Behind Enemy Lines: Seahawks/Steelers, Part 1

So many questions present themselves before every Super Bowl – we wonder about the on-field matchups, and the peripheral distractions. Are the Steelers guided by their franchise's history, or do the Seahawks have the underdog's edge? In an attempt to shed some light on Super Bowl XL, Doug Farrar of Seahawks.NET and Jim Wexell of SteelerBlitz.com take you inside the battles.

When The Seahawks Have The Ball

Seahawks passing game vs. Pittsburgh’s defense

Jim’s Take: The Steelers’ secondary has been underrated all season. Hey, folks, Dewayne Washington and Chad Scott don’t play here anymore. Big, strong and fast Ike Taylor moved in for Willie Williams early in the season – as expected – and second-round pick Bryant McFadden has seized the nickel job. He’s big, strong and fast and looking at free-agent-to-be Deshea Townsend’s starting job next season. Townsend is smaller and covers slot receivers and is a quality player and leader. They go three deep at safety, too, and use various combinations of all of them to blitz. Dick LeBeau has orchestrated with precision and strong safety Troy Polamalu is his favorite instrument.

This secondary has shut down Chad Johnson (for the third time), Marvin Harrison (the time that counted) and Rod Smith in these playoffs. The Steelers will take Darrell Jackson out of the game, although Pittsburgh fans know and respect ex-Penn Staters Bobby Engram and Joe Jurevicius – the Seahawks’ Nos. 2 and 3 WRs. Good tight ends have always given the Steelers’ 3-4 defense problems, and good TEs have hurt them in these playoffs. A week after Dallas Clark caught 4 for 84 and a touchdown, Jeb Putzier caught 4 for 55. Jerramy Stevens is playing the best football of his life and could be a factor for the Seahawks.

Doug’s Take: Everyone seems to regard both offenses as the type where you want to bull up against the run and make the quarterback beat you. In both cases, this could be fatal against two QBs who are playing at incredible levels right now. While Roethlisberger’s development over two seasons has been nothing shot of stellar, Matt Hasselbeck is playing on a different plane – and this has been especially true in the last two months. In December, he posted a quarterback rating of 135.5, and the highest completion percentage in NFL history for any quarterback who played in four games or more (76%).

Hasselbeck attacks defenses with a stunningly versatile and deep group of weapons, and leads that attack with a master’s command of the West Coast Offense. Hasselbeck can run through three reads faster then just about anyone, and your DBs had best be aware – he’s developed a great ability to look defenders to the spots he’d rather they stay. Hasselbeck can throw to one of any number or targets, and someone’s always open. Always. That’s why the Seahawks won every one of the nine games they played without Darrell Jackson, and the three they played without Jackson and Bobby Engram.

Even if the Steelers take Jackson out the game (and I’m not convinced they will), watch out for Jurevicius. He’s a bit like a taller Steve Largent and a lot like Easy Ed McCaffrey – everything you think he can’t do, he does.


Seahawks running game vs. Pittsburgh’s defense

Jim’s Take: This should worry the Steelers more than the Seahawks’ passing game. The Broncos ran the ball with success until Joey Porter took over the game. The Broncos ran five times for 21 yards on their first two possessions, but on second-and-4 Porter blew up Jake Plummer and the Steelers pushed the lead to 10-0. Porter showed blatant disregard for Plummer’s play-action fakes and the Seahawks surely noticed. They’ll run at ROLB Porter and RILB Larry Foote behind Walter Jones and Steve Hutchinson. Porter will have to honor play-action this week and Foote – the Steelers’ lightest linebacker – will take on the brunt of the Seahawks’ power game.

Kimo von Oelhoffen is a solid vet at RDE, but he’s not Aaron Smith or Casey Hampton. The right side of the Steelers’ defense is vulnerable to a strong running game, and they may not come any stronger than the triumvirate of Jones, Hutchinson and Shaun Alexander. Mack Strong will be in there too. I’m concerned about this match-up. On the strong side, the aforementioned Smith sets up James Farrior, Clark Haggans, Polamalu and Taylor to make the plays.

Doug’s Take: It’s quite possibly the most anticipated matchup of SB Xtra Large – who will win the battle between Pittsburgh’s nasty 3-4 and Seattle’s leviathan run-blockers? The obvious challenge up front for the Seahawks will be C Robbie Tobeck on Hampton – Tobeck is the very definition of a “wily veteran”, but Hampton is a beast. An emphasis on zone blocking (Seattle uses both zone and man) may be needed to take this defense on.

Of course, certain personnel shifts would leave lanes open for the Steeler ‘backers to come through and harass, and that’s where FB Mack Strong comes in. Whether he’s chipping up front or taking on defenders in his own kitchen, Strong lives up to his name – this guy is a violent blocker with picture-perfect technique. That’s why he was named to his first Pro Bowl this year, and that honor was given about half a decade too late.

Shaun Alexander can run downhill (which I’d expect him to do more of against LeBeau’s super-quick front seven) or cut back on a dime. He has better vision than any back in the NFL, and that will be needed with all the traffic he’ll face. I expect Pittsburgh to focus on Alexander as every team Seattle opposes has this season. This just in – even when you stack the box on Shaun, it doesn’t always work. Even if it does, you’re leaving too many other offensive channels open if you focus on the running game. In that respect, the Seahawks and Steelers offenses are similar.


