Behind Enemy Lines: Pats at Steelers

<p>The AFC Championship brings back one of the best matchups of the year, in what many consider the AFC's two strongest teams the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers. </p> <p>Patriots Insider is pleased to bring you a another guest column from the writers at Steel Phantom, provides a unique in-depth look at the two teams with his an analysis of the rematch. If you enjoy this piece, please visit them for more analysis from their contributors.</p>

PHOTO: Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward is congratulated by teammates. (AP Photo)

Behind Enemy Lines: Pats at Steelers
A look at the AFCC by
By Steel Phantom,
Guest Columnist Courtesy

Again, the Pats; these teams have hooked up in three of the more memorable games in recent Steeler history. To recapitulate, in reverse order:

    2004 Halloween Massacre: NE came in having won 21 straight but left dragging, having been flogged on both sides of the ball. Physical dominance? Well, maybe but turnovers were a large factor. Consider Q1: the PS O earned a score when, on the second play after Ty Law left, Burress and Big Ben hooked up on a 47-yard TD strike. 7-3 at that point, but not for long; in the following possession, on the Pats' first snap, Joey Porter swept in to sack and strip Tom Brady. The PS O converted in 5 plays from the NE 27 to go up 14-3. In the Pats' next possession, again on the first snap, Tom Brady hit DeShea Townsend in stride. Townsend brought it back for 21-3 and at that point, with seconds remaining in Q1, the game was effectively over. All the more so when, again on the first snap, this time the opening possession of Q3, Porter stripped Kevin Faulk, who had received a short pass in the flat. The PS O took over on the NE 17 and converted in 4 plays. So, 31-10 and then the beatdown; the PS O ran the ball 30 times in the second half (49 in all), possessing the pig for about 23 minutes in that frame (43 in all). Great stuff but the bottom line was then and remains: NE was (-4) in takeaways, (3) leading to 21 points, in a 14-point game.
  • 2002 Opener, shock and awe: Defying conventional wisdom, NE abandoned any semblance of balance on the O-side. At one point, they passed 25 straight, generally out of an empty set; shortly, their pass/run ratio was 32/4. The PS D didn't solve the spread that night, nor at any time in that season. Certainly, that game demonstrated the need for speed at safety but then again that should have apparent from the preceding Super Bowl, when (virtually) the same Patriot team thwarted the then greatest show on turf, mainly off the play of their then current S tandem, Lawyer Milloy and T-buck Jones. That said, spread-shock was something of a distracter; hindsight says the real deal was that the loser was, again, (-4) in takes. That night, the PS O turned it over in each of their opening possessions, both halves; (5) TO in all, with the Pats converting 17 points. 13 penalties for 112 yards didn't help the PS cause.
  • 2001 AFCC: As it happens, the loser was (-4) in takes, again. That's three for three, although this time those weren't the difference in the game. Two return scores were: Troy Brown's PR and his assist to Antwan Harris off a blocked FG attempt, where the officials momentarily allowed rugby or Aussie ball rules to prevail. Still, the PS were in it late and, had, say, Joey Porter gathered an easy INT, then, maybe, we wouldn't be where are today, with WL Cowher lugging a 1-3 AFCC mark, while pundits prepare a place for Bill Belichick at the right hand of Saint Vincent of Green Bay.

Coming into that game, Coach Belichick was 2-1 in PO competition, just a tuck (the week before in the snow v. Oakland) from 1-2 and out of that round. Instead, he's 8-1 now while Coach Cowher is, as he was then, a .500 PO coach. So are legends made: a tuck, a tip, and a little luck.

Well, not really: results are one thing but preparation another. The consensus is that the Pat staff has, generally, provided their players a better chance to win than has their opposition. Much of that has been in attention to detail: for example, preceding that 2001 AFCC encounter, the Pat staff noticed Toy Edwards ran OB on punt coverage; that was instrumental in Brown's return jaunt. That Pat staff noticed that the PS WR tipped run by their alignment. That's all well known now; in contrast, if that PS staff noticed anything at all, this (like, say, the fruit from the roughly contemporaneous search elsewhere for WMD) remains unrevealed. 

