Matthew Gordon. 4th December, 2007 - 5:55 pm
This Sunday?s game features what might be the two best teams in the AFC, or even in the entire NFL. The 12-0 Patriots have shown so far that they are among the most formidable teams in recent memory, accumulating what feels like a guaranteed victory every week. The Steelers, at 9-3, have lost three winnable games this season that they really should have won, yet they remain number three in the conference and a feared opponent to anyone they face.
To be fair, there are a lot of things in the Patriots? favor. The Steelers are only 2-3 on the road, an abysmal record compared to their overall performance. The Patriots don?t have any crippling injuries, their worst being to Roosevelt Colvin, and they?re obviously riding one of the biggest momentums the league has ever seen. Despite these factors, there are a few areas that could produce a shift in fortunes.
A quick survey of the Patriots? twelve wins so far reveals the following: four have been against divisional opponents (who are a combined 9-27 this year, for a putrid winning percentage of .250), and another four have been against non-division opponents with losing records. That leaves only four games during which the Patriots can be said to have really put together a performance that would make a contending team interested, including a narrow escape against the Colts. The Colts', Eagles' and Ravens' games were won by a combined ten points and could have easily been losses. An important note to make here is that all three of those teams have good coaching and came into those games with a game plan that they executed very well.
The Steelers haven?t been at all more impressive, but the games they?ve played take a different path. When the Steelers have lost, it seems completely random, a result of the team just not bothering to put together a good enough performance. Games like the Niners' blowout and the two games against Cincinnati demonstrate the Steelers are clearly capable of putting away non-playoff teams almost as well as if not just as well as the Patriots. The Dolphins' game, a tough-fought 3-0 win, was a product of lousy weather and an underrate Dolphins' defence. What?s more important, the Steelers have not lost to a +.500 team this season. (They?re only 3-0, but this can be attributed to their schedule ? besides, the Patriots are only 4-0, as mentioned. Neither team has been pitching playoff battles every week.)
Since neither team has had the chance to bowl over legions of playoff teams, the previous twelve games have shown us little in terms of quality of opponents, except that the Patriots win games and the Steelers win games when they come out to play. The teams? records, and the Patriots winning 12-9 in the wins department so far, can only explain so much, with both records being very good, and the Steelers? losses not coming in any sort of systematic fashion. The Patriots won against the Colts but needed a 14-point fourth-quarter surge to do it, something that probably won?t be so available against the Steelers? defence. The Eagles' win can be blamed more on A.J. Feeley?s horrendous decision-making in the closing minutes than anything else. The Cardinals, Broncos and Jets are all significantly different teams that exposed little more than the Steelers? tendency to play to the level of their competition. There are three aspects about this Steelers team that could make them very difficult for the Patriots to stop.
A Controlled Offense
The Pittsburgh Steelers run the kind of offense that football puritans love, and the Patriots? defense 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 defense 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? defense 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 defense. 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 will 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 offense to see the field.
A Focused Defense
The Steelers have prided themselves on having a great defense 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 defense 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? defense is too good be given the knowledge 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 much 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 high levels 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.