Here is a worthwhile note to all evaluating this game: You do not reach the conference championship without being a very talented team. This is the #1 seed playing at home against the #2 seed. There have been landslide victories in both directions and it is undoubtedly a battle for at least 60 minutes. Before the season began, New England was counted out while Pittsburgh was the ugly stepsister of Tennessee and Baltimore. The experts were wrong on both counts and now seem poised for a trifecta!
There is little doubt the Steelers are a very talented team. What is in doubt is whether their talent suggests domination over the New England Patriots.
The team's head to head record favors Pittsburgh 11-4 while the playoff record is tied at 1-1 with the home team winning each battle. In the last such match, it was a 7-6 victory in a defensive battle. For streaks the Steelers have been victors in 6 of the last 7 battles. This is, however, the playoffs. Veterans of quality line both rosters and both teams know the past is irrelevant, only the present will matter.
The Steelers aren't such a difficult read. They are the top rushing attack and the top rushing defense in the NFL in terms of total yards! It is this lofty statistic which most intimidates the experts into their Steeler selection frenzy. They have likewise maintained solid pass defense allowing 183.9 yards which is 4th best in the NFL. They control the clock, control the ball and boast the 3rd fewest points allowed in the League. While some of this is due to shoddy offenses within their division, the Steelers have an excellent and stingy defense to compliment their power offense. Defensively the Steelers play a 3-4 base defense. The strength of their defense resides firmly in their exceptional linebacking corps. Defensive Rookie of the Year Kendrell Bell was a teammate of Richard Seymour. He has bolstered the speed of the ILB position along with Earl Holmes who may miss the game with a knee injury but will be well replaced by Mike Jones or John Fiala. Strong depth at Inside Linebacker is a significant part of their success with the 3-4 scheme. Jason Gilden and Joey Porter are exceptional at their outside positions. They use this talented group to provide well disguised pressure on opposing Quarterbacks. Defensive Coordinator Lewis uses 20 blitz packages in his weekly game plan, the results are shocking. Gilden, Porter and Bell have 30 sacks between the trio! The Steeler defensive line does not contain the big names of their linebackers but contains the near 300 pound per man mass which is needed to hold the middle of the line of scrimmage and allow the linebackers to make plays. This is the primary reason opponents convert only 34% of their third down opportunities. Of their first downs allowed, only 70 have been on the ground while forcing 160 to come via the pass. Their secondary is the more maligned because it isn't as dominant as their run defense. Chad Scott and Dewayne Washington man the corner position with good size and decent speed. Lee Flowers is the punishing and outspoken strong safety while Brent Alexander is a speedy free safety. The safeties are solid and their vastly zone schemes are effective for their capabilities. Left in single coverage the corners may be at a disadvantage against fleet and agile receivers. Given linebacker support in their zones they have earned their #4 rating.
Offensively the Steelers expect to release a well rested Jerome Bettis on the Patriots. He is a power runner with surprising speed. Running laterally the Patriots have had a good record against Jerome but his strength is attacking straight up the field and running over and through tacklers. His line are all reasonably athletic 300 pound drive blockers to complement Jerome's 5'11" 260 pound assault. It is small wonder he averages nearly 5.0 yards per carry. When he needs a break, Amos Zereous brings in a more shifty speed back who averages over 5.2 yards per carry. It is a dangerous tandem indeed and to make matters more perilous for the opposition, Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala is a Bettis clone in back-up duty. They challenge you to stop the run and on the off chance you manage, they have a pair of 1,000 yard receivers in Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward. At 6'5", Plaxico is a giant of a receiver who happily leaps for jump balls over shorter opposition. Hines Ward prides himself at being the (contested) best blocking receiver in the game. The duo are dangerous, made more so by the best year ever for Pro-Bowl Quarterback Kordell Stewart. Steward has made excellent decisions and used his speed and athleticism to also grab more than 500 yards of rushing offense. In short Pittsburgh can beat you with their power rushing, their shifty speed rushing, their talented duo of receivers and strong armed Quarterback or as a last resort, upon the scrambling of the Quarterback. It is small wonder they have such a balanced first down attack which showcases 148 on the ground and 150 in the air.
Some might find Special Teams to be the chink in the armor of the best record in the AFC. Kris Brown would not be on the team if they could make the decision today. He has performed abysmally. His accuracy from 40-49 yards was just 6 of 15. He missed 5 other kicks from 30-39 yards. The Steelers simply cannot rely upon him at any range. Their punting has been adequate but not spectacular. Hank Poteat is not spectacular at punt or kick returning but Troy Edwards is a bit moreso. Their coverage teams are not without flaws and opponents have a better average at both than the Steelers. They do not, dispute Lewis' exception last week, typically surrender scores on special teams.
Our Match-up Strength
While most folks list only the Special Teams edge, I think the underdog will play a big factor in this match. Pittsburgh took a practice day off to prepare for their Superbowl. All the hype has them already at the Big Easy and will make it a tougher challenge for them not to take it easy this game. Add the long layoff for the Bus, the confidence of beating their hated rival in the previous game and New England's stance rises a notch. The Patriots are quite humble in the manner of their victory and are well aware the world, less a few resolute fans, are non-believers. Nothing inspires a proud athlete more than the doubt of the world.
