Point / Counterpoint: Patriots - Steelers

<p>This week's matchup pits the AFC East New England Patriots against AFC North opponent Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday 4:00pm EST at Hienz Field.</p> <p>Our staff have taken a look at the individual units of each team and given their take on what each team needs to do unit-by-unit in order to have a chance to emerge victorious in this week eight matchup. </p> <p>The writers from both teams have given reasons why the Steelers have the best chance to stop the streak, but will they?</p>

PHOTO: DETROIT: Troy Polamalu #43 of the Pittsburgh Steelers gets ready move on the field during the game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field (Getty)

Game: Pittsburgh Steelers vs New England Patriots
Where: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh PA
When: Sunday October 31, 2004, 4:00pm EST

Unit by Unit Matchup

From the Steelers Perspective:
by Stillers.com Staffers
  From the Patriots Perspective:
by John MacKenna, Patriots Insider

Still Mill and Steel Phantom write for www.Stillers.com and have provided analysis on the matchups addressing the game from the Steelers point of view.


  John writes for the Patriots Insider, and has provided analysis on the game from the Patriots point of view.

When the Steelers have the ball:


When the Patriots have the ball:

Sensational rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger will work on his own personal streak of four straight wins as a starter. Like Brady, Ben Roth has thus far done everything you could want from your QB -- leading the offense; passing accurately, anticipating defensive pressure, and making key plays in the clutch. Duce Staley has been excellent, and the duo of Ward & Burress is easily among the top 2 or 3 in the entire NFL.

The Patriot offense gets loads of glory and headlines, but to the football purist, it's the defense that is so very impressive. Bill Belichick has an incredible knack of putting players into defensive spots and situations that reap the maximum from their ability. Furthermore, Belichick knows how to exploit player versatility. Belichick takes a multi-dimensional player and exploits the man's dimension in exponential fashion, and uses them in multiple roles that give his front seven the ability to show dozens of fronts, looks, stunts, and blitzes from the same seven players. Lastly, Belichick doesn't get caught up with "measurables" or cookie-cutter prototypes; he simply looks for defensive players who possess great instincts and the love of hitting. This is why Belichick has gotten such unbelievable mileage from the likes of Roman Pfifer, Willie McGinnest, Teddy Bruschi, and Steeler castoff Mike Vrabel.

The Pats play a modified 3-4, but as noted, with their multi-dimensional players, they're just as likely to line up in a 6-2, as they are a 4-3. Big Vince Wilfork, their 1st rounder, lines up on the nose, flanked by the outstanding DE Rich Seymour and also Ty Warren, who isn't too shabby in his own right. Keith Traylor provides relief to Wilfork. Former Steeler DE Rodney Bailey is with the Pats, but is shelved for the season on IR.

The LB corps is absolutely incredible. Along with the aforementioned Bruschi, Vrabel, and McGinnest, Ted Johnson starts at LB. Then there are the backups, including Pfifer, the ever-so-dangerous Rosey Colvin, and former Cal product Tully Canta-Bain. McGinnest, Vrabel, and Colvin each play as a down lineman on occasion.

The secondary has, like most of the rest of the team, been hit by injury. Starting CB Tyronne Poole has been hampered with a knee injury and is doubtful. Either Randall Gay or Asante Samuel will start in his place. At the opposite corner is all-world and former Pittsburgher Ty Law, who has few peers. Hard-hitting Rodney Harrison starts at SS, with the capable Eugene Wilson starting at FS.

NE isn't awful; they are 14th in YPG (110); 18th in YPC at 4.2. James got 142 in the opener, mainly because the Pat NT, Keith Traylor and rook Vince Wilfork, played poorly. That's changed as Wilfork has come on. At this point, the Pats have shown as most vulnerable to runs left; the Pat ROLB, Colvin or Vrabel, are good both rushing and in chase but neither is especially stout at the point of attack. This weakness can be exploited by the Steelers' characteristically left hand run game. On the downside, NE limited the Jets last week to 106 yards on 3.9YPC; on the season, the Jets are averaging 133 and 4.4. However, the Jets ran a quantity of draws, presumably trying to slow the Pat pass rush. That's a loser against a smart vet team like NE.