Scheme-wise, those NE Pats had an edge too. As we all recall, they flipped their DE and OLB, creating an overmatch between then-DE Bobby Hamilton and PS TE Jerame Tuman, who was subbing for Mark Breuner. Playing rope-a-dope with the PS strongside, NE stuffed the Steeler run, putting the game in the hands of their QB, then PS MVP Kordell Stewart. You can be absolutely certain that the Pat braintrust will try to accomplish the same Sunday. By the numbers:

Steeler run game, then and now:








Stewart contributed 537 rushing yards to the 2001 total of 2774.




2004 PS RB had 2305; 2001 PS RB had 2137




Most attempts since the Ditka Bears of the mid-80s.




2001 TOP is #1 all-time in PS history; 2004 mark is #2.

The 2001 Steelers had the better numbers but the 2004 Steelers have the more effective run game. The difference resides inside, where this PS O-line is better by the margin of Keydrick Vincent over Oliver Ross. Outside, that's not so clear; it could be that those 2001 PS were better at OT by the margin of Wayne Gandy over Ross but that's not where this game is going to be decided.

Inside is it; these PS have pounded between the tackles all year. They did so Halloween and, if they follow that up with 49 carries Sunday, as they had then, or 43, as they had last week against the Jets (29/140 yards following intermission), or 56 as they had against the Eagles, then these PS figure to win. Everyone knows that.

Certainly, the scheme-miesters in NE do. That's their rice bowl, but a couple things may be noteworthy:

The Pats will try to get Jerome Bettis going sideways. On means to accomplish that could be a variant of the old Bears 46, where each of the PS IOL are covered by D-linemen. That reduces their option to pull; against that, a zone block scheme where, perhaps, the playside O-linemen downblock while one or the other offside O-linemen come around. In that scenario, there would be a collision between Kreider and one of the Pat ILB; presuming Kreider wins, there's still the matter of Bettis getting outside of the playside OT. Maybe yes, maybe not.

Duce Staley has a different skill set. With Staley in, one might expect the Pat D-linemen to align in gaps, rather than head up. In Philly, Staley ran behind a zone scheme; early this season, he made a nice transition to running off Kreider's hip. Either way, if Staley's hamstring has mended, he's the Steelers' best option in this game but if not, not.

Famously, NE walks their D-linemen around, intending to scrum combo reads. To some extent, the Jets 4-4, 5-3 looks accomplished the same thing. However, in the end, both in Q4 Week 14 and throughout the 2nd half and OT last week, the Steeler O-line did outphysical those Jet defenders. Same thing in Week 8, the last time these two teams met. However, that's a matter of attrition, which takes time; in stat terms, TOP, a subject to which we'll return in previewing the Pat offense.

With Seymour questionable, the Pats are about 4 deep on the D-line. That's: Ty Warren, Keith Traylor, Vince Wilfork and Jarvis Green. The next guys, Marquise Hill and Ethan Kelly, have seen little to no action. On form, that's a weakness; however, the Pats have a couple OLB with DE size, McGinest at 270# and Vrabel at 260#. Those guys could contribute down in some 4-4, 5-2 or 5-3 alignment. Factor Pat backup LB Colvin and Phifer, whose contribution exceeds the PS #5 and #6, Harrison (and no one at all), and, well, it's clear that the Pats have enough upfront to make a game of it.

Last week, NE schemed to take the game out of Peyton Manning's hands, putting it on the Edge. This week, the opposite; if scheme prevails (and it may not, the PS IOL being that damn good), then Ben Roethlisberger will have a chance to win it. So far so good, Ben has been unflappable in directing late winning drives against Dallas, NJG and NJJ. Then too, much of what the Pats do deep he's practiced against all season as:

Classically, 3-4 teams are Cover 3 teams. With Ty Law, the Pats could man-out some, but Law is inactive. The Pat CB figure to zone, to 20 past the LOS or so anyway.

