Head to head: Steelers S Troy Polamalu vs. Patriots TE Aaron Hernandez
Share with others:
It is difficult to tell which has been more painful for Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker.
Are his receiving numbers down this year because his left knee, the one he blew out last season in Houston's Reliant Stadium, is still causing him periods of uncertainty when he tries to plant, cut and pile up his customary yards-after-catch?
Or is it that, with the departure of Randy Moss, there is less room to operate in the secondary because opposing teams no longer fear the deep ball?
"They never really were a deep throwing team," defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said of the Patriots (6-2), who play at Heinz Field tonight for the first time in five years. "That's not the way Tom Brady operates. He takes a look at the coverage, cuts you up, makes the proper read and hits you deep when the situation arises."
Welker's production was down long before Moss was traded several weeks ago to the Minnesota Vikings.
After eight games, Welker leads the team with 44 catches for 355 yards and three touchdowns. But, after eight games last year, he had 79 catches on his way to a season in which he finished with 123 catches and 1,348 yards, both career highs.
In the four games the Patriots have played without Moss, Welker has only 18 catches for 138 yards and no touchdowns. When Moss was with the Patriots, Welker had 26 catches for 217 yards and three touchdowns.
"Randy Moss was their deep threat; I don't know if they still have that," said inside linebacker James Farrior. "That's one of the things he definitely did well for that team -- he'd stretch the field and go for deep balls. They still got a lot of guys who can work the middle, guys who like to work one-on-one routes. That's going to be key for us, especially the linebackers. They're going to try to get us in mismatches."
The Patriots no longer employ the spread offense they used with great success in 2007, Moss' first year with the team. It has been replaced with a power running game that uses multiple tight-end sets featuring veteran Alge Crumpler and a pair of impressive rookies, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, a Woodland Hills High School graduate. It is the type of offense with which the Patriots won three Super Bowls without Moss.
Hernandez has 34 catches and leads the team with 436 yards receiving. Gronkowski has 14 catches and is tied for the team lead with three touchdowns.
"Hernandez is really talented," said safety Troy Polamalu. "He's a lot like a T.O.," a reference to Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Terrell Owens.
"He's an extra wide receiver for them," LeBeau said. "He's extremely fast for the position he's playing. You would normally have a linebacker on him, but I'm sure that's the reason New England drafted him because that's an advantage for them."
The Steelers might not have to worry about preventing the deep throw to Moss anymore. But they will need to worry about Brady surgically picking apart a secondary that has allowed 60 of their NFL-low 123 points in the fourth quarter.
"It doesn't matter who he has out there," Polamalu said of Brady. "He can bring out the best in each one of his receivers."
First Published November 14, 2010 12:00 am