Steelers-Patriots is good versus evil

Pittsburgh handily disposed of a Cincinnati team supposedly on the rebound. Now the Steelers face their toughest test to date, one that could define Mike Tomlin's rookie season.

In the time it took you to read this sentence, Willie Parker lost two more fumbles. I don't want to be that guy who only focuses on the negatives, particularly when the Pittsburgh Steelers embarrassed the Cincinnati Bengals on national television, so I'll try to keep this short.

After the Jets game, I wrote that Parker seemed to have just as much trouble with the above-the-neck stuff as with keeping his feet underneath him. Since Week 9, when the Ravens did just one thing well all night -- stuff Parker -- Fast Willie has 123 carries for 367 yards (3.0 average), and no touchdowns. And then there were the 12 fumbles on Sunday night. We talk about great sports feats all the time; Jesse Owens dominating the 1936 Olympics, Wilt Chamberlain scoring 100 points, Roger Maris breaking Babe Ruth's home run record. But nothing compares to the ball-handling display Parker put on. I can't remember ever being so exasperated with a Steelers player who hadn't previously suffered a helmetless motorcycle accident.

The only thing more unfathomable than Parker's antics was the fact that Mike Tomlin insisted on feeding him the ball after each turnover. It was like the two were trying to outdo each other, but in the wrong direction. Yes, Najeh Davenport was nursing a "sore foot" and was unavailable (or as I would have listed it on the injury report if I were running things: "Davenport - out for dumping in the wrong basket"), but I feel quite confident in writing that Carey Davis can gain two yards AND not fumble. Or Gary Russell. Or, hell, Tyrone Carter. By turnover No. 3, I was screaming at my television for Carter to stage a coup, send Tomlin into exile, install himself as player-coach, and immediately take over for Parker.

Heading into the biggest game of the season, the Steelers don't have to answer the typical Monday morning questions. Namely: making excuses for the offensive line/special teams. The only real issue is the running game. Relatively speaking, that's a great problem to have.

I don't have many mantras in life, but one of them is this: running backs are fungible. For as much as I love Willie Parker the person, I have no trouble with Tomlin sending him to the bench for his recently underwhelming performances. The NFL season is way too short to be sentimental, especially when you can sign a guy off the street to rush for 100 yards. That's a slight exaggeration, obviously, but there are plenty of examples of players filling in on a short-term basis and having some success. Just this season, the Broncos' Selvin Young and Andre Hall have played well while Travis Henry fights the law, and the Chiefs' Kolby Smith held his own two weeks ago against the Raiders. I'm not suggesting the team should jettison Parker, but they also shouldn't be married to him unconditionally, either.

If the Ravens taught us anything on Monday night -- other than Bart Scott is a raving lunatic -- it's that the Patriots defense isn't very good against the run; and it seemingly got worse as the game wore on. Old people like to get to bed early, which until lately, hadn't been a problem for New England's decrepit linebacker corps. But Willis McGahee had his way with the Pats, and I expect the Steelers to have similar success, with or without Butter Fingers Parker.

Unlike the Ravens, however, the Steelers have a potent offense. Two weeks ago the Eagles, behind shoo-in Hall of Famer A.J. Feeley, showed you could pass on New England's suspect secondary. The trick, though, is that the offensive line has to be flawless in its pass protection, and the quarterback has to get the ball out of his hand as soon as he completes his drop. The Steelers fared well on both counts against the Bengals; the o-line was as consistent as it's been all season, and Ben Roethlisberger didn't spend a lot of time dancing around the pocket. And it 's not like the Eagles and the Ravens are a) playoff teams, or b) particularly adept at protecting the quarterback. Both offensive lines rank in the bottom third of the league in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Sack Rate stat, which also bodes well for the Steelers.

[Random, marginally related tangent: You think the Sunday night crew and Carson Palmer got a room after the game? I've never seen so much gushing over a quarterback's hands. Hands, by the way, that were responsible for a lot of incompletions. I do think Palmer is a great quarterback, but he's not better than Roethlisberger. Part of the reason I think he's so successful is because his offensive line protects him, and he gets rid of the ball in a hurry. He looked discombobulated much of Sunday evening because of the Steelers' pressure, and like most quarterbacks who don't like to be pressured, Palmer made some bad throws.

You know what, though? Pittsburgh's quarterback relishes pressure. In fact, sometimes I think he actively seeks it out. The reason Roethlisberger is more successful than Palmer, in my mind at least, is because he seldom afforded the opportunity to set up in the pocket. We've been lamenting the sorry state of the offensive line all season, but this may be one of those silver-lining scenarios: Big Ben is well-qualified to deal with oncoming pass rushers; Palmer -- and Brady too, by the looks of it -- is not. This is a good thing.]

I'm sure the Patriots will have all kinds of wrinkles to contain Big Ben, but for Bruce Arians -- who, it's worth mentioning, did a splendid job against the Bengals -- the game plan should be pretty simple: Hines Ward. Heath Miller. Repeat. And I'm only slightly exaggerating. Pittsburgh will need to run the ball, not only for some play-calling balance, but because it's good strategy given the Patriots' sorry run defense of late. Let's just hope Parker has a breakthrough with the team shrink between now and Sunday at 4 p.m.

It's funny, because for most of the season, I figured Pittsburgh would have to stop New England's offense, and then worry about scoring points. Now we've seen on three separate occasions that the Patriots' offense is human, even if their leader is a smug little alien. I'm quite sure I'm unoriginal in writing this, but it bears repeating: if the Steelers want to disrupt Brady, they will need to do two things: hit him early, hit him often; knock the crap out of the receivers, both at the line of scrimmage and in the secondary.

On the first front, Dick LeBeau will have to go with the anti-Bengals game plan; no three-man rushes while dropping eight into coverage. Might as well call that the "death by 1,000 cuts" defense because Brady will beat you right down the field, one methodical drive after another. Instead, LeBeau's got to bring the house, or at the very least, empty out the playbook with the most exotic, never-before-seen schemes he can think up. Ravens defensive coordinator did a great job of confusing not only Brady, but also the protection schemes, and even though he was only sacked three times, he got knocked on his keister plenty. As far as I'm concerned, that's just as good.

Second, I don't know the status of the Steelers' walking wounded, but Troy Polamalu or not, Anthony Smith and General Ty-Ty Carter should be in search and destroy mode all day long. Randy Moss does not like to get hit; Dante' Stallworth does not like to get hit. So what does that mean: a lot of hittin'. Wes Welker is the toughest of the bunch, but if the Steelers can jam him at the line of scrimmage, it'll minimize his effectiveness.

I'll sheepishly admit that I was really worried about this game a few weeks ago, after the Jets shamed the Steelers and the Pats were running roughshod over everybody. Today, I feel a lot better, like I just found out I didn't fail my Algebra II final and won't have to go to summer school. But unlike high school, Pittsburgh faces something far more important than an education: fighting the forces of evil. To paraphrase Princess Leia: the Steelers are our only hope. And now, to paraphrase Bill Cowher: LET'S GO.

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