The Patriots have a potent, balanced attack that has flourished in spite of injuries to wideouts Deion Branch and Troy Brown. David Givens-the poor man's Hines Ward-is averaging 18.5 yards on his 24 receptions, and David Patten has 20 catches for 357 yards. QB Tom Brady is averaging 231 yards a game with 11 TD passes, including five to TE Daniel Graham. RB Kevin Faulk is another favorite target, with 10 catches in the last two games.

RB Corey Dillon is on a roll, with 220 yards in the last two games, which were both against tough run defenses (Jets and Seahawks). The offensive line has no big names or behemoths; it just gets the job done with good help from Givens and Graham.

Look for Dillon to attack the middle, where the Steelers are without Pro Bowl NT Casey Hampton. His replacement, fourth-year man Chris Hoke, will have his hands full with Pats center Dan Koppen and guards Joe Andruzzi and Stephen Neal.

Dillon might suffer an off-day, however. The Steelers are very familiar with him from his days in Cincinnati, and it appears they know how to shut him down. In four games over the last two years, Dillon averaged 3.6 yards per carry against Pittsburgh.

Given Dillon's struggles against the Steelers, the Patriots are likely planning an all-out air attack. Look for Brady to attempt 30-plus passes, including plenty of long balls aimed at Givens, Patten and Bethel Johnson. Brady is 29 of 53 on passes of over 20 yards.

The Steelers' pass rushers need to get to Brady to protect their secondary. CB DeShea Townsend is solid, but safeties Troy Polamalu and Chris Hope are both first-year starters, and CB Willie Williams, replacing the injured Chad Scott, has appeared in only three games this year. Townsend has three sacks, but the Steelers would be taking a big chance sending him after the opportunistic Brady.

Weis is likely to try anything. Last week, it was two passes to Dan Klecko, a linebacker who sometimes plays fullback. This week against the Steelers' suspect secondary, it might be a pass by Patten, who threw for one touchdown in 2001.

When the Patriots have the ball:


When the Steelers have the ball:

They'll be led by Tom Brady. The 4th year pro has picked right up where he left off, and has had a sterling season thus far. He's doing everything you could want from your QB, leading the offense; passing accurately, anticipating defensive pressure, and making key plays in the clutch. As many have noted, the Steelers have benefited from playing opponents who have a combined record well below .500, which helps. More importantly, though, and rarely mentioned, is that the Steelers have benefited from facing some of the worst QBs in the league. Obviously, this changes on Sunday when Brady visits Heinz Field.

The NE ground game was a lukewarm, suspect piece of the Patriots' two Super Bowl titles. Now, however, it is in the very capable hands, and legs, of Corey Dillon. With Dillon in the fold, the Pats set of choice is single back. Tom Brady has 172 pass attempts on the season; of those, 112 (65%) came out of the single back set (SG is 2nd with 53). Corey Dillon has 129 rush attempts; of those, 100 (78%) came out of the single back set (I is 2nd with 24). Out of that single back set, whether twin TE and 2 WR or single TE and 3 wide, the Pats' run/pass ratio is (nearly) perfectly balanced. Not so on a down basis: Dillon has 74 rushes on first down, 48 on 2nd and just 7 on 3rd. Brady's numbers go: 67, 57 and 48. That is: 52% run on first down, 54% favoring pass on 2nd but 87% pass on 3rd.

When Dillon needs a rest, as well as on 3rd downs, the Pats can turn to the ever-trusty, vastly underrated do-it-all, Kevin Faulk, who provides a spark both as a ball carrier and a pass-catcher. Dillon has had some decent efforts against the Steelers in his earlier days with the Bengals, but in his last 4 outings versus Pittsburgh, he's been held to 60 yards or less each time. Dillon isn't the kind of slashing cutback runner that typically victimizes the Steelers, but nevertheless, he's a big, talented back who's quite capable of grinding down a defense.

Patrick Pass doesn't pass the ball, but he runs the occasional plunge and serves as a solid, though a bit undersized, FB. The Pats depth chart took a hit last week when LB/FB Dan Klecko was injured after a short reception while playing FB. Klecko had given the Pats a bigger, brawnier blocking back, but he is out for this game. Pass is also questionable with a thigh injury.

