Key Steelers matchup
STEELERS' OFFENSIVE LINE vs. PATRIOTS' DEFENSIVE LINE
STEELERS: Left tackle Marvel Smith was preparing last week as if he'd return to the starting lineup in New England. Should that occur, the Steelers' starting unit will be together for the first time since their 19-16 overtime loss on Nov. 18 at the New York Jets.
The line did not allow a sack for the first time all season in last Sunday's 24-10 victory over Cincinnati, but the Steelers also failed to generate much of a ground attack, averaging just 2.9 yards per carry for the second consecutive game. Although the Steelers still rank No. 2 in the NFL in rushing, their performance of late on the ground hasn't measured up to their early-season standard in terms of productivity or consistency. That's on the line more than it is on running back Willie Parker, who needs a crease to take advantage of his speed.
The inconsistent ground attack is also putting more pressure on the Steelers' passing game. Although protecting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had been a problem, his seemingly making a determined effort to get rid of the ball quicker against the Bengals helped.
The state of the line is such that the Steelers can't be certain if Roethlisberger will remain upright when they call a passing play, and they don't know for certain if Parker will go forward or backward on the ground. That's making play-calling something of an adventure for offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.
PATRIOTS: Much is made of the Patriots' age at linebacker and their apparent inadequacies in the secondary, but you never hear anyone complaining about what they have up front.
New England boasts No. 1 picks across the board in left end Ty Warren (13th overall in 2003), nose tackle Vince Wilfork (21st overall in 2004) and right end Richard Seymour (sixth overall in 2001). Those three anchor a defense that ranks third in the NFL (sixth rushing, sixth passing).
Seymour has only appeared in five games since being activated off the physically unable to perform list on Oct. 27. Still, the line has been doing its job, which is to occupy blockers and free the New England linebackers to make plays. Tedy Bruschi leads the team with 76 tackles (53 solo), and Mike Vrabel is tied for second in the AFC with 9.5 sacks.
Warren is second in tackles with 60 and has also managed 2.5 sacks, which means he's doing more than just tie up the other guys.
Backup defensive end Jarvis Green has made seven starts and contributed four sacks, which means the Pats have depth up front.
ADVANTAGE -- PATRIOTS: Let's assume for a minute that the Steelers can carry a lead into the fourth quarter; will they be able to finish off the game• Philadelphia couldn't on Nov. 25 against New England. And Baltimore couldn't on Monday night.
The Patriots' defense was especially resilient against the Ravens. After falling behind 24-17 early in the fourth quarter, the Patriots' defense held the Ravens to three consecutive three-play possessions. In the process, New England limited Baltimore to 10 rushing yards on six attempts on the three series, preventing the Ravens from running out the clock and affording quarterback Tom Brady as many chances as he needed to retake the lead.
The Steelers were unable to put the game away when leading late against the Jets, and found themselves reduced to calling quarterback draws and calling running back Gary Russell's number for the first time all season last Sunday night against Cincinnati.
To win in New England, they'll need more than what they've been getting from their offensive line.
LAST WEEK: The Bengals' receivers got the jump on the Steelers a couple of times in the early going, but after the opening drive, the Steelers' defense dominated. As the game wore on, the Bengals' wide receivers appeared more interested in self-preservation than pass-catching in what became a 24-20 Steelers' triumph. EDGE: STEELERS