Insiders Report: Patriots - Steelers

<p>Weekend Preview and Insiders perspective on the week 8 matchup between the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers.</p>

INSIDERS SLANT

Only six NFL head coaches have held their current jobs longer than New England's Bill Belichick has held his. Four others have been on the job since 2000 as Belichick has. The other 21 NFL head coaching positions have turned over at least once since then.

But Belichick's tenure pales in comparison to his adversary on the opposing sideline this week, Pittsburgh's Bill Cowher, who is in his 13th season at the Steelers' helm after being hired to replace Chuck Noll in 1992.

When the Patriots visit the Steelers Sunday at 4 p.m., two of the league's more successful head coaches will square off for the third time since Belichick was hired to save a sinking Patriots ship.

Belichick has had the better of Cowher of late with his Patriots capturing the AFC Championship in Pittsburgh in 2001 and then knocking the Steelers off again in the 2002 season opener. He also has won a pair of Super Bowls in his four full seasons in New England while Cowher has fallen short time and again despite guiding his team to the cusp of greatness with seven division titles.

So Sunday will undoubtedly be a battle between two men who won't have to admit to being out-coached very often.
"He is a great coach," Belichick said of Cowher. "I have tremendous respect for Bill. We go back to when he was the defensive coordinator at Kansas City. He coached the secondary and I was the defensive coordinator at the Giants and I coached linebackers. Bill came to New York and we spent a full day together, like 12-14 hours, and I told him everything I know about linebacker play, which took about a half hour, and he told me everything he knew about secondary play and that took a long time. I think that was the start of a good relationship."

Even though Belichick has trumped Cowher since coming to New England, that wasn't the case back when Belichick was selected to coach the Browns ahead of Cowher in 1991. A year later, Cowher went to Pittsburgh and dominated the division rivalry with Belichick's Browns, winning six of eight meetings.
Belichick was fired in 1995 and has since coached in New England, with the Jets and back with the Patriots while Cowher has survived even a couple of leaner years in the Steel City.

"It was tough when we were in the same division," Belichick said. "It was a lot tougher on me because he usually won those games. We have maintained a good friendship. I have a lot of respect for Bill. He's the longest tenured coach because he's an outstanding coach. He represents the game with his passion for it and his intensity as a special teams player; he brings that kind of mentality, that real blue collar and tough mentality to the game as a coach."

Their daylong meeting several years ago may be somewhat reflected in their choices of defensive schemes. Both coaches use a 3-4 defensive front that makes it difficult to identify the fourth, or in the case of a blitz, fifth pass rusher. They look for the same kind of players - a big, gap-clogging nose tackle, stout run-stuffing inside linebackers than can run and outside linebackers that are hybrid defensive ends and can play the run while also rushing the passer and dropping into coverage.

The defensive philosophies may differ, especially with Pittsburgh's dependency on the zone blitz over the years, but the base fronts are so similar that New England obviously keeps a close eye on Pittsburgh's roster - looking for talent that has had trouble cracking their defensive lineup.

Belichick lifted Mike Vrabel from the Steelers in 2001 after he was primarily a sub rusher under Cowher. All Vrabel has done for New England is emerge into a playmaking starter who is arguably the team's most productive pass rusher and now even moonlights as a tight end. This past offseason, Belichick also plucked restricted free agent defensive end Rodney Bailey from the Steelers, although Bailey was lost for the season during training camp when he ruptured his Achilles.
"You can see his philosophy through the years," Belichick said. "A lot of the stuff that they do defensively is very similar to what we played against when I was in Cleveland. It's the same thing offensively. They use a lot of four wide receivers. They run a lot of the same scheme running plays that they ran when Ron Erhardt was the coordinator in the early 90s.

"At the same time, they are a team that will take advantage of their personnel and they will give you some new stuff. They adapt their system to the skills of their players and have tried to utilize them effectively and they have done a good job of it."

Belichick referred directly to Pittsburgh's willingness to do different things with versatile, athletic offensive players like Antwan Randle El and Hines Ward, both receivers who played quarterback while in college.

"They do a lot of things with Randle El that are unconventional," Belichick said. "They put him at quarterback. They put him in the slot and do some things that weren't much a part of what they did before they drafted him. They keep you off balance with those types of things. They did it with Ward too. It's not the nuts and bolts of what they do. They still win and lose with their core stuff, but those things are things you have to work on and defend. If you don't they will big play you with them."