If the Steelers were to lose their top two receivers, the crying and caterwauling by the Steeler Nation would be heard for miles on end. The Pats have actually had that happen, yet they keep on marching right along. Troy Brown, their best all-around playmaker, has caught all of 1 pass this season and has played sparingly. He's questionable for this game. Deion Branch is their 2nd best WR, but he, too, has been nagged with injury and is doubtful. The pass-catching chores have been left in the hands of The David's, Givens and Patten. Both have excelled, with gaudy yards/catch numbers of 18.5 and 17.9. Givens, the former Notre Dame 7th rounder, has found a nice rapport with Brady. Steeler fans should remember Patten, who hauled in the key TD reception from Bledsoe, not Brady, in the AFC Title game nearly 3 years ago. WR Bethel Johnson has nice speed and is used as a deep threat. If Brown and Branch were healthy, this would, in all likelihood, be the greatest five man WR corps ever assembled in NFL history. The Pats simply have made the WR spot a "plug & play" position in which they seem to get excellent production regardless of who is thrown the pigskin.

Because of injury at WR, and because the Pats believe in using the TE as something more than a glorified 3rd tackle, the Pats get a lot of mileage and productivity from their TEs in the passing game. Dan Graham is a fine target at TE, and has already grabbed 18 balls. Graham is a capable enough receiver to be used in the slot as well as out of the traditional TE spot. Christian Fauria gives the Pats a very solid backup. Injury has hit this spot as well, with promising, mega-talented rookie

TE Ben Watson shelved for the year early in the season.

The Pats O-line isn't dominant, but they are awfully effective. They seem to most always provide just enough of a crack for the RB on ground plays, and just enough time &/or space for Brady on pass plays. Dan Koppen, a 3rd round choice last year, anchors the middle of the line at center, proving you don't need to invest 1st day draft picks or mega-millions into the interior of your O-line. That theory is reinforced with veterans Russ Hochstein and Joe Andruzzi at OG. For that matter, starting RT Tom Ashworth was an undrafted FA a few years ago. Ashworth, though, has an achy back, and is questionable/doubtful for this tilt. If unable to play, he'll presumably be replaced by Brandon Gorin. Former first-rounder Matt Light has the most pedigree, and start at the ever-critical LT spot. Light is no slouch, but he susceptible to outside speed rushers who have the ability to dash wide or cut underneath the oft-oafish Light.

The Steelers defense is smarting from the season-ending loss of NT Casey Hampton, the very best NT in the business. You simply can't replace a unique NT like Hampton, so all the Steelers can hope is that career benchwarmer Chris Hoke, undersized for the job, can at least eat some space and hold his ground on occasion. Star ILB Kendrell Bell has finally resumed practice for the 1st time all season, but it is doubtful he'll play, or if he does, his PT will be very marginal. Chad Scott is out for the next 4-6 weeks, and at least this week will be replaced in the starting lineup by Willie Williams. Promising rookie CB Ricardo Colclough should see plenty of work in the nickel. Veteran DB Mike Logan is also out, which thins out the secondary depth and puts 2nd-year man Ike Taylor into a prominent role in the dime.

Generally, the Pats have passed to (get a) lead and then run to extend (that). One indicator: Brady has (102) 1st half passes, (70) in the 2nd. That's been a winner; the Pats have scored first in their past 14 games.



The Steelers are averaging 22.7 points a game with a run-oriented attack complimented by solid passing. Pittsburgh is fifth in the NFL with 135.5 rushing yards a game, led by Duce Staley (97 yards per game), who runs behind a strong offensive line. Jerome Bettis handles short yardage situations and has seven touchdowns.

Rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been masterful, completing 69 percent of his passes, including 37 of 46 in the last two games. Hines Ward is an elite receiver, and Plaxico Burress is a serious downfield threat.

The Patriots' run defense held the Jets' Curtis Martin to 70 yards last week. All-Pro Richard Seymour is a monster on the right side in the 3-4, and second-year DE Ty Warren (6'5", 300) is big obstacle on the left side. Rookie Vince Wilfork, the 21st pick in the first round out of Miami, is coming on strong at nose tackle.

