While Cowher attempts to skip into the off-season on the laurels of beating the Cleveland Browns, there are still quite of few of us California dreaming. Is the deck really that stacked against the Pittsburgh Steelers?
There is a roadmap to San Diego and the cartographers are the 1992 Buffalo Bills, who recently celebrated the 10-year anniversary of the greatest comeback in NFL playoff history.
On January 3rd, 1993, backup Buffalo QB Frank Reich led the his team to victory after being down by as much as 32 points. The team was euphoric to say the least, beating the Houston Oilers at home in overtime. But the season was not over. These wild card Bills now had to travel to Pittsburgh to face the AFC Central champion Steelers.
The Bills were banged up after such a big win. Starting QB Jim Kelly was certainly out after straining ligaments in his knee during the game against the Oilers. RB Thurman Thomas was gimpy with a hip injury and starting LB Cornelius Bennett missed the first playoff game with a bad hammy.
Still, Reich looked forward to the challenge, "This team has been in the playoffs and we have had enough playoff experience to know what it takes to win playoff football games. We're going up against a team that has earned the right to have home-field advantage through the playoffs, and they're obviously the best team in the A.F.C. We have to go in there and disprove that."
The Steelers were winners of 8 of their last 11 and 7-1 at home. The bye week allowed the Steelers starting QB Neil O'Donnell to heal. Pittsburgh was loaded for bear.
Instead, the Bills defense pressured O'Donnell all day, forcing him into mistakes. Buffalo won big, 28-3. Certainly, this was a fairly big upset.
But the Bills were not done. Now they had to travel to Miami. The Dolphins were coming off a 31-0 thrashing of the San Diego Chargers. There was Dan Marino, Mark Duper and Mark Clayton. The Buffalo secondary was considered to be too undersized to handle the task.
The Bills decided to go with Jim Kelly, still not 100% back from his knee injury. Kelly was not the story, however. Once again, turnovers were the difference, 5 of them to be exact. The Dolphins lost 29-10 and Buffalo was going to the Super Bowl, again.
Essentially, the Steelers need to find a way to force the Tennessee Titans to turn over the ball. Unfortunately, Jeff Fisher coached teams led by Steve McNair do not usually do so. Yet, when you look at the games when the Titans did struggle, turnovers were the story. When Pittsburgh lost to Tennessee it was simply because the Steelers made all the mistakes.
A Kendrell Bell-led nickel defense may be the prescription. The Steelers need to find a way to keep Bell on the field, even if the Titans decide to spread the field. The Steelers must harass McNair as the Bills harassed O'Donnell.
Yet, McNair is much more mobile and tougher to bring down than O'Donnell ever was. The best the Steelers might really hope for is bending but not breaking. The Titans can move the ball all day in between the 20s, but the Steelers red zone defense must hold up. There isn't likely to be a whole lot of blitzing.
The Steelers could surprise the Titans and come up with some way to run the ball. That is a tall order against Tennessee. Their defense is confident and playing very well. Passing and running will be tough. The Steelers will likely struggle to put up more than 20 points.
There is one facet of the game left to exploit and the Steelers showed some flashes of their ability to pull this off. If there is one way to turn around a game even when you are overmatched to a man it is through special teams. The Steelers perhaps realize this as well as anyone.
Why don't the Steelers put all their eggs in the special teams basket?
At first glance, this might seem sheer lunacy. The Steelers have endured another season of special teams' breakdowns. But the Steelers have also improved and do pose some problems for the Titans, who have given up their share of TD returns.
Tennessee has not scored a touchdown on a punt or kickoff return. While they have yet to give up a TD return on kickoffs, they have surrendered 3 on punts. The Titans have improved their coverage, but they can be beaten. Besides, the Steelers can mask their overall player shortage on special teams as most of those starters are still available.
The difference maker in this game is likely Antwaan Randle El. He showed what he can do against Cleveland. If he can minimize his mistakes (his fumbles), he could terrorize the Titans. The Steelers should be looking to scheme a few ways to break him loose.
The other option is starting more veterans on coverage. Why not put Lee Flowers and Jason Gildon back out there, just like they were on the Steelers last Super Bowl run? Why not use Bell as well? Imagine Brett Keisel, Kendrell Bell, and Lee Flowers screaming down the field to bust the wedge.
Coverage units are really an extension of the defense and often overlooked by fans and certainly by statisticians. Why not activate James Harrison and unleash him down the field? Who do you deactivate to clear a spot for Harrison? Take your pick, but I'd offer up Bettis. I doubt the Bus can swing this game in the Steelers favor.
Cowher has talked about putting every available player out there to win this game. The place he can best do this is on special teams. Bill used to be a special teams coach. He should spend the short week working on a plan with Kevin Spencer.
Either that or Bill can explain to Mr. Rooney why the Steelers didn't make it to the Super Bowl despite all the big contracts.