Head to head: Steelers S Troy Polamalu vs. Patriots TE Aaron Hernandez
Sunday, November 14, 2010
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
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."
A closer look at the game within the game
When the Bengals have the ball: They do not lean on RB Cedric Benson as much as they did a year ago even though they have led at halftime in four of seven games. QB Carson Palmer has completed nearly 60 percent of his passes for 1,855 yards and 12 touchdowns, but has been inconsistent, witness 10 consecutive missed third-down conversions against the Dolphins. Chad Ochocinco has 39 catches and 458 yards, but he has done little damage since a season-long 42-yard catch against the Browns Oct. 3. Rookie Jordan Shipley has emerged as a dependable slot receiver (24 catches, 349 yards) and rookie TE Jermaine Greshman already has proved to be a powerful blocker. Their best lineman, LT Andrew Whitworth, fared well against LB James Harrison in 2009, holding him without a sack in two games. RT Andre Smith, last year's No. 1 pick, has to guard against the bull rush of OLB Lamarr Woodley.
When the Steelers have the ball: One of the keys to the Bengals' success in 2009 was the pressure generated by their defense. That has disappeared. They have only six sacks and that has put a lot of pressure on their CBs Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph to stay with receivers. Hall leads the team with four INTs. Part of the reason for the lack of pressure is the absence of DE Antwaan Odom, who has two games remaining in a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy; and DE Jonathan Fanene, who is injured (hamstring). Fanene and DE Robert Geathers combined for 9 1/2 sacks in '09; they have none this season. Also, the Bengals are giving up an average of 120.7 yards rushing per game, 22 yards more than they did last season.
To win, the Bengals must ...
1 Have Palmer be patient. He was able to dink-and-dunk his way to two long scoring drives a year ago in a comeback victory at home.
2 Have Chad be baaaaad. Ochocinco has never had a 100-yard receiving game against a Dick LeBeau defense.
3 Find the formula. They have abandoned the three staples of last season -- run the ball, play defense, good special teams -- during their four-game losing streak.
To win, the Steelers must ...
1 Not hedge on Benson. They have not allowed a running back to gain more than 48 yards or have a run longer than 14 yards this season.
2 Run a go-go on JoJo. Joseph and Hall like to play aggressive at the line of scrimmage, leaving themselves vulnerable to a deep go route to Mike Wallace.
3 Keep T.O. from TDs. Owens has been their deep target, catching touchdowns of 78, 43 and 37 yards from Palmer.
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