The New England Patriots aren't talking, but don't think for a minute that they aren't fully aware of those that are. Steelers wideout Hines Ward threw down the gauntlet recently stating that he "and (Patriots cornerback) Ty Law have some unfinished business" to tend to. Following Ward's lead, running mate Plaxico Burress then picked up said gauntlet and slapped Law and fellow corner Otis Smith squarely in the face.
"I don't think nobody shut me down; they are just two average corners."
The word in Beantown is that, similar to last season, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has gagged his team, insisting instead that they do their talking on the field. This is all about perception. Let the other team provide the bulletin board material; let the other team appear cocky; let the other team have to back it up.
Steelers head coach Bill Cowher would like nothing more than to see them do just that. Cowher is a proud man, often to the point being incredibly pig-headed. For the last seven months, he's had to gnaw on the public belief that he was out-coached by Belichick and his staff. Did he take the Patriots too lightly? Did he fail to prepare himself for the AFCC game? Despite his stating the contrary, its hard to believe that he didn't. Neither he nor offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey had any answers for the Patriots defensive approach. Instead they watched, mouth agape, as the vaunted Steelers offensive line was bullied about, and his record-setting receiving duo was punched repeatedly in the mouth.
Out came the AFCC game film yesterday -- the first time many of the Steelers players have seen it, but likely Cowher's hundredth -- and for many, it was almost sickening. Special teams gaffes aside, the Steelers offense made its share of mistakes early, which, in lieu of the defensive playcalling, may have changed things quite a bit. Hopefully, Monday night does not see a repeat performance.
The Patriots are surely no juggernaut -- not then, and not now. They are a talented team that plays with discipline, and believes both in its coach and each other. But they are certainly beatable. They do, however, have a deep and physical secondary, something Steelers defensive coordinator Tim Lewis must envy. Perhaps that is where the Steelers must walk the walk more than any.
Cowher has proclaimed that he would not force-feed the running game as he has in the past. He has receiving weapons in Ward, Burress, rookies Antwaan Randle El and Lee Mays, and veteran slot guy Terance Mathis, like he's never had before. Likewise, quarterback Kordell Stewart has developed into a confident passer, and is very comfortable in Mularkey's offense. So, Field Goal Bill will go to the air. Or, so he says.
Burress is on the verge of a breakout season and what better way to start it off than against one of the better secondaries in the league. Despite his 1,000 yards receiving in 2001, Plex was far from polished. His routes were poor, his body control poorer still and catching the ball with his hands was almost a rarity. He's improved all of them, and he's playing with the confidence you'd expect from a 6-6, 226 lb first-round receiver with 4.5 speed. And he doesn't care who you are, even if you're Redskins star CB Champ Bailey.
"[Bailey], he's talking about how good he is, how he's the next Deion [Sanders], No. 21 and so on and so forth. They have a lot of speed on defense, but they're not really that sound. They were running off at the mouth."
That bodes well for the Steelers. As does the presence of rookie phenom Randle El. There isn't a single defensive back on the Patriots roster that matches up with ARE in the slot -- and that includes Ty Law. So, again it will come down to schemes, and coverages, and gameplanning. Belichick has had all summer to ponder the opener, as has Mularkey, the Steelers resident offensive genius.
Whose bag of tricks will prove deeper?
That's exactly what we'll be discussing a week from today.