What to Look For…

One of the biggest indicators of the direction that a team is headed is how they rebound from a big loss or deal with the emotions of a big win.  The New England Patriots are trying to rebound from a big loss via the Cleveland Browns while the Pittsburgh Steelers are dealing with the emotions of a big win against division rival Cincinnati.  This game, in my mind, will be very telling of how realistic each team’s Super Bowl aspirations are.  Here are a few things to look for in this Sunday night showdown:

-It is known throughout the football world that it is nearly impossible to run the ball of the Pittsburgh Steelers.  They are allowing a ridiculous 58.2 yards per game on the ground (consider that the second best rush defense in the league, San Diego, allows just under 81 yards per game).  The Patriots have yet to stick with the run game over a series of games, so I’m not overly which direction they are going to try and go in on Monday.  Logan Mankins’ insertion back into the starting offensive line certainly will improve their run game a bit, but I still doubt the overall effectiveness.  Look for most run plays to be draws out of shotgun formations.  The tough thing for the Pats is that without a substantial contribution from the running backs, the short passing game is going to get shut down.  What to look for: How much the run game is utilized against the league’s best run defense.

-As much hype as the Steelers defense gets, their passing defense is 24th in the league, allowing 240 yards per game.  I take credit for being one of the first people to question the effectiveness of the Patriots passing game without a viable deep threat.  Last week finally opened the eyes of the masses.  Without a receiver that can consistently get behind the defense, safeties are creeping closer to the line of scrimmage which closes passing windows in the 5-10 yard passing range.  That means less yards after catch, which has made Wes Welker an all-pro since he came to New England.  Against a moderately porous defensive unit, it is time for the Patriots to open the flood gates and air it out, making the league again respect the Pats’ passing game.  What to look for: How effective the Patriots’ passing game is against a mediocre passing defense.

-If you allowed me to pick one running back between Rashard Mendenhall or Peyton Hillis, I’m taking Mendenhall every time. That is a scary thought if you are a Patriots fan.  Hillis ran all over the Pats last weekend, compiling the best game of his career en route to an upset victory.  Mendanhall may not be as big or as much of a bruiser as Hillis is, but he is a lot faster and much more dangerous.  Mendanhall is seventh in the league, averaging just under 88 yards per game.  Prior to the Browns game I saw vast amounts of improvement in this young defense against the run (especially in limiting Adrian Peterson), but now I’m much more skeptical.  The one thing working in the Patriots’ favor is that the Steelers offensive line has been decimated by injuries.  What to look for: How the Patriots run defense rebounds from a terrible game and tries to slow Rashard Mendenhall.

-What I am most looking forward to seeing in this game is the effectiveness of the two different coaching styles.  It is well documented the levels of success that both Mike Tomlin and Bill Belichick have had over the past several seasons.  What amazes me is the two completely different ways that they go about coaching.  Tomlin is an eccentric leader, a loud motivator that isn’t afraid to get in a players face or give them a chest bump when necessary.  Tomlin speaks his mind, but is the quintessential realist, understanding what needs to be done and how to go about doing it. Belichick on the other hand rarely let’s you into his thoughts, insight, or feelings about a gameplan or situation.  He rarely is seen being overly vocal with players, aside from discussing strategy or gameplan changes mid-game.  This year more than years past, coach Belichick has been seen being very congratulatory after games, especially with the young guys.  He understands that with a young team comes lack of confidence.  But, whatever moves he makes, they are always very well calculated.  I love seeing matchups between two great coaches, and these two are arguably the two best in the game.  What to look for: How the different styles and approach to coaching effect/influence the play on the field.

-THIS WEEK’S PREDICTION – Patriots 18 – Steelers 17