Steelers play hit and run
Last time, Patriots' error was not covering all bases
FOXBOROUGH -- Keith Traylor is a big, big man. Not Ted Washington big, but big enough to stand his ground. So when the Patriots nose tackle tells you the Pittsburgh Steelers are "the most physical team we've played," you don't doubt he knows what he's talking about.
All you need to know about what Traylor and the Patriots' defensive front will be up against in Sunday's AFC Championship game in Pittsburgh is this: The Steelers ran the ball an NFL-high 618 times for an AFC-best 2,464 yards this season, and passed it a league-low 358 times. In a 34-20 win over the Patriots Oct. 31, Pittsburgh rumbled for 221 yards on the ground, with Duce Staley gaining 125 and Jerome Bettis 65.
Perhaps the most frustrating part of playing the Steelers is that if you stop their running attack, they don't stop. They'll take the three-and-out, punt, let their defense get them the ball back, and then they'll start right back up with run after run, wearing you down.
It all starts with the offensive line, the heart and soul of the Pittsburgh offense. Traylor, Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork, and Co. know that when they bang heads with those guys, they really bang heads.
Traylor is ready to stand his ground -- which is essentially what the Patriots believe they must do to beat Pittsburgh this time. Don't try to do too much. Just take care of your own business.
"We had a few guys trying to make Superman plays [last time]," Traylor said. "We don't have Superman on this team. Tedy Bruschi is the closest thing. You've just got to do your job and you'll be all right."
Warren believes the Patriots' problem last time was not so much a matter of getting beaten up as it was players being in the wrong place in the defensive scheme. That is uncharacteristic for this team, but Warren reasons that because the Patriots fell so far behind so quickly -- it was 21-3 before the first quarter was done -- things got out of kilter.
"I think if we execute what Bill [Belichick] wants us to execute and if we do what our own individual responsibilities are, we'll be all right," said Warren. "The last time, they were up by 21 points so the smart thing for them to have done was to run, and that's what they did."
Some of the plays the Steelers run are "similar to some of the power plays the other teams run," said Warren, "but they have their own cast of players, their own unique coach, and they do what they do and they do it very well." That "cast of players," said Warren, includes a "power back like Jerome and a shifty back like Duce Staley."
In the past, the Patriots have bounced back from poor performances in run defense. For example, they allowed 202 rushing yards to Indianapolis in the season opener but the next week held Arizona's Emmitt Smith to 31. After surrendering 221 in the first Steelers game in Week 8, they held St. Louis to 81 the following week. The New England defense finished the season ranked sixth in the league in run defense.
But the Steelers present a one-of-a-kind challenge. They take their lead from offensive line coach Russ Grimm, who in the 1980s was one of the "Hogs" opening holes for the great power-running Redskins team led by John Riggins. Grimm has brought that mentality to Pittsburgh.
The Steelers, who ran the ball 43 times for a 4.5-yard average in last week's divisional playoff against the Jets, will run any time. It's overtime last Saturday, and Pittsburgh is facing third and 4 at the New York 44. Verron Haynes, the third running back, is in the backfield behind quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. A passing down? Nope. Roethlisberger hands off to Haynes, who follows guard Alan Faneca's block up the middle for an 8-yard gain. First down.
"It doesn't have to be third and 1 -- we can run on third and 4," said Faneca. "[The coaches are] going to let us run and see what we can do with it. It's exciting to put it on our shoulders late in the game."
It was a brilliant call by Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, who earlier in the game had shown the Jets a few quick tosses in that situation.
The Steelers were just as relentless against the Patriots in October. Pittsburgh pounded it and pounded it, running 49 times for a 4.5-yard average. After a New England touchdown with 6:27 left in the game, the Steelers ran out the clock with seven Bettis runs and Roethlisberger taking a knee three times.
It wasn't a pleasant way for the Patriots to watch the game end.
"I've had my lunch handed to me before," Bruschi said. "And that was one of those times. It's one I'll always remember."
The Bettis-Staley duo presents a challenge for the Patriots' front seven, particularly inside linebackers Bruschi and Ted Johnson. Bruschi expects Johnson to have the greatest impact in stopping Pittsburgh's inside ground game because "he's our toughest inside run stopper."
But it certainly won't be all Johnson. Bruschi talked yesterday about the synergy that exists among the linebacking corps, a byproduct of having been together for so long. "There's always been attitude among us that we push each other to make plays," Bruschi said. "It started when Willie [McGinest], Chris [Slade], and Teddy and I were together way back. And it's continued year in and year out."
Perhaps most intriguing for the New England defense is that when it looks at the Pittsburgh offense it sees something similar to what it faces every day in practice. "I think we're similar teams with similar mentalities," Bruschi said. "This is smashmouth football, two of the most physical teams in football squaring off on Sunday. There isn't much smoke and mirrors. It's going to come down to, `Hey, are you tougher than me or am I tougher than you?' "