All of the goodwill and high power rankings the Patriots had garnered before Week 9 disappeared — or at the very least began to fade — after their 34-14 humbling defeat at the hands of the Cleveland Browns and former New England assistant coach (and enemy of the state) Eric Mangini.
There is precious little time to right the ship, with the Sunday night game in Pittsburgh the start of a brutal three-games-in-12-days stretch (Steelers, home against Colts, Thanksgiving in Detroit) that will likely show the Pats’ true colors as contender or pretender.
It is nearly impossible to run against these Steelers, which means this game is squarely in the hands of Tom Brady and his band of receivers. Brady missed practice on Wednesday and was limited Thursday due to a foot sprain. He is expected to play, but there’s no way to know how the injury will impact him. In Cleveland, his accuracy was off, which may be tied to the foot.
The Steelers have been rather mediocre on the offensive end but have been dominant on defense. Pittsburgh is first against the run (allowing an absurdly low 58.3 yards per game), has forced more turnovers than any defense (21), averages three sacks per game, and allows just 15.3 points per game. Get Brady off the field as quickly as possible, and things will likely go Pittsburgh’s way.
Keys for the Steelers
• Cover Aaron Hernandez. The Pats’ rookie tight end has been the only consistent offensive weapon the team has had this season, and was seemingly the only player who remembered there was a game last Sunday in Cleveland. He’s not a touchdown machine (his first two of the year came last week), but he moves the chains.
• Pressure, pressure, pressure. Not a novel idea for this Pittsburgh defense, but every member of the Pats’ offensive line has had poor performances this season. The Steelers already have 24 sacks, and their ability to turn up the heat on quarterbacks probably plays a role in the 11 interceptions the defense has.
Keys for the Patriots
• Stay on the field on offense. The offense has not been moving the ball effectively when not in no-huddle mode, and third down conversion has become an issue. Over their last four games, the Patriots have converted only 16-of-48 (33.3 percent) third down chances; in their first four games (with Randy Moss), they converted 26-of-47 (55.3 percent).
• Get off the field on defense. Third down was an issue for this defense last year, and it is again: New England is dead last in third down efficiency, allowing opponents to convert 48.1 percent of the time. A big culprit? Lack of a pass rush.
Though the Pats are 2-2 on the road this season (matching their total from all of last year), their performances have been uneven, and the Steelers will be thrilled to be back home after three straight road games. New England usually bounces back well from losses, but the nod goes to Pittsburgh. Steelers 20-16.