Friday, October 28, 2011

It's what up front that counts: Time for the big-boy pads

Albert Haynesworth and Vince Wilfork will be playing paddy-cake with Maurkice Pouncey on Sunday.
Let's hope Steeler center Maurkice Pouncey is fully healthy and brings his big-boy pads to play the Boston Massachuestts New England Patriots on Sunday. The Steelers' second-year Pro Bowl center will line up directly across Vince Wilfork and/or Albert Haynesworth, who happen to be two of the game's biggest, baddest nose tackles (along with Baltimore's Haloti Ngata, who will line up across from Pouncey just a week later).

Yep, for Pouncey and the Steelers, this is the meat and potatoes of the schedule, and the yams, chicken 'n waffles, pancakes, bacon, gorditas, sausage, french fries, burritos, chicken wings, sirloin, prime rib, cheeseburgers, provolone sticks, apple pie, ice cream, crackers, cake, pretzels, nachos, cheetos, fritos, doritos and tostitos. Starting Sunday, and for the next three weeks, it's the heart(burn) of the schedule.

Vince Wilfork
It's what's up front that counts and with New England, it starts on defense with Wilfork and Haynesworth.

Wilfork has two interceptions already this season -- same as the Steelers' entire defense -- but those were flukes (entertaining as they were). Wilfork is a huge run-stuffer who can push up the middle to rush the quarterback and be a generally disruptive force in the backfield.

Wilfork has played so sensationally this season it's almost easy to overlook Haynesworth, who has one of the biggest contracts of any player in the NFL and a mixed-bag reputation to go with it. Nagged by minor injuries since training camp, Haynesworth has been used as a situational player but is being worked into the rotation more and more. When healthy, motivated and on his game, he can be one of the NFL's most feared, forceful, dominant and disruptive defensive players. 

Maurkice Pouncey. Time for the big-boy pads.
Wilfork and Haynesworth are listed on the Patriots depth chart as one-two at nose tackle. Taken at face value, that would imply they won't be on the field at the same time. If we've learned anything about New England punjab Bill Bellichick, however, it's that we should never take anything at face value. Do you really think the wily Bellichick can resist putting the two-headed monster (Wilfork and Haynesworth) on the field at the same time? ... especially with the bye week giving his team extra time for practice and  preparation. Anything is possible.

The rest of New England's defense is nothing to sneeze at, despite their No. 32 ranking. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin acknowledged as much earlier this week.

Noting that the Patriots' defense has surrendered an NFL-high average of 322.2 passing yards per game, Tomlin said, "That is a function of them just whacking people (on offense) and being way out in front. So if you come in and you think they are the 32nd best defense in football you are kidding yourself. They are whacking people pretty good. People are throwing the ball every down and they accumulate some yards."

We buy that. The Patriots have two very good young corners in Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington, both of whom are playmaking cover guys. Arrington has four interceptions already this season. Linebacker Jerod Mayo, their defensive captain and leading tackler the past couple years, is expected to return from injury and should be at full speed. He's tough, as is fellow linebacker Brandon Spikes.

Back to New England's defensive line for a second: They're all veterans, and nearly all first-rounders at that. As Tomlin would say, they are high-pedigree guys:
  • Wilfork, a former first-rounder, is an eight-year veteran.
  • Haynesworth, a former first-rounder, is an 11-year veteran.
  • Starting defensive end Shaun Ellis, a former first-rounder (11th overall, by the Jets) is a 12-year veteran.
  • Andre Carter, the other starter at defensive end, is a former first-rounder (San Francisco, seventh overall, 2001) and an 11-year veteran.
  • Backup lineman Gerard Warren, a former first-rounder (selected third overall by Cleveland in 2011), is an 11-year veteran.
  • Backup defensive end Mark Anderson is a six-year veteran who previously had success with the Chicago Bears. He's no slouch.
  • Even second-year defensive end Kyle Love, an undrafted nose tackle from Mississippi State, has played extremely well in a situational role.

As Tomlin said, if you expect these guys will play like the 32nd-ranked defense on Sunday, you're kidding yourself. The Steelers had better bring their big-boy pads.

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