FOXBORO -- There's no quarterback in the NFL quite like Ben Roethlisberger. His combination of size (6-foot-5, 241 pounds), elusiveness and arm strength make him a pain for entire defenses, not just the guys up front tasked with bringing him down.
When Roethlisberger is able to extend plays by avoiding an opposing pass rush, that forces defensive secondaries to react accordingly, scrambling to stick with receivers for a few extra seconds as they freelance on their routes unpredictably.
"He's able to win so many different games and play a unique style where he's able to hold onto the ball a little longer than what they might say you should do," said Patriots safety Devin McCourty. "He may break some of those coaches rules, but he's able to make plays, and I think that's what's tough about playing this offense."
The Steelers have an undersized, but shifty and sure-handed receiving corps featuring Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders that will be tough for the Patriots to defend if a play continues long after the ball is snapped.
Brown, especially, presents a challenge. He leads the league in receptions with 56, and his 630 yards receiving are ninth in the NFL. Not bad for a receiver who had a week off during his team's bye week in Week 5.
Sanders, to whom the Patriots made an offer as a restricted free agent last offseason, is a threat in his own right and can run a variety of different routes to try to get open for Roethlisberger.
Combined, Brown and Sanders have dropped two passes all season, according to Pro Football Focus, making their percentage of completed catchable balls ninth and twelfth best in the league, respectively. (The Patriots, by comparison, have three of the worst drop rates in the NFL, according to PFF. Aaron Dobson has dropped eight of 34 catchable balls, Danny Amendola has dropped four of 23 catchable balls, and Kenbrell Thompkins has dropped four of 27 catchable balls.)
"It's not going to be an easy matchup with a guy who can launch the ball and break all kinds of tackles back there in the secondary," McCourty said. "We just have to stay on our guys and make sure we're always ready."
It will be key for the Patriots defensive front, if and when it does get to Roethlisberger, to make sure it doesn't allow him to escape their grasp.
"With a guy of his size, it's easy for him to kind of shake guys off if you're going to tackle him with your arms," said defensive end Rob Ninkovich. "He can kind of shrug guys off and still make a throw down the field. You just really have to be conscious when you get to him to make sure that you wrap him up, and try to get him down and at least hold him up and hope that your buddies are coming to help out."
If ever there were a week to get to Roethlisberger, this may be it. The Steelers are dealing with an offensive line that has been crippled by injuries.
It lost center Maurkice Pouncey to injured reserve after he suffered a torn ACL and MCL in Week 1 against the Titans. And last week alone, three Steelers lineman were forced out of their 21-18 loss to the Raiders. Right guard David DeCastro (ankle), left guard Ramon Foster (concussion) and backup left guard Guy Whimper (knee) were all knocked out of action in the defeat.
The resulting shuffling of Pittsburgh's offensive line took its toll as Roethlisberger was pressured 16 times on 51 dropbacks and had a quarterback rating of just 33.3 on those plays, according to PFF. He was also sacked five times.
According to Thursday's injury report, DeCastro did not participate in practice. Both Whimper and Foster were full participants.
One would think Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones and the rest of the Patriots defense -- which showed an ability to effectively bring pressure with multiple players in the second half last week versus Miami -- would have opportunities in Week 9 to disrupt Roethlisberger's timing by getting into the Pittsburgh backfield.
They just have to make sure they bring down the big quarterback when they get there. He is, after all, unlike any other in the league when it comes to shaking off contact.
"There are one or two more quarterbacks that might have an aspect of his game that remind you of him, but I don't think we'll play a guy next week and say, 'Yeah this guy's the Ben Roethlisberger style of quarterback,' " McCourty explained. "He's just different."