And the quarterback is still learning. The Patriots are teaching him great lessons.
And the Steelers are healthy. They're in much better shape physically than the team they have to beat to win the championship.
That is about all the good news I have today because I don't think the Steelers will ever knock the damn door down, as Bum Phillips lamented more than once in the 1970s when his Houston Oilers could not get over the hump against the Steelers.
No. The Steelers cannot beat the Patriots. Yesterday was their chance. They had Chad Scott on the field. They had someone named Guss Scott, not Rodney Harrison, playing strong safety against them. They were pass-rushing against not one, but two rookies, in their third pro games, on the left side of the New England offensive line. Tedy Bruschi was out. Chad Brown was benched for schematic reasons. Ty Law's long gone. Corey Dillon's slowing down. Kevin Faulk's fumbling.
Yet, in spite of these physical advantages, and the home field, and eight months worth of emotional build-up following the AFC Championship game, the Steelers could not beat the Patriots.
Sure, they beat them last Halloween. But that may have been more a product of the Steelers sneaking up on the Patriots, of a rookie quarterback playing beyond his years, of perhaps ghosts and goblins, of a fluke.
The Steelers may never beat them. Sorry to be such a gloomy Guss. The remnants of Rita here in Pittsburgh aren't helping hometown attitudes on this Monday, but the Steelers just aren't built to beat the Patriots.
It's not about the Antwaan Randle El fumble. It's not about the field goal that was taken off the board because Barrett Brooks has not been cut, yet.
No. The Patriots will call that with a Kevin Faulk fumble on his way to the end zone and raise with a Faulk run to the one that was marked incorrectly at the three and followed by a rookie twitch along the line and a batted pass that was intercepted.
Yes, the Steelers had some bad breaks, but so did the Patriots.
The Patriots are not going to roll unbeaten the rest of the way. They have too many holes on both sides of the ball, but if they were to play the Steelers the rest of the way, they just might go unbeaten. The match-ups just don't work.
The Steelers like to blitz in front of a three-deep zone. Tom Brady picks that zone apart with short drops. It rendered the blitzing of Troy Polamalu useless; perhaps annoying, but in the end – always – useless.
The style of defense the Steelers utilize is a style that preys on another team's mistakes. But Brady doesn't rattle in the face of those blitzes, and neither do his receivers.
And the Pats aren't about to let you get away with beating their weakness. Except for the second snap, when Joey Porter and James Farrior came free on both sides of him, and later a Kimo von Oelhoffen pressure, rookie LT Nick Kaczur was not a problem. Most of the time he received help from one and sometimes two tight ends. By the end, Kaczur was alone on the island and he had survived.
Brady is too cool and so are his receivers. The three-deep zone, in which the corners give big cushions, is designed to take advantage of receiving mistakes, but Deion Branch and David Givens are as cool as Brady. In fact, they wait for YOU to make the mistake, as Ricardo Colclough did in missing the tackle on the short-out-turned-long-gain by Givens.
No, Brady will pick that zone apart all day, and that won't change. It's the reason the Patriots don't have to pay so much attention to their offensive line. It allows them to instead stock their defensive line.
Missing three-fourths of the secondary? No problem. Not with that defensive line. The Patriots used a 4-3 for all but a series, maybe two, and it was not a surprise to the Steelers. They expected it. Yet, they could not block it.
The Patriots' best utilization of that 4-3 is with three of those linemen stacked on the right side of the Steelers' line. Richard Seymour would attack either Kendall Simmons or Jeff Hartings, and in doing that he's attacking the Steelers' weakness. If that weakness held up, Jarvis Green, the underrated end, proved he could beat Marvel Smith on the other side.
The Patriots drafted three defensive linemen in the first round recently, and they helped cover a problematic secondary, not to mention a soft inside linebacker, by being able to both rush and play the run.
Outside, Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest had no trouble turning Willie Parker back inside after three early attempts outside. They may not be able to cover deep, but because of the down lineman, they don't have to, so Vrabel and McGinest allow the Patriots size on the flanks, a six-man front. It showed the Steelers just how much they need a fourth lineman who can give them the 4-3 versatility they want so much in their dime.
The Pats have the edge on special teams as well. Adam Vinatieri is a killer. I wouldn't vote for him, or any kicker, for the Hall of Fame, but this guy would be tempting. The Pats came into the game with lousy return and coverage numbers, but Bethel Johnson was yanked out of the dog house for this game and his speed on kickoffs made a difference. So did Tim Dwight's speed on punts.
The only clear advantage the Steelers have over the Patriots on special teams is at punter because no one can place kicks like Chris Gardocki. And so Bill Cowher used Ben Roethlisberger to make a critical pooch punt after winning a replay review.
Which brings us to coaching.
Bill Belichick attacked Steelers weaknesses. He toyed with the Polamalu blitz game with the threat of a deep game while connecting in the short game. On the other side, Belichick went after the weak middle of the Steelers' offensive line.
Did Cowher attack weaknesses? Not unless you consider waiting for fourth-and-11, late in the fourth quarter, an attack.
Yes, the Steelers should've used more 4-wide sets and taken advantage of Chad and Gussy Scott, not to mention the only remaining corner on the Pats' roster, little rookie Ellis Hobbs. But the Steelers – altogether now – run the ball.
Wouldn't a little change-up, in order to attack a critical weakness, been the right call? Couldn't the Buffalo Bills still run the ball in the K-Gun day? Is it a weakness to pass the ball? And didn't the Patriots once come out in a spread offense?
Sure they did -- to attack Chad Scott! When the opportunity was reversed, though, Cowher did not exploit the same weakness, nor was he able to figure out a way to attack the shaky Kaczur-Logan Mankins combo on the left side of the Pats' line.
None of this will change come January. Perhaps someone else can knock Brady out for the season. Certainly a dismal thought on a dismal day.
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