So the two coaches are similar in that way as well. Belichick may not have any quarterback/receiver hybrids on the roster, but he certainly finds ways to utilize every available skill of his players. After all, it was that former Steeler linebacker, Vrabel, who caught a touchdown pass in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
It all makes for an interesting coaching battle this week at Heinz Field..

SERIES HISTORY:
20th meeting. The Steelers lead all-time series 12-7, but the Patriots have won the last three including the 2001 AFC Championship Game played in Pittsburgh. The teams have met in the postseason three times since 1996 with New England winning twice. Pittsburgh won seven of eight meetings between 1989-1997.

NOTES, QUOTES

This matchup has become as intense as a non-division rivalry can be. The Patriots have qualified for the playoffs five times since 1996 and have crossed paths with Pittsburgh on three of those postseason trips, winning two.

New England's last trip to the Steel City was for the 2001 AFC Championship Game, and the city of Pittsburgh left Heinz Field with a bitter taste in its mouth after their heavily favored Steelers allowed two touchdowns on special teams in a heartbreaking 24-17 loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Patriots.
That win by New England avenged a similarly bitter loss when the defending AFC champion Patriots dropped a tough 7-6 decision at Three Rivers Stadium while trying to return to the Super Bowl. Current Patriot Mike Vrabel actually ended the Patriots' last gasp hopes when he strip-sacked Drew Bledsoe while the Patriots appeared to be driving toward a possible Adam Vinatieri field goal. The Steelers recovered the fumble, and the Patriots' decline that eventually ended in head coach Pete Carroll's firing was on.

Of course, the 1996 Patriots played host to the Steelers in a Divisional playoff game at Foxboro Stadium and blew out Pittsburgh 28-3 on its way to Super Bowl XXXI, which it lost the Packers, 35-14.

The last meeting between the clubs was also an emotional affair. It took place in the 2002 season opener on Monday night in Gillette Stadium's inaugural game. A few Pittsburgh players spent the offseason following the AFC Championship loss talking about how the better team lost that game and how even the Patriots knew that to be the case. But New England silenced Pittsburgh with a blowout 30-14 win that wasn't that close.
Now the rivalry could potentially have a new page. While the Patriots seemed to have the better of it recently, Pittsburgh can be the team to end the Patriots' 21-game winning streak and knock them from the ranks of the unbeaten, an accomplishment the Steelers, with young phenom quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, would relish.

Even as the respective head coaches like and respect each other, there is no love lost between these teams. The Steelers are coming off their bye and surely used the extra preparation time efficiently. With New England heading into a raucous Heinz Field that rivals most stadiums for its crowd noise, the Patriots will be facing their toughest challenge of the 2004 season.

"They're tough," Belichick said. "We'll have to play our best game. They're a very physical team that runs it well and stops the run well. They have some new good young players we haven't seen before. They don't turn the ball over, they scored touchdowns in the red zone and they're a good field position team."

  • The 2003 Super Bowl champion Patriots allowed a single 100-yard rusher all season. They also only allowed a single 100-yard receiver all season. They limited opposing quarterbacks to a 56.2 passer rating while holding them to a 53.1 completion percentage. This year's version has shown early chinks in its once impenetrable armor. Edgerrin James is the only rusher to eclipse the 100-yard mark against the Patriots this year, but the defense has allowed a 100-yard receiver in each of the last four games - the Jets' Justin McCariens, Seattle's Koren Robinson, Miami's Marty Booker and Buffalo's Eric Moulds. Opposing quarterbacks have completed 52.5 percent of their throws and compiled a 65.1 passer rating.

  • New England has outscored opponents 148-90 this year, but a quarter-by-quarter look shows how the Patriots jump out quickly and then hold on. The Patriots have a 40-10 first quarter scoring advantage this season while holding a slim 54-50 edge in the second. They have doubled up opponents, 24-12, in the third and hold a 30-18 fourth quarter advantage.

  • The Patriots have allowed just seven touchdowns in 23 trips inside their 20-yard line to lead the AFC in that category, but what's amazing is that opponents have left the red area without a point on nine of the 23 trips. New England has forced four red zone turnovers and while the opponent has turned it over on downs three times while trying to overcome a fourth quarter deficit. Seattle actually ended the game inside the Patriots 20, but did not score and the Colts missed a field goal.

