A bandaged Steelers offensive line will try to hold off what has been an uncharacteristically leaky New England defense when they play Sunday night.
It'll be the No. 28 offense of the Steelers vs. the No. 29 defense of the Patriots.
Pittsburgh lost starting left tackle Max Starks for the season with a neck injury and may have a whole new left side of the line because left guard Chris Kemoeatu has a sprained MCL. Add in a gimpy Heath Miller, their starting tight end who has water on his knee, and it's an offense that has a lot of wounds to lick.
And, they weren't that good when they were all healthy.
The Steelers have had trouble moving the ball, even once quarterback Ben Roethlisberger returned. In fact, their ground game has dropped off since he came back and now ranks only 12th in the NFL after averaging less than 100 yards per game the past five games.
Roethlisberger has a typical passer rating for him, 96.8, but the Steelers aren't throwing much. He has only 917 yards passing in four games since his return from his four-game suspension. That's far off the pace of the 4,328 yards he had in 15 games last season.
New England presents a tempting target for the Steelers to throw the ball. The Patriots rank 29th in pass defense, allowing 268.9 yards per game.
"When you're ahead like they are, people are going to get yards and move up and down the field," coach Mike Tomlin said as a way of trying to explain the Patriots' defensive sieve. "They're doing what's necessary to keeping people out of the end zone."
One area in which the Steelers' passing game has excelled is the deep pass and the protection of its quarterback. Mike Wallace leads the NFL with a 23-yard average per catch and has five touchdowns. Roethlisberger has been sacked seven times in his four games after getting sacked 50 times in 15 games last season.
That record of safety for the quarterback will be tested with yet more personnel changes in the starting line.
"I have confidence in all those guys, whether it's the starting five or the next guy or the next guy to fill in," Roethlisberger said. "I have all the confidence in the world those guys will keep me upright."
Roethlisberger may have a career winning percentage of .700, but he's 2-3 vs. the Patriots, including one loss in the AFC Championship Game his rookie season of 2004. And he expects that statistically woeful New England defense to try to come after him.
"I think we'll see a lot of blitzing," Roethlisberger said. "Coach Belichick is well known for his film study and bringing different looks and exotic things."
21st regular-season meeting. Steelers lead series, 13-7. The Patriots are 3-1 against the Steelers in the post-season, including two AFC Championship Game victories at Heinz Field. Overall, the Steelers are 2-6 against the Patriots since 1998, including those two AFC title games. Pittsburgh did win the most recent game at New England in 2008 by a score of 33-10, tying its largest margin of victory over the Patriots since the Steelers won 33-3 in their first game against the former AFL team in 1972.
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