Pittsburgh's linemen should create some seams for Staley, but the Patriots will likely limit the damage. Veteran LBs Ted Johnson and Tedy Bruschi and SS Rodney Harrison rarely get fooled, and they fight off blockers well. Expect them to limit Staley to three yards or less often enough to force the Steelers to the air.

History strongly suggests that New England will thwart the Steelers' passing attack by confusing Roethlisberger with complex schemes executed by the NFL's smartest, most cohesive defense. One has to wonder, however, if this rookie is the exception who proves the rule. Roethlisberger is universally praised for his poise, and in Ward he has one of the most reliable receivers in the NFL.

If Steelers Offensive Coordinator Ken Whisenhunt can catch New England cheating into the box or blitzing a defensive back, Roethlisberger might hit Ward or Burress for a big play. The Patriots, in particular FS Eugene Wilson and CB Tyrone Poole, have been burned often on long passes. Poole has a knee injury that makes him questionable for the game.

Gambling against the Patriots is the Steelers' best bet, but it will backfire if Roethlisberger is less than perfect. New England might bait him with disguised coverages then pick him off. The Pats have only seven interceptions through six games, but they led the NFL with 29 last year and all their DBs are ballhawks, including second-year CB Asante Samuel and rookie CB Randall Gay.

Key Matchups:


Key Matchups:

As noted, the Steelers are depleted at DB. One scenario is that the Pats spread out early, try to get that lead and then slug it out. That has been their trademark to date: to cite one example, in their opener against Indy, NE opened in a twin-TE, 3-wide set. In that possession, the Pats passed on every down; after that, they balanced out. We may see that Sunday, where the Pats spread and test the Steeler CB early but in the end, the key match figures to be a balanced Pat attack (out of single back) vs. Coach LeBeau's bag of nickels and dimes.

On the other side, when the Steelers have the ball, they will face a defense that can be exploited. This year's Steelers are built from the ground up; while Ben Roethlisberger has had an impressive start, the run game has been the cornerstone. This is evident in that the PS has run the ball 56.7% of all snaps. Sunday, the run game must create a time of possesion advantage; as ever, the best defense is a good, (clock-grinding) offense.

DC Romeo Crennel vs. OC Ken Whisenhunt. Dating back to the Jan. '96 playoff whipping of the Steelers, the Pats have really bogged down the Steeler offense, mostly due to their ability to gap-shoot and topple Jerome Bettis. Duce Staley gives the Steelers much more speed and versatility, which the Pats haven't had to face in the past 5 meetings.

Ben Roth vs. the Pat secondary. Equally important are the looks and schemes that Crennel and Belichick throw at Ben Roth. You can be quite sure that Ben Roth will see stuff on Sunday that the Pats haven't shown all season thus far. Roth has seen quite a bit in his first 4 starts, but nothing compares to what a Belichick, or an in-his-prime Joe Paterno, can throw at a young QB

Special Teams: Adam Vinatieri is simply the best clutch booter in the NFL right now. Former Steeler Josh Miller punts for the Pats, and hopefully he'll still do his trademark inspection of the football air pressure and Tagliabue's signature before he puts his foot into each punt.

Steelers' guards Faneca and Vincent against the NE front seven. The mayhem caused by the NE multi-dimensional front 7 is felt mostly by the OGs, who are in difficult dilemmas on traps, pulls, and plays where 1-on-1 blocking is ordered in lieu of zone blocking. The difficulty lies in not knowing which Patriot defender will go where on a given play. Faneca and Vincent must minimize leakage and make on-the-fly adjustments.

Willie Williams vs. any Pat receiver. This really could be quite ugly. The Pats' WR trio has enough speed to push off a slowpoke like Willie -- who will give away a 10-12 yard cushion -- and then curl back or turn out for the easy pitch n' catch with Brady.

Ward vs. Law. This is a classic mano-o-mano matchup, featuring two of the game's best. Regrettably, much of this matchup will never been seen on TV.