  • The Patriots' 6-0 start is the best in team history. They have now won and NFL record 18 straight regular season games and 21 straight overall.

BY THE NUMBERS:
34-to-12 - The number of touchdowns to interceptions Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has thrown during New England's 21-game winning streak.

QUOTE TO NOTE:
"Mistakes are a big part of it. We don't hand the ball to other teams. We don't give up 80-yard touchdowns on three or four missed tackles or blown assignments. So that goes a long way." - Linebacker Mike Vrabel on the Patriots' extended success


STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

It was odd to see Eugene Wilson on the bench to start the Jets game last week while undrafted rookie free agent Randall Gay started at safety. Coach Bill Belichick refused to explain the rationale behind the move, although it lasted for only one series and doesn't figure to carry over this week.
Gay has played well and it's encouraging that the coaches feel comfortable playing him at safety as well as corner. With Tyrone Poole sidelined, Gay has been the slot corner in the nickel and has been around the ball as quarterbacks have tested him.

He has given the Patriots some decent depth in the secondary and created some competition for playing time with Asante Samuel, the regular nickel back who has moved into the starting lineup in Poole's absence.

Wilson, conversely, may have needed a wakeup call. He had struggled with his consistency entering the Jets game and played well against New York after starting the game as the nickel back.

But like Wilson last year, Gay has been a surprise contributor in the secondary as a rookie and an undrafted one at that. Wilson was thrust into the starting safety role last year after never having played the position and Gay's ability to step in at both spots has been a major boost for a team that lost third round pick Guss Scott to a season-ending injury during training camp.

PLAYER/PERSONNEL NOTES

  • RB Cedric Cobbs began practicing Wednesday, officially beginning his 21-day practi cewindow.Cobbsisonthephysicallyunabletoperformlistand can be elevated to the 53-man roster at any time. At the end of 21 days, a final decision will have to be made on his status for the rest of the season. He can be released, activated to the 53-man roster, moved to injured reserve or left on PUP for the rest of the season.

  • WR Deion Branch, who has missed the last four-plus games with a knee injury, will sit this one out as well. The Patriots obviously feel Branch will return at some point since they haven't placed him on injured reserve, but when that is remains to be seen. New England does not offer timetables on the return of injured players.

  • WR Troy Brown will likely miss another game. Brown has only appeared in two games this season and has just one reception. He is recovering from a shoulder injury that the Patriots hope will heal without surgery.

  • FB/LB Dan Klecko won't play in Pittsburgh after suffering a knee injury against the Jets. Klecko has been used primarily as a fullback and with Patrick Pass also recovering from an injury, New England will be limited in the backfield. Look for Richard Seymour to assume some lead blocking duties as he has done in the past. Don't expect Seymour to catch any passes as Klecko has done.

  • CB Tyrone Poole could be close to playing. He discussed a cautionary approach to his knee injury last week and sat out the Jets game. He is questionable and the Patriots aren't likely to push him and risk a setback, especially with a game at the pass happy Rams next on the docket.

  • S Rodney Harrison continues to cover kicks to help ensure the Patriots' early-season problems remain a thing of the past. With Harrison on special teams and a couple of other starters, like Mike Vrabel, on special teams, the Patriots' coverage has been noticeably better. The return of Je'Rod Cherry from the unemployment line was a boost as was Matt Chatham's activation off the PUP list last week.

  • NT Vince Wilfork moving around in base defense has become an instrumental part of the Patriots' defensive line rotation. He starts at nose tackle, but moves over to end to spell Ty Warren at times with Keith Traylor then moving in on the nose. Jarvis Green and Richard Seymour both see action inside and out and Seymour has been on the nose in some nickel looks where the Patriots stay in a 3-4 base. Jarvis Green also plays the end in the line rotation and moves inside to rush the passer.

  • LB Ted Johnson will see plenty of snaps again this week against an offense that runs the ball nearly 60 percent of the time. Pittsburgh has run on 179 of 302 offensive plays this year, and Johnson plays inside on running downs while giving way to Roman Phifer in passing situations.