Special Teams is an enormous edge. Adamatic Vinatieri makes winning kicks without room for doubt from the critics. Kris Brown has inspired only visions of misses. When two very capable teams battle it is more commonly a close game and in close games the better Field Goal unit and position will win more games than they lose.
Passing offense - the strength of New England's offensive attack is the quick passes to speedy and sharp cutting receivers. Troy Brown specializes in finding the seams of a zone and exploiting the opportunity. Meanwhile David Patten has the speed to make them pay if they double Troy. The emergence of Wiggins last game will also force some linebacker respect.
Run Defense. The strength of the Steelers is a strength of New England. Since the arrival of Richard Seymour in week 4, the New England Patriot run defense has as a general rule been exceptional. Certainly they will be challenged by Pittsburgh attack but it is an edge to have a strength which is little realized. Carolina aside, the Patriots have not allowed a 100 yard rusher for months!
Our Match-up Weakness
The concept of running against Pittsburgh is daunting. Their #1 rating is well deserved as the trio of wide bodies: Kimo VonOelhoffen, Casey Hampton (or Kendrick Clancy) and Aaron Smith load up the middle very well allowing the speed and power of their linebackers to flow to the ball and make plays. Antowain Smith is a power assault but has struggled against top run defenses.
Blitzburgh's sack potential is top in the league and New England's offensive line has not handled blitzing linebacker as well as they would like. Worse still, Tom Brady has fumbled an inordinate amount of times this season. This could be the biggest point of concern for New England and is a serious edge for the Steelers Defense.
Kordell scrambling is also going to be difficult for New England. While they've had success in the past with a spy, his composure in the passing game makes the use of a spy far more difficult. Key first down conversions may be had by Kordell's talented improvisations.
Crowd Noise is always an edge for the home team and never more than when playoff fever grips a region. New England will have trouble using an audible when Brady senses a blitz. Confusion results in mistakes and the crowd in Pittsburgh will undoubtedly be ready to provide a loud game.
Famous Amos is the precise style of back which most troubles New England. When they are geared up to handle a power game, Amos Zereoue will provide a dangerous different style. One to which the Patriots have shown a vulnerability in the recent past.
Both sides know the Pittsburgh game plan. Feed their powerful running attack down New England's throat. Force the linebackers or safeties to commit to help and then punish them with big play passing assaults. When your trio of backs are of the quality Pittsburgh brings, you will force respect for the run until the opponent adjusts and then you take advantage of the middle with your excellent possession receiver Plaxico Burress.
Defensively the Steelers want to punish New England's short passing game. They will be ready to unload on Brady early and hope to rattle him as they did Elvis Grbac. Brady doesn't rattle easy but pressure and pain can disrupt any game. The outside backers will be cheating towards the Wide Receiver screens. Trying to make New England pay for teir most common attack. It exposes them a bit to the run but they trust their inside backers to clean up the middle and their outside backers to have the needed closing speed.
New England has used the quick passes as their running game and know Pittsburgh's vaunted run defense may have them over confident. Rutledge or Wiggins in motion can be very effective at picking off an inside linebacker for a run up the middle. New England's middle run is the least respected form and is precisely where a surprise strike might work best. This until the outside backers pull closer to the line of scrimmage at which point the screens which New England has used very effectively can become their running game in compliment to Smith up the middle. The strategy was used against Miami to knock off Zach Thomas. It worked because of the absence of Gardener but Pittsburgh has an absent DT as a result of their scheme. Pittsburgh can most likely stop it with attention but it's attention which will open up the more common New England gameplan.
Defensivley the Patriots need to get the most out of their middle/inside linebackers. The same group who stuffed Oakland on key short yardage situations must play larger still to halt the Steeler rushing attack without calling in safety reinforcement. Vrabel and Phifer must cheat a bit on the little used Tight End to attack the run more forcibly. Meanwhile New England must deliver on their promise of physical play on the receivers. They must confound Stewart into mistakes which isn't easy this season. Their zone schemes are as complex as any but harder to employ against a tough running team like Pittsburgh. When 3rd and long arives, this is their time to confuse him with schemes. This requires shutting down the early down gains.
The Game is still ultimately a physical battle. The team who gets more toughness and controls the line of scrimmage most frequently wins. New England got past their bye week(S!) by the end of the Raiders game. The style with which they closed out the Raider game is the intensity and style they need to beat Pittsburgh. There is nothing like a lead to silence a crowd as well as force Pittsburgh out of it's desire to dominate on the ground. New England trickery nets an early score which Adam extends. Pittsburgh playing catch up has a mixed bag of success. Lots of short gains to punished receivers maintains the top red-zone defense. The mistakes for Stewart equal the gains and New England hangs on to shock the football world with a 23-14 victory! Jambalaya!!
- Randy "Zip" Pierce, 2001 Patriots Fan of the Year, Nashua NH http://www.patriotzip.com/