Pittsburgh RB Duce Staley vs. Pats LB, Ted Johnson

Pittsburgh WR, Hines Ward vs. Patriots DB, Ty Law

Patriots C Dan Koppen vs. Pittsburgh DL Chris Hoke

Patriots WR, David Givens vs. Pittsburgh DB, Willie Williams

Possible Turning Point of the Game:


Possible Turning Point of the Game:

Getting into the face of Brady and disrupt him. As always, pressure counts; however, Tom Brady's passer rating v. the blitz is 121.6. Overall, he's at 95.3. A few weeks ago, Buffalo blitzed the Pats at about 80%, and got carved up. The Pats have allowed just nine sacks in 181 attempts; that's 5%, far below this season's average to date, 7.2%. A straight up rush won't get home (just to cite one example, last Sunday, LT Matt Light stoned Jet RDE John Abraham). However, the PS zone blitz may convert some, especially on those 3rd down situations noted above. The zone blitz is designed to get pressure without sacrificing coverage; this is accomplished by bringing pressure from the back 8 while dropping a portion of the front 3. Sunday, the Pats will test that theory as applied.

The PS secondary has to play physically, jamming and generally disrupting the Pat receivers at the line of scrimmage, especially Graham. However, they'll want to punish those receivers that make a catch too; that, together with the fact that Williams figures to get beat some off the press, suggests the PS safeties will be back more than up. Balancing the necessity to help his CB, against the fact that the safeties are the best athletes (blitzers) of his DB, is Coach LeBeau's dilemma.

Disrupting Brady and aggressive Steeler secondary play will carry the game in the Steelers' favor.


The game likely will turn on one long Roethlisberger pass. If it goes for a touchdown, the Steelers win. If it's intercepted, the Patriots win.

Other Factors:


Other Factors:

Health: Pro Bowl Nose Tackle Casey Hampton is out for the season. Linebacker K. Bell is questionable. Secondary Starters Chad Scott and Mike Logan are out. QBs: Maddox and backup Charlie Batch are out.

Home field advantage: Obviously, home field is a no-brainer. Heinz Field has been a relatively sterile, far from raucous home venue. Partially because of the open end of the stadium, and partially because it simply doesn't have the lore and legacy of Three Rivers Stadium. However, due to the fact that the Pats bring in their 21-game winning streak, coupled with the late 4:15 start that will allow Steeler fans to really fuel up on booze and beer, fully expect Sunday's game to be the loudest game in Heinz Field's young history. This game should have the same buzz and excitement of the regular season game versus the Denver Broncos in the 1997 season.

Attitude: Worse than any single defeat, those 2002 Steelers left much of their confidence on that field in Foxboro. For two seasons thereafter, the Steelers played timidly on defense and without a clue on the O-side. That seems to have changed this year; the Steelers are back to grinding the rock and playing a high speed, high pressure and disruptive brand of defense.

Halloween Night: Don't laugh. Weird stuff happens on Halloween.


Game Planning: Bill Cowher and his coaches have had two weeks to plan for the Patriots. They need a blueprint that will result in at least three offensive touchdowns.

Takeaways: Both teams average two takeaways a game, and the opportunities should be there this week because the offenses will likely take some chances. The team that protects the ball better probably will win.

Kicking: Heinz Field is cruel to kickers. Jeff Reed and Adam Vinatieri will likely attempt long kicks, and one miss could decide the game.

Health: The health of the Patriots receiving corps is crucial. The Patriots WR corp is decimated, and has forced OC Charlie Weis to resort to using linemen such as Dan Klecko as optional TE's. Weis will need to give Brady new options this week as Klecko is out.




This is the NFL's game of the week. Everyone wants the streak to end, except the Pats. The Steelers will prevail in a close and great football game that will have Steeler fans talikning around the water cooler next week, so we can play another potentially undefeated team, the Eagles.


Everything points to a thrilling, physical game. Brady passes for over 300 yards and three touchdowns. Roethlisberger plays a solid game but the Patriots pick him off twice and escape with their 22nd straight win.

Score: Steelers 19-16 (OT)


Score: Patriots 27- 24

For More Info:   For More Info:

Still Mill and Steel Phantom



John MacKenna


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This week's guest columnist(s) Still Mill and Steel Phantom can be found on Stillers.com and in their Steel Talk forums under those user names.

You can find John in the PI forums under the name: oldnslow. You can also find archives of his columns on the Insiders by searching for "John MacKenna"

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