Here's Part 2:
A Controlled Offence
The Pittsburgh Steelers run the kind of offence that football puritans love and the Patriots? defence hates. Predicated on short pass patterns and running the football, the Steelers are very careful with how they handle the ball. Ben Roethlisberger has only thrown eleven interceptions all year and the team is not afraid to run the ball thirty or more in a game.
Something the Eagles did with consistency against the Patriots was throwing to the tight end over the middle. The Patriots? opportunistic corners, Asante Samuel and Randall Gay, have nine interceptions between them this season and are therefore best avoided. Adding to this, the Patriots? only legitimate sack threat is Mike Vrabel, so Roethlisberger should at least have time to launch a quick pass. The Steelers are the perfect team to capitalize on the Patriots? outside-heavy defence because they?re at their best when passing quickly and inside. Hines Ward and Heath Miller, the Steelers? two best receivers, are most comfortable when away from the sidelines, especially Miller. At 6?5? and 256 pounds, Miller is a punishing tight end who is tough to stop from making a catch.
Putting Ward and Miller in the middle of the field creates immense problems for the Patriots. The Patriots? inside linebackers, Tedy Bruschi and Junior Seau, are both great players but they average 36 years of age and neither has forced a fumble yet this season; by contrast, neither Ward nor Miller has fumbled. Pittsburgh has proven that it doesn?t need to make the big pass, with neither Ward nor Miller catching a pass of thirty or more yards this season despite them having a combined twelve receiving touchdowns. The Patriots? defence is the best in the league at taking away big plays but they won?t find any against Pittsburgh. The Steelers? favourite passes are the ones that move the chains.
The Steelers? running game is as much of a concern. Willie Parker, despite a mediocre 3.8 yards per carry, already has 1093 rushing yards on the season, more than double that of the Patriots? leading rusher. Najeh Davenport has come into his own as a solid change-of-pace back, rushing for a stellar 5.0 yards per carry, which is better than any Patriots rusher. Ben Roethlisberger has been averaging 5.7 yards per carry on limited attempts; the Patriots will have to watch for him because the couple times he rushes per game, he either punches in a touchdown or makes a scramble for a first down or close to it.
On Monday, the Ravens ran for 166 yards against the Patriots on 37 carries, the kind of performance the Steelers will no doubt be looking to emulate. Like the Steelers, the Ravens also have a 1000-yard rusher in Willis McGahee but no good secondary rusher to mix up the defence. The Steelers? running game has more depth to it, more different looks, and could very well stymie the Patriots? front seven. None of the Patriots? starting defensive linemen average much more than three tackles per game this year, Richard Seymour has been a non-factor due to knee surgery and if the linebacking corps is too eager to stop the run, that?ll open up the field for the play-action pass. The Patriots will have to formulate a better plan against the run than they did on Monday if they want their offence to see the field.
A Focused Defence
The Steelers have prided themselves on having a great defence for a very long time and that hasn?t changed a bit. They?ve allowed 155 points this season, far and away the least of any team, good for less than 13 opposing points per game. While it hasn?t been a great season for the Steelers? defensive line, their linebackers have looked amazing. The unlikely James Harrison and the steady James Farrior are both over 70 tackles on the season and have combined for 14.5 sacks.
What the Steelers have is a wealth of good defensive players. They have eight 40+ tacklers this season to the Patriots? seven despite having two players (the aforementioned Harrison and Farrior) who each have more tackles than any one player on the Patriots? team. Ike Taylor is a big, physical corner who?s among the best tacklers from his position, and there?s no doubt he?ll be entrusted with the duty of covering Randy Moss. DeShea Townsend is a player who?s more in the traditional mould, speedy and feisty, and will be counted on to handle Donte? Stallworth. The Patriots haven?t really faced this kind of physicality and coverage except against two teams, the Eagles and the Ravens, who they struggled to beat.
The Steelers? rushing defence should neutralize the Patriots? backs. The Steelers have allowed 922 rushing yards all year, equalling less than 77 per outing, and have allowed only three rushing touchdowns in their twelve games. The Patriots will have to find a way to establish the run because the Steelers? defence is too good be allowed to know what?s coming next, but there?s no indication that the Patriots will be able to get much done. If they try to run to the outside, Farrior?s waiting to unload on whoever he sees; if they can get past underachieving yet still notable run-stuffer Casey Hampton on the inside, Harrison?s seven forced fumbles are not a stat the Patriots would like to augment. Furthermore, every single player in the Steelers? secondary is capable of coming toward the line of scrimmage and delivering a big hit or even going straight to the quarterback. There?s a very good chance that Laurence Maroney will have a very tough game, and there?s no Davenport to spell him.
To the Patriots? Level
Something that?s been a continual frustration for Steelers fans all season is that when faced with below-par competition, the team doesn?t seem to give its all. Everyone knows that the Steelers can crush teams like the Cardinals, Broncos and Jets but they didn?t. More importantly, teams like the potentially playoff-bound Browns (albeit more so in Week 1) and the division-leading Seahawks have been feeling the Steelers? wrath. This is a highly disciplined team with good coaching that knows winning. Admirers of the Patriots? recent dynasty may well have forgotten that the Steelers have won a Superbowl more recently than the Patriots have.
That one big knock against the Steelers, that they play to the level of their competition, has utterly no bearing on this game. If anything, it helps them. If I?m Mike Tomlin and my team plays like it?s a 12-0 squad, I can?t say I mind too much. The Patriots have a great team but their weaknesses match up with the Steelers? strengths; combined with the Steelers no doubt feeling like they have a lot to prove in this game, that could mean a loss in the Patriots? column.
While no one would actually make such an outrageous prediction as the Patriots losing a game, no team has ever gone undefeated in a sixteen-game season and it?s something that would be tough to change. Every NFL team, even the Dolphins, plays at such a high level that for one team to roll the table is simply too difficult. For the Patriots to even go 15-1, they have to lose a game ? why not this one? Here?s to the Steelers. Let?s see if history can be delayed for another year.