When The Steelers Have The Ball

Steelers passing game vs. Seattle’s defense

Jim’s take: The Broncos continued the trend of playing the Steelers to run, but the Steelers have come out throwing on first down and Ben Roethlisberger can’t miss. Another one of these fine games and he’ll rank among the top of the career post-season passer rating list with Bart Starr and Joe Montana. The Seahawks have the league’s most prolific pass rush, but they’d better get there because Roethlisberger will pick that secondary apart. The Seahawks this season ranked 22nd in defensive yards per catch, 13th in defensive passer rating and 12th in pass completion percentage. Those are the pure numbers of pass defense. The Steelers may not have scary receivers, but then again neither did the New England Patriots during their run.

Hines Ward will make the tough catch and ignite the fans with his cock-sure attitude. Cedrick Wilson will run as sweet a deep route as you’ll ever see. Antwaan Randle El is scary in the short game, and don’t let him get behind you either. Throw in Heath Miller, the rookie tight end, and Fast Willie Parker out of the backfield and you can see why the Steelers are tearing it up in the air. They’ve scored 162 points in their last five games, and will continue to pour it on through the airwaves until somebody gives them the run. I like Marcus Trufant, too, but I like Champ Bailey better, and the Steelers made him look foolish. And wasn’t Michael Boulware a linebacker in college? Isn’t that transition supposed to move forward in today’s pro game?

Doug’s take: The two secondary units are actually pretty evenly matched in many departments. Seattle has one more interception than Pittsburgh (16-15), and while the Seahawks’ final pass defense numbers do not suggest a championship-caliber squad, the results presented by the vaunted Pittsburgh coverage units won’t set anyone’s pants on fire, either – they finished 16th in the NFL in passing yards allowed, and the Seahawks only allowed three more passing TDs than Pittsburgh (18 to 15).

Your comments about Trufant and Boulware are a tad disingenuous – Trufant is no Champ Bailey, but the third-year cornerback from Washington State had enjoyed a stellar postseason against Santana Moss and as part of the coverage blanket on Steve Smith. He’s also very good at physical press (he tackles like a safety), and I’d expect him to see a great deal of Hines Ward. Boulware was a linebacker at Florida state, but his coaches would have switched him to safety in his senior year were it not for a shoulder injury. For the record, Boulware led the Seahawks with four INTs this year, and four of the five picks in his rookie year either won or held games.

Rounded out by the speedy Andre Dyson at corner, Marquand Manuel at free safety and Kelly Herndon in the nickel, Seattle’s secondary has what it takes to match up with any offense…IF their front four can get pressure without having to over-commit at the line. This has been the hallmark of their postseason success.


Steelers running game vs. Seattle’s defense

Jim’s take: If the Seahawks choose to do so, they will stop the Steelers’ running game. The Steelers average a puny 3.2 yards per carry in these playoffs, and one of those teams was the Bengals. Jerome Bettis can be a thundering bull at times and Parker’s due to break one, but the Steelers’ alleged domination in the run game just isn’t there. However, if the Seahawks defend the pass, the Steelers will run on them. One defender makes that much of a difference, and that’s why TE Heath Miller has been such a boon to the offense.

While the Steelers’ offensive line has improved its blitz control and overall pass protection of late, the run game hasn’t opened up. LG Alan Faneca is the best of the bunch. He stands out on the team’s counter power play in which he pulls right in a short-yardage set. It’s both the play on which Bettis fumbled against the Colts and the play on which Bettis scored against the Broncos. Massive RT Max Starks can also stand out as a road-grader. The tight ends – Miller and Jerame Tuman -- are exceptional run-blockers. Fullback Dan Kreider is the best lead blocker in football, with all due respect to Mr. Strong. Pittsburgh fans have watched Kreider do all the right things for too long to allow that someone might be better.

It’s also about time for one of Ken Whisenhunt’s gadgets, something with Randle El most likely. And remember, Miller threw a perfect 35-yard touchdown pass in college off a lateral to the split TE. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Whisenhunt call something on the first possession, dear props players.

Doug’s take: This is where it gets interesting. Were the national media to take their Steelers jerseys off long enough to crunch some numbers, they might be surprised at what Seattle’s run defense presents. Cowher and Whisenhunt are smart coaches, so I’ll assume they already know that the Seahawks’ run defense finished fifth overall, allowed exactly one 100-yard rusher in the regular and postseason, and ranks at the top of Football Outsiders’ “Adjusted Line Yards” category for defensive lines.

Seattle’s ability to stop the run is based on a skilled and underrated DT rotation that has been bull-rushing more often of late with great effectiveness, ends who can edge-rush or stunt inside, and linebackers whose discipline belies their youth. MLB Lofa Tatupu has a near-supernatural ability to decipher where a play is going, and he doesn’t generally have a problem meeting anyone head-on. Backs do not slip through the clutches of rookie SLB Leroy Hill, either.

Where Pittsburgh may have a slight advantage is in the fact that the defense can’t just tee off on Bettis and Parker and make Roethlisberger a secondary factor – the young QB has the ability to pass to set up the rushing lanes needed. On the subject of Miller, I will say that larger tight ends who are adept tend to give the Seahawks fits. Miller could have a big game, and I’d expect the Steelers to make the talented rookie an integral part of the offense.


Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET. Feel free to e-mail him at doug@seahawks.net.

For more of Jim Wexell’s coverage of the Pittsburgh Steelers, visit Steelers.scout.com.


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