Steel City Pre-Game

<b>Are you ready for some FOOTBALL!!</b><p> Yeah, I am.<p> When the Pittsburgh Steelers walk off the field at Raymond James Stadium late Monday evening after their battle with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it will be the conclusion of a smack-talk war that hasn't been, well, <I>heard</I> since Shannon Sharpe and Baltimore walked off Heinz Field in defeat last January.<p>

Warren Sapp's talking. Lee Flowers is responding. Warren Sapp responds to the response. Etc. Etc.

Don't let the talk fool you. This game doesn't need the added "Paper Bowl" hype for it to be one of the marquee matches of the year.

When the Monday Night Football gurus planned out the schedule, they were counting on both the Bucs and Steelers to be in the hunt for a playoff berth, divisional supremacy, or even (gasp) conference supremacy. And while the Pirates of the Gulf only qualify for the latter, the Steelers are in the hunt for all three. None of this is surprising, though.

Perhaps some may consider the scheduling of this game a good call by the folks at ABC and Monday Night Football, but really it was a "duh" - probably the safest call they could make. While the ratings are up for this year, Monday night audiences have yet to see the classic game that the phenomena is expected to produce each year.

Those audiences have tuned in to ESPN's Sunday Night Football for some classic games. Patrick, Theisman, and Maguire have had the luxury of some of the best matches of the season. From Houston's debut win to Denver's two gut-wrenching losses by field goal to Indianapolis and Miami. They saw Oakland's revenge of  "The Tuck" and the NY Jets' three-point gutsy win over Miami.

With next week's Monday Night game being an unremarkable match between the poor Rams and Niners, this week marks the last important match on Monday night this season. And since Monday Night Football has not produced a memorable game all year, I'm betting the farm on the football gods having an ESPN Classic highlight reel in the making.

Whatever, there is definitely some football to get ready for this Monday night.

Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

While breaking down Bill Cowher's rather ho-hum press conference this Tuesday, I found some responses interesting. When asked if the Steelers will have a good idea of their place in the NFL elite after this week, Bill Cowher said:

I'm not looking to measure. I think right now you'd better be playing your best football. Barometers are things you take a look at earlier in the season, middle of the season, to try to see where you are.

Yet he later added.

We're playing the best team in football and we'll find out where we stand.

Well, if I didn't know better, that's putting a barometer on the game. But, it was earlier in that same press conference when the most interesting quote came out. Cowher was asked if the game was a must-win since it was highly unlikely that anyone in the organization wanted to make next week's finale against Baltimore anything more than playoff leverage. He responded:

No, I mean the must-wins come when you don't play the following week if you lose. This is a great opportunity for us.

The big part of that is "This is a great opportunity for us." Meaning, the team and coaches realize that they have the opportunity to seal the deal this week on their own terms. Neither Cleveland nor Baltimore has that luxury. It also proves that the team and coaches would rather not play Baltimore next week with the division on the line. While no one will admit publicly that the team is in serious jeopardy of missing the playoffs, a loss this week would turn Heinz Field into a pressure cooker.

So, the Steelers will learn two things this week. They'll learn that either they are Super Bowl material or not. And they'll also learn whether the playoffs start next week against Baltimore or the following week.

Pittsburgh Rank 3rd (Rush 1st, Pass 16th). Finally, the strut is back with this defense. And not coincidentally, Kendrell Bell finally has the explosive power that made him a household name last year. They'll need his playmaking abilities along with a strong game from Chad Scott on Keyshawn. The defense must tackle well and stop Tampa Bay at the point of contact, especially when Michael Pittman comes underneath for dump-off passes.

Tampa Bay Rank 1st (Rush 6th, Pass 1st). The Bucs have the names: Simeon Rice, Warren Sapp, John Lynch, Derrick Brooks. They also have great team speed on the defensive side of the ball. The guys to watch out for will be the cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly. They, with the help of Lynch and Dexter Coleman, have helped this defense pick off opposing quarterbacks for a league leading 27 times.

Advantage: The Bucs give up almost 50 yards less than Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh Rank 5th (Rush 10th, Pass 5th). Hines Ward should be on cloud nine, but my bet is that he will be doubled all day. That means Plaxico Burress might be in store for a big game. Look for the Steelers to play conservative and let their defense keep them in the game. Therefore, new punter Tom Rouen may get a real acid test this week. There won't be much running room until this undersized Tampa defense begins to wear down, but the Steelers have the horses to wear them down. The question is, will the Steelers be patient enough?

Tampa Bay Rank 22nd (Rush 28th, Pass 14th). The running game has been a problem for this team all year. Michael Pittman looked like a Pro Bowl candidate during the pre-season, but he's shown his true Arizona Cardinal colors as a not-everyday back. Mike Alstott is fumble prone and will let go of the ball in key situations. But if it's first and goal at the 5, you aren't stopping him. The wide receiving corps is filled with possession receivers, so don't look for the Bucs to challenge deep unless Chad Scott bites harder than he's ever bit before.

Advantage: The Steelers have the advantage. Now they must line-up agains

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