Craig Wolfley's Notes from Mudville

Pittsburgh Steelers sideline reporter Craig Wolfley checks in with his take on the game at Gillette Stadium against the New England Patriots.

The pulsating vibe that ran through Gillette Stadium during pre-game warm-up was playoff caliber. As I watched the Patriots go through their paces, I'm struck by Tom Brady's attention to detail, the size of Randy Moss, and how average their offensive line looks. Then I just found myself staring at Bill Belichick. Ever since he cut my brother Ron while he was the head coach in Cleveland, I just haven't been able to warm up to the man.

The Steelers came out in that first series with a nice mix of run and pass. The first drive saw a nice 50-50 split between the two. The Patriots played that first drive in a vanilla 3-4 that rally surprised me. Early scouting conversation with the Turk up in the booth had me convinced that we'd see more of a balanced 4-3 attack. No cigar there.

The best part of that drive was the 8:14 it took to complete it. That was half a quarter plus of Brady riding the pine. The worst part of that drive was settling for a field goal. Field goals are not going to get it done tonight.

The inner three (Bruschi, Seau, and Wilfork) showed some run stopping power early on. On the backside of a Willie Parker stretch play run to the right, Ted Bruschi makes a nice stop by stepping up and beating Alan Faneca while Alan is trying to "scoop" block with Mahan on Wilfork. Alan has to square his shoulders more, so he can keep his peepers on the second level guys as well as the hog in the trenches, or he'll never get to Bruschi, which is what happens. Willie loses two yards and Wilfork is in on it.

Awww, here we go. Brady play actions, pumps once and Ike Taylor and Anthony Smith bite on it while Randy Moss goes 63-yards down the middle. The Steelers are in cover three, which puts Smith as a single high safety covering the middle third of the field. I don't know if Smith tried to jump a post or slant route on the other side (hard to tell from field level).

One thing that really stands out about Moss is his smoothness. There's no glitch or hitch when he hits the accelerator button. He's deceptively fast. Cornerbacks are masters at reading body language. But Moss looks like he's just cruising when he's flying. If you get fooled and stop your backpedal too early, he'll kill you, which was just demonstrated.

All week long speculation about the guarantee has been bantered about. Yes, it was a silly thing to do. A young man has to know his place. Personally I believe that the message Anthony got from his coaches was that he had just become target number one on the Brady-Moss hit list after making his guarantee.

The other aspect of the Smith guarantee was essentially calling out the Patriots wide receivers by saying that the Bengals wide outs were better. That's never a good thing to do. I think all of this got into Anthony's head. He's trying to do too much, and it's taking him out of his game.

After going down 14-3, the Steelers embark on another drive. Big Ben has Najeh Davenport lined up in the slot. He runs an out and up, and he's not running full speed until he sees Roethlisberger in trouble. What a job by Najeh on this play. Davenport leaves Ellis Hobbs in the dust and catches a 32-yard touchdown strike and Mudville is hopping. When you play a juggernaut like the Patriots, you have to answer a score with a score.

Willie Parker opened the second half with a nice 19-yard dash that had me believing that if they can keep the score close, and therefore the run game viable, the Steelers have a chance to win this thing.

Then Vince Wilfork does the unthinkable. From his nose position, with a wall right call for the Steelers offensive line on a pass play, this gargantuan nose tackle gets a sack. Wilfork throws a swim move on Mahan, and then spins off a too flat, headfirst, going-for-the-kill shot Alan Faneca. The sack is a drive killer and the Steelers punt.

Whenever the backside guard has a wall going away from him, he has to step flat keeping his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage. The center needs to help out by getting some meat on the punch so the guard can take over. Alan needs to stay flat and squared up to the line of scrimmage so he doesn't allow the nose to cross his face, or in the event the nose goes front side, then look for a second level guy and stay hip-to-hip with Mahan. As Mike Webster always said, "You never leave your wingman."

The next series brings the flea-flicker, and in my mind, the end of the game. You know the story. I talked with Bryant McFadden after the game and he said the set-up all night long was the bubble screen the Patriots used so effectively.

During the whole first half the Steelers were waiting for a fake bubble screen and go route. So the defensive backs keys were to see the ball leave Brady's hand, and then run to the ball. When Moss caught the ball, the defense went after him like the legendary hound went after Sir Henry Baskerville in the Sherlock Holmes novels.

All that being said, Smith was still in position to make the play. Watch the replays closely; if Smith had run at a proper intercept angle, he could have gotten a hand on the ball.

Why do I bother pointing this out? Because if you talk to a safety, they will tell you that one of the hardest things to learn in the secondary is how to run an angle in a wide-open field of play. It can mean the difference between success and failure. And despite failure on this play, this night, and in verbal communication skills while jousting with the media during the week, Anthony Smith is going to be a good player. I guar..uhh, just trust me on this one.

Wolfley's Christmas Special


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