Steelers Could Pin One on Pats

<p>The New England Patriots flew to Pennsylvania a day early to avoid a winter storm that could have disrupted preparations for their AFC Championship game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Patriots won't need any distractions. Pittsburgh is Red Hot, and it doesn't appear anything or anyone get in the way of their trip to Jacksonville.</p><p>The Patriots are trying to be that obstacle in their path, but these Steelers might just have the right stuff to pin a loss on the champs.</p>

PHOTO: Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) stiff arms New England Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel (50) and gets off a first quarter pass Sunday, Oct. 31, 2004 in Pittsburgh. The Steelers beat the Patriots 34-20.(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Steelers Could Pin One on Pats
By John MacKenna

The Patriots face their toughest test of the '04 season this Sunday when they take their unbeaten act on the road to play the AFC North-leading Steelers in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers might not be better than the Jets, who own an identical 5-1 record after losing at New England 13-6 last Sunday, but the Steelers will play this Halloween contest in front of a supportive crowd at Heinz Field. The Patriots have won both their road games this year, but the neither the Bills not the Cardinals are playoff contenders.

Last time the Pats visited the home of the terrible towels, they won the 2001 AFC Championship Game, 24-17. This time, the Steelers are riding a four-game win streak and are coming off a bye week, and their quarterback is rookie sensation Ben Roethlisberger, who is 4-0 as a starter.

Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick sees similarities between the Steelers and the Jets. "They play that same kind of style, they blitz a lot and can run the ball."

The Steelers are fifth in the NFL in rushing, averaging 135.5 yards per game on the ground, and Big Duce Staley (5'11", 242 pounds) is a tough inside runner. Signed in the offseason, the former Philadelphia Eagle has rushed for 582 yards in six games.

Pittsburgh can pass too. While they are rank only 25th in passing yards (179 per game), the Steelers have one of the AFC's top receivers in Hines Ward and a solid second option in Plaxico Burress. Ward has 43 catches for 531 yards. Burress has 18 for 356.

"They have big, physical receivers and a big quarterback," said Belichick. "They look like they are pretty tough, they have won a lot of games and they are well coached."

Roethlisberger, the 6'5", 241-pounder out of Miami, Ohio, has been exceptional. He has completed 69 percent of his passes, including 37 of 46 in last two games, and has been intercepted only once in the last three games.

After Roethlisberger led the Steelers back from a 20-10 second-half deficit to beat the Cowboys 24-10 on Oct. 17, Dallas Coach Bill Parcells was lavish in his praise. "He's got great poise. I think he's going to be outstanding."

"There was no panic," said Steelers receiver Ward after the Dallas game. "He showed a lot of poise and relied on the veteran guys around him." No other rookie quarterback has won his first four starts since Phil Simms did it for the New York Giants in 1979.

The Steelers have been getting it done on defense too. They are sixth in total defense in the NFL, allowing only 287.2 yards per game. They're also seventh against the pass (183.8 yards per game) and are second in takeaway/giveaway at plus-5. DE Aaron Smith leads the Steelers with four sacks. Cornerback DeShea Townsend has three.

Like the Jets, though, the Steelers have been beating up on weak competition. The five teams they have defeated have combined record of 9-21. Their only opponent to be sporting a winning record now is Baltimore, who beat Pittsburgh, 30-13, in Week 2.

The Steelers also suffered a major loss in their last game when NT Casey Hampton suffered a season-ending knee injury. A Pro Bowler in 2003, Hampton anchored the Steelers' 3-4 defense. His replacement is fourth-year man Chris Hoke, who is undersized at 6'3", 296 pounds and has played very little this season.

Cowher said yesterday that he has confidence in Hoke. "Chris will be fine. He has earned this opportunity. He has worked very hard. I think he will be fine in there. I really do. I see no indication to think that he wouldn't."

The Steelers also lost CB Chad Scott in the Dallas game. His replacement is veteran Willie Williams, who has good cover skills but not much speed. "He gives us some experience," said Cowher. "He played left corner here when we had some pretty good teams. We expect him to step in. We are still going to have Ricardo (Colclough) and Ike (Taylor) be involved in the substitute package and they have to be ready to go if something happens.

Veteran LB Kendrell Bell is questionable following hernia surgery, but he has practiced this week. The Steelers also are missing veteran safety Mike Logan.

The Steelers unquestionably are a threat to end New England's 21-game win streak, but Pittsburgh has vulnerabilities that the Patriots can exploit.

The injury to Hampton should leave the Pittsburgh run defense susceptible in the middle. Expect New England Offensive Coordinator Charlie Weis to send RB Corey Dillon up the middle early, both to gain yards and to soften up the Steelers' pass defense.

If the Patriots can force the Steelers to cheat Strong Safety Troy Polamalu towards the line, New England could torch the Pittsburgh secondary. The Patriots have sustained a solid passing attack despite injuries to wideouts Deion Branch and Troy Brown. David Givens and David Patten continue to find openings, and quarterback Tom Brady has made the most of RB Kevin Faulk's return to action. Faulk caught six passes last week against the Jets. The resourceful Weis has rolled out a new wrinkle in the last two games, using LB/FB Dan Klecko as a receiver. Klecko caught two passes last Sunday.

As potent as the Steelers have been on offense (22.7 points a game), their simple attack seems custom-tailored to implode against New England's savvy defense. With an improved run defense, the Patriots cooled off Shaun Alexander and Curtis Martin in the last two weeks, and Staley is the type of one-dimensional runner that New England routinely shuts down.

If New England can seal the middle, the Steelers will be forced to pass. Roethlisberger may have shredded the Cowboys and Browns, but it would take a truly exceptional rookie to keep his cool against New England's confusing schemes. The Steelers lack depth in their receiving corps, so CB Ty Law & Co. need only keep Ward and Burress in check.

Notes: Pittsburgh ILB James Farrior had two sacks and three forced fumbles against Dallas. … Steelers RB Jerome Bettis is averaging only 1.8 yards per carry but has seven TDs. … The Cowboys outgained Steelers 348-297 and gained 125 yards rushing. They also converted 6 of 13 third downs. … The Cowboys sacked Roethlisberger three times. … Pittsburgh has six interceptions and seven fumble recoveries. … The Patriots have converted 45.3 percent of their third downs, fifth best in the NFL … Burress is 2nd in the NFL with 19.8 yards per catch. Givens is 6th at 18.5 yards, and Patten is 9th at 17.9 yards. … Dillon is 6th in NFL with 637 rushing yards and fourth with 106.2 yards/game. … Givens is on pace for 64 catches and 1,182 yards. Patten is on pace for 53 catches and 953 yards. Dillon is on pace for 1,701 rushing yards. Pats QB Tom Brady is on pace for 3,708 passing yards. … For the third consecutive week, New England will face a team that enters the game with a winning percentage above .700. … Pittsburgh's Jeff Reed has missed three of his nine field goal attempts, all from over 40 yards. … The Patriots have surrendered only nine TDs. The Steelers have nine rushing TDs and seven passing. … New England is fourth in NFL with 19 sacks. Pittsburgh is sixth with 17. The Patriots have allowed only nine sacks. Pittsburgh has allowed 11.

John is a regular contributor to the Patriots Insider. You can reach him in the forums under the name: oldnslow. You can also find archives of his columns on the Insiders by searching for "John MacKenna" or send him an email here

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