Here a few things to keep an eye on Sunday as the 6-2 New England Patriots host the 2-5 Pittsburgh Steelers 4 p.m. at Gillette Stadium.
1. Can the Patriots’ defensive line stop a, shall we say, limited, Steelers running game?
This is bad vs. bad as the Patriots have the 31st ranked run defense in the NFL while the Steelers average a measly 68 yards per game on the ground, good for 30th in the league.
Tommy Kelly was put on season ending IR Saturday so expect newly signed tackle Isaac Sopoaga, whom the Pats acquired in a trade with the Eagles earlier in the week, to be called on to contribute immediately.
2. Marcus Cannon vs. Lamar Woodley
The Patriots’ mammoth right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is also out for the season after suffering a gruesome broken leg in last Sunday’s win over the Miami Dolphins. When fully healthy – which has been something of a rarity in his career – the 6’8”, 320 pound veteran is among the best in the game. His loss will be a tough blow to a line that has already given up 23 sacks in eight games, compared to 27 all of 2012.
His replacement, Marcus Cannon is a 3rd-year player out of Texas Christian. Originally considered one of the top offensive tackle prospects in the 2011 draft, Cannon saw his stock plummet after it was revealed in his physical at the NFL Combine that he suffered from non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, a type of blood cancer. As a result, Cannon fell to the Patriots in the fifth round of the draft and made an impressive recovery during the lockout. He was activated in week 10 of his rookie season and appeared in seven games for the Patriots down the stretch. Though he has just one start in his career, Cannon has plenty of experience, logging a total of 31 games played in his short tenure. Ultimately though, Cannon isn’t nearly as talented as Vollmer and often looked completely lost when he came in to replace right guard Dan Connelly, routinely missing assignments or simply getting beat by opposing linemen.
Now that Cannon is bouncing out to tackle, he’ll spend most of his time squaring off against the Steelers’ former Pro-Bowl linebacker Lamar Woodley. Woodley was just awful in 2012, when he appeared to be trying to eat himself out of linebacker and into nose tackle but seems to have bounced back and is on pace for double digit sacks in 2013. In addition to his pass rushing skills, the 28-year-old is excellent against the run and it will be imperative for Cannon to limit Woodley’s effectiveness and keep him out of the backfield. To that end, expect Cannon to receive plenty of help from tight ends and running backs.
3. Can the Patriots convert on third down?
Yes, turnovers and penalties have been an issue for this team, but the biggest problem with New England’s offense has been converting on third downs. They rank 29th in the league in that department, converting just 37 in 115 tries (32.2 %). There is plenty of blame to go around in that department, from Tom Brady to the running backs and receivers, the offensive line, and the play-calling by Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels.
4. Antonio Brown vs. Aqib Talib
Talib has been limited in practice all week but is expected to play Sunday. If he does, he’ll likely line up opposite the league’s leading pass catcher in Antonio Brown. (Brown actually has 56 catches to A.J. Green’s 57, but Green’s played in nine games already, Brown just seven.) For all of the team’s troubles this season, they remain a middle of the road passing offense and Brown is undoubtedly their most dangerous receiver. . At 5’10”, 186 pounds, the lightning quick Brown will present a different sort of challenge for Talib, who has been fantastic against big receivers like A.J. Green, Julio Jones and Jimmy Graham.