Steelers must shake up their approach

The Indianapolis Colts are heavily favored to run the playoff table this post-season. Standing in their way today is the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Last week, against a Cincinnati Bengals defense that was soft against both the run and pass, the Pittsburgh Steelers opted to run on their first three first-down plays.

At that point, they trailed the Bengals 10-0.

The Steelers then passed on six of the next 13 first-down plays.

At that point, they led the Bengals 21-17.

When the Steelers mix it up, do the unusual, pass on first down, they gash teams. Take last year's semifinals loss to the New England Patriots.

The Steelers surprised no one by running on 21 of 28 first-down plays, and they were ripped, 41-27. In that game, the Steelers passed on only two of their first 10 first-down plays, and the completions went for 19 and 28 yards.

In this year's Monday night loss to the Indianapolis Colts, the Steelers surprised no one by running on their first seven first-down plays and 11 of their first 14. At that point they trailed the Colts by 23-7.

The Colts, on the other hand, are a team that can pass as well as it can run, and their run-pass ratio on first down was an unpredictable 13-9 through the first three quarters against the Steelers.

"They want to make it a thinking game instead of a football game," said Steelers linebacker Joey Porter.

The Steelers might want to consider doing some thinking themselves. The Colts mixed it up that night the same way the San Diego Chargers mixed it up in wrecking the Colts' undefeated season. The Chargers' run-pass ratio on first down was 5-5 to start the game and 13-11 after three quarters in the 26-17 upset.

It's what the Steelers must do today if they are to upset the Colts, who are favored by 10 points in the 1 p.m. NFL quarterfinal playoff game at the RCA Dome.

The Steelers will need an aura of unpredictability today, and it can be had, since the Steelers have been so predictable in the past. They are known as a running team, but as they showed last week the Steelers have the ability to run or pass with equal effectiveness.

Of course, in the Nov. 28 game, the Steelers were daunted by the presence of Colts pass-rushing bookends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. The Steelers went into the game with two hobbled offensive tackles before Marvel Smith eventually had to leave. He was replaced by rookie Trai Essex, so the Steelers weren't interested in third-and-10 pass plays and ran on first down.

Smith, of course, is back and right tackle Max Starks is healthy. The Steelers are also getting better play from right guard Kendall Simmons, who was controlled that night by defensive tackle Corey Simon. The Steelers' line was so bad in that game, it could rightfully be blamed for most of the Colts' 26 points.

The Steelers' offensive line is now healthy and playing its best football of the season, so the Steelers will feel more confident about gambling on first down against the Colts today.

Will the Steelers gamble more on defense?

"Our game plan is kind of simple," Porter said. "We want to run the ball and play aggressive defense."

Perhaps the coordinators asked Porter to reaffirm their predictable past, but, really, in the previous meeting, the Steelers blitzed little. The defense did play well after Ike Taylor allowed Marvin Harrison to catch an 80-yard touchdown pass on the Colts' first play of the game. Troy Polamalu's interception return to set up the Steelers' touchdown came out of a 5-man front that seemed to confound Manning.

Of course, Manning has watched the film many times and will have an answer today. But Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau assuredly will change his approach.

Offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt would be wise to do the same. He has a healthy line, a healthy quarterback and a healthy stable of running backs. None of that was true in the Nov. 28 meeting.

"I didn't even know what shoes to wear out there on the turf," said Ben Roethlisberger. "Now I'm feeling a little better about being out there with the guys."

The Steelers have also experienced the crowd noise that pervades the RCA Dome, and they have history on their side. The Steelers have never lost to the Colts in the playoffs. It's four games and counting.

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