"By the time you get to this time of the year, that's no accident," said Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. "They're very, very powerful. Fortunately, we do play against good offenses on a steady diet, particularly in our division, so that should help us. But there's nothing like No. 1 and that's what these guys are."
The Patriots are the No. 1 team of the decade. They won Super Bowls following the 2001, 2003 and 2004 seasons and have made some big upgrades trying to get a fourth ring. The Patriots acquired deep threat Randy Moss, speedy slot receiver Wes Welker, and Steelers tormentor Adalius Thomas, a versatile front-seven defender.
It's worked, but the Patriots come into today's 4:15 p.m. game against the visiting Steelers on shaky grounds. The Patriots needed a fourth-quarter rally to beat the Philadelphia Eagles two games ago, and last week needed a set of bizarre occurrences to rally past the Baltimore Ravens.
The Patriots had a 4-1 turnover advantage in those games but still struggled against the sub-.500 teams. Why?
Well, the Eagles' secondary hammered the Patriots' wide receivers and used nose tackle Mike Patterson to bull-rush Patriots center Dan Koppen back into quarterback Tom Brady's comfort zone. The Ravens, meanwhile, attacked the below-average Patriots offensive tackles to rattle Brady and upset the timing of his space-age passing attack.
The bigger problem for the Patriots, though, is a defense that allowed 52 points and an 85.1 passer rating to career backup quarterbacks Kyle Boller and A.J. Feeley. Those quarterbacks have a combined rating this season of 56.4.
The Eagles' offense took advantage of a Patriots front intent on keeping Brian Westbrook's running in check by throwing into the open middle. Westbrook and Greg Lewis combined to make 11 catches for 128 yards.
The Ravens took advantage of the middle of the Patriots' front seven. Journeyman center Mike Flynn dominated Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork to open the door for Willis McGahee's 138-yard rushing performance.
So, how will the Steelers attack a Patriots defense that allowed 767 yards to the offenses of Feeley and Boller?
But "Pittsburgh Steelers football" isn't what it used to be. The Steelers can't seem to run the ball anymore. In the last five games – a stretch that saw them play only one winning team – the Steelers averaged 3.3 yards per carry. Tailback Willie Parker averaged 3.0 yards per carry in that span and last week went on a fumbling binge.
An outside threat, Parker ran up the gut for most of those five games. He said it's not because of anything defenses are doing.
"I made a couple bad reads getting to the outside," he said. "They're not taking away the outside because there were a couple times where I could spring it outside but made the wrong cut. We're just not all in tune right now as an offense."
The passing game was in tune last week. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians took the play-action passes out of the game plan and had quarterback Ben Roethlisberger use more no-huddle and shorter drops. The receivers were in tune with the quarterback, too, and the result was no sacks for the first time this season.
"It made it a lot easier because you could set your guy a lot harder and know you don't have to hold onto him for so long," said guard Kendall Simmons. "Then, when you throw in a couple five-step drops in there, it throws them off balance because they think the quick stuff will keep coming. As long as we're doing that, I think we'll be fine, and then let him drop back five, look around, see if someone gets open, and make a play. Other than that, keep hitting them with the quick stuff and slowly move it down the field. That's going to be important this week."
So either the Steelers will come out this afternoon in a four-wide shotgun set or they'll continue to try to kick-start their moribund run game. If the latter's the case, someone has to move the nose guard the way the Ravens did.
"Wilfork is somebody who can make quick penetration and can take up two blockers and let the linebackers make plays," Simmons said. "So that's going to be up to me, Alan (Faneca) and Sean (Mahan) in the middle to take care of him and the two linebackers. "It was amazing what the Ravens did," Simmons added. "It surprised me the way they ran the ball. I hadn't seen it in weeks before that. I guess they were just determined. I watched that entire game and I found myself rooting for the Ravens. Never thought I'd be doing that.
"But this week the pressure's on the Patriots, so we're just going to do what we do and take from some of the weaknesses that the other teams exposed, and then try to bang 'em in the mouth."