and somewhat depressingly I might add) did the same to Mike Tomlin. Be quite sure that with a struggling secondary and a still-pretty-green QB, Belichick will attempt to throw a few wrinkles in to tilt the edge his way, because if the two squads just line up and play without these other variables being thrown in, his team is at a definite disadvantage. Few coaches make better game-day adjustments than Belichick, so it will be worth watching to see how Tomlin and company handle these tactics.

The Bottom Line
This is a different looking matchup than in years past, and I think that Dick LeBeau and his countless different blitz packages make the difference for the Steelers against the inexperienced Matt Cassel, as the Steelers win a close one on sacks and Ben Roethlisberger putting together a nice day, Steelers 23 Patriots 17

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