The present Pat and PS CB are of a type. Two former R4 picks, Townsend and Asante Samuels start on one side, with Willie Williams and UDFA rook Randall Gay on the other. All are on the small side; both Williams and Gay have played similar technique, outside and over, funneling WR back towards their help at LB and S.

For both teams, the playmakers are LB and S, not CB. It figures that NE will have SS Rodney Harrison down in the box some to help in run support. Especially against the base, that will give the PS some over the top opportunities against the Pat CB and FS Eugene Wilson. Burress figures to have an advantage there but first he's going to have to get off the LOS, something he accomplished only intermittently last week against the similarly sized Jet CB. If Spike is a franchise guy, well, now's the time to show. Finally:

It figures that NE will zone far more than man. Roethlisberger has been highly effective on half field reads, and the PS WR do have a man advantage. In contrast, the Pats disguise well, and Big Ben is in grade one reading-wise. It's noteworthy that all the Pat DB are highly aggressive, in zone or out, especially coming under on inside stuff.

NE will show blitz more than they'll bring it since Roethlisberger's passer rating against the blitz is 111.2.

On the other side of the ball:

Last week, the Pats mixed Corey Dillon and the dink and dunk to establish a significant TOP bulge, keeping Peyton Manning off the field. This week, they'll attempt the same, this time to reduce that attrition factor described above in discussing the PS run game. That is, a TOP margin protects aspects of any D that don't match up against any given opponent. We've seen the PS secondary protected this way; the Pats, whose braintrust did attend Bill Parcells' finishing school, do play the same game.

Considering first Dillon, it's noteworthy that, no doubt, the Pats didn't bring him in to beat the Steelers. They brought Dillon in to control the Colts. Mission accomplished; still:

On the season, Dillon carried 345 times for 1635 yards. Antowain Smith, the Pats' lead RB over the previous two years, accomplished 1624 yards total. That is, Dillon got a couple more yards in one campaign than Smith had achieved in the previous two.

On the season, Dillon averaged 23 carries per game. That was his number last week against the Colts, when he gained 144 yards. While with the Bengals, Dillon had 23 carries in just 3 of 13 games against the Steelers. In those, he gained 99, 120 and 128 yards. On average, that's 116 per game, slightly above the 109 he averaged in (15) 2004 tilts.

Serving time in Cincy, Dillon had more than 20 carries in just one other game v. Pittsburgh; that was 21/91 yards. The Bengals won 3 of those 4 games when Dillon had 20 or more carries. Overall, their mark in that period was 4-9.

That's how to lie with stats; it's equally true that Dillon had 19 carries in 3 other games v. the then PS, didn't get over 78 yards in any of those and the Bengals lost all 3. Similarly, Dillon wouldn't have mattered a damn Halloween, had things played out as they did; down 21-3 after Q1, the Pats would have been done running. Of course, there is the question as to whether, with Dillon, the Pats would have been down by that margin but…

We're going to find out. The Pats will spread it, but Dillon will be in the game. This year, 226 of Dillon's 345 trips came out of single back. Roughly, the split was equal between 3 wide, 1 tight and dual TE. Generally, the Pats run best wide, run best left with their WR (especially David Givens) and flex TE (Dan Graham) downblocking the edge.

The Pats are not a pro set team and even if they were, well, they're short at FB. Patrick Pass is questionable; DT Richard Seymour, who has been used at FB, is questionable too and, if he plays at all, the Pats don't figure to use him on this side. Another defender, Dan Klecko, played some FB, but he's now on injured reserve. So, single back and multi-wide which, outlined, will include:

WR David Givens, David Patten and Troy Brown were available last time. Givens is a Hines Ward type; Patten, though neither big nor fast, was #4 in the AFC at 18.2 YPC; Troy Brown is a long-timer, though at this point #4.