GAME PLAN: It seems like one of the better ways to attack the Steelers defense over the years has been to spread them out and attack them through the air. That does a couple of things. First, it makes it easier for the protection and the quarterback to identify the pass rushers and second, it forces the Steelers linebackers to cover or sub out in favor of a nickel back. The 2001 Bengals rallied from behind to beat Pittsburgh in a spread-out all-pass mode, and the Patriots lifted the idea for the 2002 season opener. Tom Brady torched the mouthy Steelers defense that day, connecting on 29-of-43 passes for 294 yards and three touchdowns while being sacked twice. That performance came in the last meeting between the clubs, which means the ever-changing Patriots likely won't employ that attack exclusively as they did then.

Corey Dillon has changed the offense since then, although New England did spread out the Colts in Week 1. Instead of the empty backfield, no-huddle approach, the Patriots may try to go four-wide with Dillon as the single setback. That would give Brady the option to hand off, use play action or have Dillon in the backfield for blitz pickup. As a former Bengal, Dillon is certainly familiar with the Steeler schemes. Of course, with nose tackle Casey Hampton on the shelf, New England may simply try to pound away between the tackles early on to feel out Pittsburgh's adjustment to his absence. The Patriotss offensive line is familiar with the 3-4 looks since it faced them in training camp all summer from its own defense. Their ability to pick up the rushing linebacker and identify Dick LeBeau's zone blitzes will be a key.

Defensively, the Patriots' plan has to center around stopping Pittsburgh's power running game. As Dillon has given New England a boost, so too has Duce Staley for the Steelers. But beyond that, it has an impressive rookie quarterback and two talented receivers with which to cope. While the natural tendency is to blitz rookie quarterbacks, look for Bill Belichick to employ a cover first approach while mixing in blitzes, particularly in the red area where the Steelers have scored touchdowns on 14 of 17 trips to lead the NFL. Belichick's specialty is designing coverages and disguises and his veteran team executes that well. Expect Belichick to attack Ben Roethlisberger that way rather than with an aggressive rush. He will try to make the rookie hold the ball and throw into tight coverage rather than expose his corners to big plays against a pair of receivers capable of flat out beating coverage or out-leaping it in a jump ball situation.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Patriots CB Ty Law vs. Steelers WR Hines Ward. Law's play has been improved of late and he has returned to shutdown status a sore hamstring that bothered him early in the year has become less of an issue. He shut down Santana Moss last week and Darrell Jackson the week before. Ward has more than twice the receptions that any other Steeler with 43 through six games, which puts him on pace for 112 catches. Both players are physical and both will win at times. A big play could decide the overall winner here.

Patriots NT Vince Wilfork vs. Steelers C Jeff Hartings. This isn't so much head-to-head because the Steelers will also block down on the nose tackle with a guard, but Wilfork is improving weekly. He captured the full-time starting job in Week 3 and held his own last week against Pro Bowler Kevin Mawae. The Steelers have a power running game and if Wilfork can occupy two blockers rather than allow the guard to chip and jump out on the backside linebacker, the Patriots will fare better against the run.

Patriots C Dan Koppen vs. Steelers NT Chris Hoke. Hoke is filling in for the injured Casey Hampton, which gives him big shoes to fill. He is a former practice squad player who was inactive for every game in 2003 and never played in game before this season. He is a blue-collar, tough player who gets it done with guile more than talent. Koppen is also a strong, physical player who should have an advantage over Hoke inside, which could give the Patriots an advantage and help them stay out of the second-and-long situations Pittsburgh is so good at creating.

INJURY IMPACT: With Dan Klecko likely out of action, the Patriots will use Richard Seymour as a lead back in short-yardage situations, but that eliminates the play action possibility when he is in the game since he will not run pass routes or be asked to pass protect. The offensive coaches could use Mike Vrabel as an extra tight end rather than go to the fullback, and that would still give them an unpredictable run-pass situation since Tom Brady has proven that he will throw the ball in Vrabel's direction and that he is not in the game simply to run block. Things will remain status quo at wide receiver with David Givens and David Patten being asked to pick up the slack. The same is true at corner where, if Tyrone Poole can't play, Asante Samuel will start and Randall Gay will fill the nickel back role. Tom Ashworth played through his back injury last week and should be expected to do the same this time. Patrick Pass could also miss his second straight game with a thigh injury, but with Kevin Faulk back in the mix as the third down back, the impact his loss is reduced to special teams. Either Faulk or Kevin Kasper will fill in as the kickoff returner alongside Bethel Johnson, and his coverage responsibilities can be filled by a member of the group that includes Rabih Abdullah, Roman Phifer or Mike Vrabel.


Patriots Insider Top Stories