Opponent Breakdown: New England

A look at what the Steelers will be up against on Sunday afternoon against the New England Patriots:


HE'S BA-ACK:** Quarterback Tom Brady has returned from suspension with what appears to be a giant chip on his shoulder.

Brady maintained that's not the case. He said he's always been competitive and isn't any more determined to be that this season. But the way he extended plays in last Sunday's 35-17 victory over Cincinnati suggested otherwise. He still got rid of the ball quickly when he felt he absolutely had to in an effort to avoid hits and sacks. But Brady also often held the ball longer than has been his habit. He stepped up in the pocket, stepped up and then stepped back in the pocket and even scrambled parallel to the line of scrimmage to give himself every opportunity to throw the ball down the field.

He wasn't as quick to give up on a potential big play and resort to a check-down or a throw-away.

And since his return the Patriots have turned "off-schedule" plays, breakdowns and the like, into big plays.

One such instance resulted in a 32-yard completion to tight end Rob Gronkowski, who ran an out-route, saw his quarterback was on the move and turned up the sideline. Brady stepped up, stepped to his left and hit Gronkowski in stride behind linebacker Karlos Dansby. A third-and-9 from the Patriots' 36-yard line became a first-and-10 at the Bengals' 32.

The Brady-to-Gronkowski 4-yard touchdown that made it 19-14 Patriots in the third quarter highlighted Brady's accuracy and Gronkowski's athleticism. Gronkowski came off the line of scrimmage, ran just inside the goal line and turned around. Brady fired a fastball low and away and Gronkowski went down and made a shoestring catch. Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick never had a chance.

Brady's pin-point accuracy was also evident on what became a 15-yard catch-and-run TD pass to running back James White. White flared out of the backfield to Brady's right and Brady's pass only traveled 4 yards past the line of scrimmage. But the trajectory led White toward the sideline and away from Dansby and helped facilitate White turning up the field and scoring.


The Steelers prepare for the Week 7 matchup against the New England Patriots.

TWIN TOWERS:** Gronkowski is listed at 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds. Fellow tight end Martellus Bennett is 6-6, 275. That's a combined 13 feet and over 500 pounds of tight end for opposing defenses to deal with when the Patriots play the two together, which New England does with regularity.

Gronkowski, in particular, was a problematic matchup. The Bengals tried Dansby, linebacker Vontaze Burfict, linebacker Vincent Rey, Kirkpatrick, safety George Iloka and safety Shawn Williams on Gronkowski in various combinations. They tried re-directing him at the line of scrimmage, just about anything they could think off, or so it seemed. Gronkowski finished with seven catches for a career-high 162 receiving yards and his first touchdown of the season.

New England used Gronkowski and Bennett together periodically in the first half and then almost exclusively in the third quarter. The pair had a combined two catches for 41 yards at halftime (both by Gronkowski). Buy the time the Patriots got the ball for the first time in the fourth quarter, the two had accounted for eight catches for 159 yards and a touchdown.

They'll line up on opposite sides of the field along the sideline, on opposite sides of the field in the slot, as a wide-slot tandem on the same side of the formation and next to one another in-line, a position from which one may or may not go in motion.

They're hard to keep track of and harder to contain.

WHAT'S NEXT?: Coverages are a week-to-week proposition for the New England secondary.

Against the Bengals, Malcolm Butler played right cornerback in the first half and left cornerback in the second half and often lined up in the slot in sub-packages. Cornerback Logan Ryan matched up on wide receiver A.J. Green in the first half and cornerback Eric Rowe, who was active for the first time this season, had Green in the second half.

Butler had matched up with Houston wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins on Sept. 22.

Ryan had been assigned to Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald on Sept. 11.

In the secondary, you never know how the Patriots are going to play it until game day. And even then, the plan can change.

They also have enough hybrid types up front to alternate between 3-4 and 4-3 looks as they deem necessary.


NOBODY'S PERFECT:** Head coach Bill Belichick has a reputation as the master of the matchup but sometimes even he and the Patriots get it wrong.

New England tried linebacker Barkevious Mingo lined up wide left opposite running back Giovani Bernard on third-and-8 from the Patriots' 38 in the second quarter. Quarterback Andy Dalton found Bernard wide open for a 32-yard gain.

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