As important as the absence of Corey Dillon last time, so too Deion Branch. Since his arrival in 2002, Branch has been Brady's favorite receiver. It's worth noting that in that 2002 opener, his first game as a pro, Branch was the Pat's leading receiver, with 6/83 and 1 TD.

The Pats feature small, quick WR and agile TE. They've got a full complement of the former but not so at TE. Last spring, they drafted Ben Watson, who was featured on NE's opening drive in September, got hurt and hit the IR. That leaves Dan Graham, who has just 30 receptions but is tied with Patten for the team lead with 7 TD. As noted, Graham's blocking is one major factor in the Pats' execution of their pitch counter run game. Christian Fauria is a reasonable #2; his (16) receptions are just (1) fewer than all (3) PS TE.

Givens and Branch have combined for 91 receptions; of those, 74 resulted in 1st downs. They are the go-to guys in that situation. By way of context, Hines Ward has converted 52 1st downs with 80 receptions.

NE has just one receiver, Givens, with more than 50 catches; Patten trails with 44. However, seven others have more than (15) and four of those have more than (25). The Pats have distributed the ball all season; they figure to do so Sunday. In years past, they spread in a SG empty set but with Dillon that's now unlikely to be featured. Instead, it'll be (mainly) single back with whichever 4 receivers. Here's why:

In Patriot Reign, there was a section on how NE evaluates players per position. For QB, the #1 criterion was toughness; the idea being that a team leader has to be respected, and that respect must be earned. Tom Brady is tough enough; while there is risk associated with exposing any QB to a pressure D, that's why NE has gotten the guy they've got.

If the Pats can get the PS in a 2-4-5 nickel, that set will attenuate the upfront physical advantage that the Steeler D otherwise has over the Pat O-line. Matt Light hasn't been right since he was hurt here Week 8; Sunday, NE will start (3) former UDFA on their O-line unit. Of the four front sets on each side of the ball Sunday, the Pat O-line figures to be the weakest. Hard to say which D-side Front 7 unit is superior but the opponent differential here, D to O, does favor the PS. That's true base-wise anyway, but less so in the packages.

Quite obviously, the previous tends to favor Corey Dillon, one of two components in the Pats' battle for TOP supremacy.

Consider the 2002 opener, where the current Pat receivers abused Scott and Townsend. Willie Williams is a marginal improvement over Washington, if any. Certainly, the 2004 PS are superior at safety now; however, while Polamalu has adapted to the NFL air game, Chris Hope has factored little. These PS safeties have the ability as their predecessors did not but Sunday is showtime on the field, not on paper. Finally, the Pats' depth at receiver, with Brown #4 for example, is superior to the PS depth at DB, with Stuviants as the likely dime back.

Pass pro is an issue. The last time these teams met, the Pats went SG almost all the way, after falling back 21-3. They took some negative plays but did move the ball, putting up 17 points in the 14 minutes or so they had the ball from Q2 on. It could have been worse; Pat TE had no receptions in that game largely because they had to stay in to help the OT tandem, which in the end were Brandon Gorin and Stephen Neal. The PS D gave some plays, but made more; they didn't cover great but they got a similar effect with pressure.


Turnovers have told the tale in all three games with the loser going down by (-4) each time. That's a huge margin, which rarely occurs. Chances are, it will not do so Sunday. In that case, the game will be on each opposing Front 7, IMO. The Pat set has to find a way to survive v. the PS run game. In contrast, the PS Front must absolutely dominate a beat-up, patched together Pat O-line. Coverage isn't going to get it as, in this hands- off NFL, coverage is proscribed. Instead, pressure; the Pat O has Dillon and Branch now, as they did not Halloween. However, the upfront match-up is the same. Last time, the PS dominated. To win again, they must do it again.

Steel Phantom is a featured sports analyst on the site To read the original article and others by Phantom please visit You can reach the Phantom on the Stillers site, or send him an email here phantom (at)

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