Steelers hoping to cleanse palate

<b>PITTSBURGH - </b> The 21-game win streak the New England Patriots bring into Heinz Field this afternoon for a 4:15 game against the Steelers doesn't really date back to Jan. 27, 2002.<br><br> It only seems that way.

That was the day the 10-point underdogs took advantage of two special-teams gaffes to beat the Steelers, 24-17, on their way to the first of two NFL championships in the last three years.

While the Steelers have greatly improved their special teams play since then, they haven't been able to wash away the bad taste. Since then, the Steelers have won only one playoff game while the Patriots have won four. The Steelers are 21-16-1 since that loss; the Patriots are 34-9 and talking about a dynasty. One of those wins was a 30-14 dismantling of the Steelers on opening day 2002. The teams haven't played since.

"(Bill) Belichick had a great game plan," recalled wide receiver Hines Ward. "Guys were reading our splits. They were reading my splits from run to pass and calling different plays out just based off splits."

By "splits", Ward meant the way the Steelers wide receivers lined up in that game.

"If you stand high they know it's a run play; if you stand low they know it's a pass play," he said. "The great ones do that. They pick up on tendencies. At that time we were young. We didn't know that just by how you lined up, or how you were in your stance as a wideout, you were actually giving away plays."

It wasn't at a post-game shindig for elite stars, or at a party down by the river, or at the Pro Bowl in Honolulu where Ward learned he was giving away the Steelers' plays.

"I just heard them call it," Ward said. "They weren't in our huddle. You could just see different things. When I went in motion, they changed their defense. They knew that particular play was a run play. Over the course of 16 weeks you're going to have some tendencies and it was a great job they did watching film on us."

Still, the Steelers had eight more first downs than the Patriots, 47 more net yards, one more sack but four more turnovers, including three interceptions thrown by Kordell Stewart. And then there were Troy Brown's punt return for a touchdown and the 49-yard return of a blocked field goal on special teams that did in the Steelers.

But the Steelers have changed quarterbacks and dramatically improved their special teams. They currently rank second in the league in defending kickoff returns, seventh in kickoff returns, 10th in punting average and haven't allowed a touchdown in punt coverage since Nov. 3, 2002.

Now, if the Steelers can do something about tipping off plays to the smartest team in the NFL, they have a chance today.

"It shouldn't be a problem," Ward said. "We want to pay attention to details and make sure we try to disguise as much as possible, just by splits and how we line up and how we look coming off the ball. I know Plax (Burress) and I, we both work hard at giving the same look on run and pass plays so we don't give anything away."

Two days after the Steelers beat the Dallas Cowboys, Ward went to the practice facility to watch a replay of the playoff loss to the Patriots.

"We could've played better," he said. "I don't know if I gave away that much."

Ward also said he didn't come away from the tape feeling ill about the missed opportunity. "It was disappointing," he said. "We actually won the ball game. We didn't win, but giving up 14 points off special teams, that's tough to overcome on anybody. That's why we have to play our complete full game, offensively, defensively and special teams because all three categories can help you win the ball game.

"Really, when you get there you've got to seize the moment, but this is a totally different make-up. We've added Duce (Staley) and Ben (Roethlisberger), and all the guys that played in that game I think learned a lot from it. Maybe it can help us overcome and propel us to the next level. You can't take anybody for granted and you can't give away tendencies. You've got to really go out and play each play like it's your last play. If we do that, we'll be in good shape."

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