Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman can also be a dangerous return specialist.
By Gerry Dulac / Post-Gazette
When the Patriots have the ball: QB Tom Brady has looked average the past four games, throwing just two touchdowns, four INTs, getting sacked 16 times and never having a passer rating above 75. The Patriots have struggled on third down, converting just 32.2 percent (37 of 115) -- second worst in the AFC. Brady, though, has been without several top performers. RB Shane Vereen is on injured reserve, WR Danny Amendola missed four games with a groin injury and concussion, and TE Rob Gronkowski has just returned after missing the first six games with a back injury. What's more, RT Sebastian Vollmer was placed on injured reserve this past week after breaking a leg against Miami. That has forced Brady to rely on a pair of rookie WRs, Aaron Dobson (26 catches, two TDs) and Kenbrell Thompkins (23 catches, four TDs). The Patriots have been able to effectively run the ball with Stevan Ridley (399 yards on 92 carries) and LeGarrette Blount (265 on 65 carries). The Steelers have already allowed nine rushing TDs, as many as they did in 2012.
When the Steelers have the ball: The Patriots have already lost their two best defensive players -- NT Vince Wilfork and LB Jerod Mayo -- and they played the past two games without shutdown CB Aqib Talib (hip flexor). However, Talib is expected to play today and will likely be matched against Antonio Brown, who leads the NFL with 56 catches. Talib has four of the team's 10 INTs -- third in the AFC. The defense has forced a turnover in 35 consecutive games, best active streak in the league. The Patriots will generate pressure on QB Ben Roethlisberger (26 sacks) with their front people. Defensive end Chandler Jones (61/2) and tackles Chris Jones (41/2) and Tommy Kelly (21/2) have accounted for 131/2 of the team's 24 sacks. Rob Ninkovich is their hybrid defensive end/linebacker, the latest version of Mike Vrabel. The Steelers are expected to be without G David DeCastro (ankle), who has been their best lineman, and could also miss G Ramon Foster (concussion). LB Brandon Spikes leads the team with 75 tackles, including a career-high 22 against the Bengals earlier this season.
Keep an eye on: WR/KR Julian Edelman ... He is the Patriots' leading receiver with a career-high 48 catches, but Edelman's biggest impact is as a punt returner, ranking among the best in NFL history. In 2012, Edelman set a franchise record with a 15.5-yard average on punt returns, including a 68-yard touchdown and a 49-yard return against Indianapolis -- the first time in team history a player had two returns of 40 yards or longer in the same game. Edelman's career average of 12.5 ypr ranks fourth all-time in NFL history.
Intangibles: The Steelers are 2-2 in Foxborough, Mass., since 1997 and 4-3 lifetime there, including postseason. But they are 0-2 in Gillette Stadium against Brady. The Steelers won the last meeting there in 2008, 33-10, when Brady was injured and Matt Cassel was the quarterback. Otherwise, they lost, 30-14 in 2002 and 34-13 in 2007. ... Since 2010, the Patriots are 23-1 in the second half of the season, the best mark in the NFL. They have won six consecutive games in November. ... Roethlisberger needs one touchdown pass to join Terry Bradshaw (212) as the only Steelers QBs to throw for 200 touchdowns in their careers.
To win, the Patriots must ...
1. Make a dash. The Steelers have been outscored in the first quarter, 41-7, in their past three losses.
2. Make a splash. The Steelers defense has allowed six plays of 51 yards or longer, second most in the league.
3. Run if by land ... The Steelers have slipped to 27th in the league against the run and allow an average of 4 yards per carry.
To win, the Steelers must ...
1. Get to Brady in bunches. He has been sacked 16 times and thrown four interceptions in the past four games.
2 Zonk Gronk. The former Woodland Hills High School standout has 12 catches and three TDs in two games against the Steelers.
3. Not court Devin. Former cornerback Devin McCourty has developed into one of the best deep-cover safeties in the league.
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