By: Mike Bires
Beaver County Times
Saturday November 13, 2010 11:58 PM
TONIGHT’S TOP MATCH-UPS
WELKER vs. GAY
Since joining the Patriots in 2007, Wes Welker has established himself as arguably the NFL’s best slot receiver. In the past three seasons, he had 112, 111 and 123 receptions, respectively. While his numbers are down slightly this year — he’s “only” caught 44 passes — he’s still Tom Brady’s favorite target.
So that means that Steelers cornerback William Gay figures to get plenty of action tonight.
With the Patriots expected to throw a lot, the Steelers will line up in their nickel defense most of the game. It’s Gay, the nickelback, whose primary responsibility is to play the wide receiver in the slot.
This past Monday night in a win in Cincinnati, Gay blocked a punt. But against the Patriots, Gay will be asked to make big plays on pass defense and keep Welker in check.
WILFORK vs. POUNCEY
Maurkice Pouncey, the Steelers’ rookie center, continues to draw rave reviews. In Sports Illustrated’s mid-season review, Pouncey was Offensive Rookie of the Year, and Pro Football Weekly had him on its mid-season All-Pro team.
Even though he’s just 21 years old, Pouncey has played so well that he’s already being compared to former Steelers’ great Dermontti Dawson.
Tonight in his ninth pro game, Pouncey faces one of the NFL’s top nose tackles in New England’s Vince Wilfork.
With Pro Bowl appearances in 2007 and ’09, Wilfork obviously is a talented player. He has a nasty streak in him, too. In 2007, he was fined by the NFL four times for a variety of cheap shots.
And if Pouncey and Wilfork need extra ammo in their head-to-head battle, consider that Pouncey played college football at Florida. Wilfork played at Miami.
GRAHAM vs. REED
This past Monday night in Cincinnati, both kickers failed in the clutch. Jeff Reed kicked a 53-yarder in the Steelers’ 27-21 win. But he also missed a 46-yarder late in the fourth quarter. Had the Steelers’ defense not held the Bengals in the final seconds of play, Reed would have been a goat.
Cincinnati kicker Mike Nugent was one of the Bengals’ goats. He missed field goal tries of 51 and 45 yards. Had Nugent made one of those two kicks, the Bengals could have sent the game into overtime with a chip-shot field goal instead of going for it on fourth-and-5 from the Steelers’ 12-yard line with 40 seconds to go.
Tonight, Reed returns to Heinz Field where he’s only 3 of 7 this season.
Meanwhile, the Patriots have a new kicker in Shayne Graham. He was signed Wednesday after Stephen Gostkowski was placed on injured reserve with a strained quad muscle in his thigh. Graham is a journeyman who’s now played for eight teams during his 10-year career. Earlier this year, he spent one game with the N.Y. Giants but didn’t attempt any field goals.
Will the Patriots dare and try to run on the Steelers?
New England's Bill Belichick is one of the smartest coaches in the league, so he probably won't be dumb enough to order a lot of runs against the NFL's top-ranked rushing defense. In fact, dating back to the first game of the 2002 season, the Patriots have often abandoned the run and thrown exclusively against the Steelers. In the '02 opener, the Patriots ran only 18 times while Tom Brady threw 43 passes in his first regular-season start against the Steelers. The Pats won that day, 30-14. In Brady's last game against the Steelers, a 34-13 win in 2006, the Pats threw the ball 46 times and ran it only nine times.
How have the Patriots fared against the AFC North over the years?
Since the NFL's latest re-alignment in 2002, the Patriots are 14-3 against AFC North teams in regular-season play. They're 4-0 against the Ravens, 4-0 against the Bengals, 3-1 against the Browns and 3-2 against the Steelers. After beating the Bengals and Ravens earlier this year, the Patriots lost to the Browns last week, 34-14.
How many former WPIAL stars are employed by the Patriots?
Two. One of them is Rob Gronkowski, a graduate of Woodland Hills High School. The other is Ross Ventrone, a safety out of Chartiers Valley. Although he's listed as the backup to Alge Crumpler, Gronkowski has started five games this season. He's eighth on the team with 14 catches but is tied for the team lead with three TD catches. Meanwhile, Ventrone is on the Patriots' practice squad. His older brother Ray is currently a backup safety with the Browns.
What are the chances that the Steelers will kick to Brandon Tate?
After allowing four touchdowns on kickoff returns last year, the Steelers have dramatically improved this year. The longest return they've allowed was a 46-yarder to Cincinnati's Bernard Scott last week. But that came after Scott fumbled the ball away on the opening kickoff. Steelers special teams coach Al Everest claims he's not afraid to kick the ball deep to anyone because he has faith in the Steelers' coverage team. But tonight, don't be surprised if the Steelers squib the ball. That's because Patriots' kick return specialist Brandon Tate has returned two kickoffs for TDs this year. He had a 97-yarder against the Bengals and a 103-yarder against the Dolphins. Among kick returners with at least 10 returns, Tate ranks fourth in the NFL with a 28.9 yards-per-return average.
Who leads the Patriots in sacks?
New England hasn't had great success this year getting to the quarterback. They've recorded only 13 sacks, which is 11 less than the Steelers. But if there's one Patriot defender who has been getting decent pressure on opposing QBs, it's right defensive end Mike Wright. He's recorded a team-high four sacks. Wright is questionable tonight with a groin injury. So it's hard to say how effective he'll be or how much he'll play. But when he is on the field, he'll be lined up across from two newcomers on the Steelers' offensive line. The Steelers' left tackle for the rest of the season will be Jonathan Scott, who's replacing the injured Max Starks, who's out a neck injury. At left guard, at least for tonight, will be Ramon Foster, who's replacing Chris Kemoeatu, who's sitting out with a sprained knee.