Opponent Breakdown: New England Patriots

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

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BEWARE BLITZING BRADY:** Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has long been considered difficult to blitz because of his ability to dissect where the pressure is coming from and respond accordingly; it's what he does. The Texans were reminded of as much during their 34-16 playoff loss to the Patriots last Saturday night at New England.

What happened on third-and-10 from the New England 18-yard line with 7:37 left in the second quarter is as good an example as any.

Houston rushed six against a four-man route and a six-man protection. Keeping running back James White in to help protect kept linebacker Brian Cushing in the short middle of the field, as a hedge against White bleeding out into either flat. That left four receivers in man-to-man coverage.

Brady noticed defensive backs Andre Hal and Eddie Pleasant coming free off the left edge of the defensive formation, stepped up and, aware there was no centerfielder to provide deep help, simply heaved the ball down the middle of the field before Hal or Pleasant could get home.

It was far from the best pass Brady has ever thrown but it was thrown in the vicinity of wide receiver Chris Hogan, who was one-on-one against safety Corey Moore. Hogan adjusted to the ball, Moore did not and a 45-yard gain resulted.

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ELIMINATE THE MIDDLE MEN:** Houston had success pressuring Brady up the middle, working against center David Andrews (6-foot-3, 295 pounds), rookie left guard Joe Thuney (6-5, 305) and right guard Shaq Mason (6-1, 310).

Houston's ability to exploit mismatches with outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus (6-4, 265) and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (6-5, 270) working from the interior of the defensive formation was evident on third-and-6 from the Houston 33 with 6:06 left in the second quarter. Mercilus beat Andrews with a spin move and Clowney got past Thuney with a swim move. Mercilus ended up on top of Brady just as Brady was completing his three-step drop. The Texans only rushed three but still managed a sack that pushed the Patriots out of field-goal range.

THIRD-AND-ANYTHING-GOES: New England has players capable of playing multiple positions on defense and can thus throw multiple fronts, blitzes and coverages at an opponent from the same personnel group. The Pats can get especially creative on third downs.

On third-and-5 from the New England 44 with 8:01 left in the second quarter, the Patriots lined seven players up across the line of scrimmage and six of them were standing up (defensive lineman Trey Flowers was the only player with a hand on the ground). New England ended up rushing five against an empty set and covering one-on-one with five, with safety Devin McCourty in the deep middle. Quarterback Brock Osweiler was unable to step up in a collapsing pocket and threw incomplete.  

New England likes to deploy what appears to be a "run nickel" (with safety Duron Harmon joining cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan and safeties Patrick Chung and McCourty) and a "pass nickel" (with cornerback Eric Rowe as the extra defensive back). The Pats will also play Harmon and Rowe in six-defensive backs "dime" alignments.

Shea McClellin and Rob Ninkovich can play defensive end or linebacker, which allows the Pats to switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 front without substituting.

Chung can play safety or slot-corner.

Linebacker Elandon Roberts is seemingly on the field more often when the Pats are expecting a run and linebacker Kyle Van Noy appears to be used more often when a pass is anticipated.

New England was in its base 4-3 for three snaps against Houston.

BLOUNT FORCE TRAUMA: Running back LeGarrette Blount had 299 carries in the regular season and turned them into 1,161 rushing yards and 18 rushing touchdowns.

Blount was denied a rushing TD on third-and-goal from the Houston 1 with 19 seconds left in the second quarter, but it took nine Texans defenders getting at least a piece of him to get him down short of the goal line.

Blount had a 24-carry, 127-yard, two-touchdown game against the Steelers in October.

He had 10 carries for 79 yards against the Steelers' "nickel," including runs of 11, 25 and 11 yards (Blount had 14 carries for 48 yards and both of his TDs against the Steelers' base personnel).

BLUE-PAT SPECIAL: Kicker Stephen Gostkowski went 27-for-32 on field goals (2-for-4 from 50-plus) and 46-for-49 on extra points. Running back Dion Lewis had a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Houston, New England's first return TD of the season (kickoff, punt, interception or fumble). The Patriots fumbled 10 times on kickoff or punt returns in the regular season, the most in the NFL since 2009 (Lewis lost a fumble on a kickoff return against Houston). McClellin and defensive tackle Alan Branch each blocked a field goal in the regular season.  

STATS THAT MATTER: New England is 15-0 the past two seasons when Lewis is in uniform. And New England is 9-0 without tight end Rob Gronkowski in the lineup this season.

HE SAID IT: "What's the phrase we always hear when we do a Patriots game? Expect the unexpected." - CBS analyst Phil Simms to broadcast partner Jim Nantz during the Patriots-Texans game.

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