Thursday, January 20, 2005

Patriots vs. Steelers Preview (1/20/2005)

It’s here again, folks. Yooooouuuuurrrrr New England Patriots play this Sunday for the right to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl; and according to many pundits, the right to just show up and win the Super Bowl, given the lack of talented teams in the NFC. But first things first, what to make of the 16-1, 15-game winning streak, undefeated rookie QB, #1 NFL defense, #1 NFL rushing offense – and yet somehow still the “underdog” – Pittsburgh Steelers.

Well, since last week’s approach to previewing playoff games was so successful, I thought I’d try the same thing with this weekend’s game. As you’ll recall, I considered two things before the Indy game: the September game between the Pats and Colts; and what had changed since then that was likely to have an effect on the game. So now I'll consider the October game between the Pats and Steelers and ponder what might have changed since then that might alter the outcome.

Pittsburgh won the earlier game, 34-20, and it could easily have been 41-20 as the Steelers sat on the ball toward the end rather than score another touchdown. They ran the ball right down the throats of the Patriots defense, churning out 221 yards on 49 carries. And wonder-rookie Ben Roethlisberger completed 75% of his passes, with two touchdowns, no interceptions and a QB rating of 126.4 (better than Peyton Manning’s season-long rating), and perhaps most importantly, he was rarely pressured and never sacked in the game.

It was an ass-whuppin’ of the first order, and the Patriots first double-digit loss in 27 games (since the 31-0 beating they took at Buffalo in 2003). Now if this game was the week after that loss, the Pats would be in real trouble. Fortunately, two-and-a-half months have passed since then, and in fact, almost all the changes since that first game favor the Patriots. The question is, has enough changed to overcome a 14-point loss?

Well, here goes...

(Note: if you don't have time to read all this, feel free to skip forward to "The Bottom Line" below.)

Point #1: The running games are likely to be much more even this time.

In the first game, the rushing yards were Pittsburgh 221 and New England 5. On that day, Duce Staley did most of the damage, with 125 yards on 25 carries, Jerome Bettis contributed 65 yards on 15 carries, and the Steelers seemed to rush at will and then pass for big yardage when the Pats moved more guys up to stop the run. The Patriots played the game without Corey Dillon, and they fell behind by 21 points early and had to abandon the running game (only six carries for the entire game).

Three things have changed in New England's favor in the running game since October. First of all, Jerome Bettis is starting on Sunday, not Duce Staley, and over the years the Patriots have owned Bettis even more than Peyton Manning. Against the Pats, Bettis has rushed for less than 50 yards a game and less than 40 yards a game in the playoffs. Staley has at least averaged a decent 78 yards a game, in limited action against New England.

Secondly, the Patriots averaged 142 yards a game with Corey Dillon playing. And as a team the Patriots have rushed for 55% more yards this season when facing a team for the second time (449 yards in first games, 698 in second games). The addition of Dillon and the fact that this is the second game against Pittsburgh mean the Patriots should see a significant increase in their rushing output Sunday. And with a better rushing attack, you won't see the Pats fall behind 21-3 early on, and that will mean Pittsburgh won't have the luxury of running the ball 49 times to wear down the defense.

And lastly, when the Steelers do run, both Vince Wilfork and Keith Traylor are playing much better now than they were in October. This simply means the Pats should be able to contain the run without committing extra defenders to the line of scrimmage. And if Pittsburgh tries to just run the ball to wear out the defense, the Pats can rotate these two nose tackles and their deep linebacker corps to keep them rested.

Point #2: Ben Roethlisberger has come down to Earth, and Belichick will likely bring him down even further.

Roethlisberger played in 14 regular season games and one playoff game this year. In the first seven games, his QB rating was 105.2, in the last eight (including last weekend's playoff game), it was 84.5. His touchdowns were down from 11 to 7, his interceptions were up from 5 to 8, his yards per game are slightly down, and just generally, he had more trouble winning games. In his first seven games, the Steelers had five double-digit wins, in his last eight games, they had only three. Not a precipitous fall, but significant all the same. Consider also that he had his worst game of the year last week against the Jets, where he looked confused and threw two really bad interceptions.

Also consider that in the October game, the Patriots had only 4 game films of Big Ben to study; now they have 15 game films, including what has worked to slow down or stop him as the year wore on. Belichick and Romeo Crennel will find tendencies and flaws, they'll identify what makes Roethlisberger most comfortable and take it away, and they'll find out what he likes the least and make him do that to beat them. And their record in second games against a quarterback in a season stands at 13-0. This exact scenario is what the Patriots coaching staff is best at, and you can be sure they'll come up with something. If the Patriots get the lead in the second half, it will be very interesting to see how the rookie QB reacts to having *real* pressure on him late in a playoff game when a Super Bowl berth is on the line.

Point #3: The Patriots can game-plan knowing that Ty Law and Tyrone Poole will be out.

One thing that really hurt the Pats in the first game was they made their plans believing that Ty Law would be in the game. When he was injured in the first quarter, the Steelers went right after his replacement and scored a quick touchdown. This forced the Patriots to adjust their game plan and cover up for the rookie cornerback, opening things up for the running attack, and the Steelers ran 49 times and wore down the Patriots defense. The Pats would probably been okay if they'd had Tyrone Poole to cover one side of the field, but he was injured and out of the game entirely.

In this Sunday's game, the Patriots obviously know that Ty Law and Tyrone Poole won't play, and even if there are injuries during the game this Sunday, the drop-off from the current starters to their backups won't be as severe as it was when they switched from Pro-Bowler Ty Law to unproven rookie Randall Gay. Asante Samuel and Randall Gay are now proven NFL commodities (Gay not as good as Samuel), Troy Brown has made amazing strides at nickel back, and should the Patriots need more help there, they now have the option of shifting Eugene Wilson to corner. Because they had to try so many combinations during the season, the Patriots will have more options come Sunday, a luxury they didn't enjoy in the first game.

Quick Points:

A) Once again, the Patriots have the special teams advantage. The Steelers gave up a punt-return touchdown in last week's playoff game with NY, and their coverage teams are in the bottom-half of the league.

B) The Steeler defense isn't as healthy as some would have you believe. Two of their linebackers are hobbling, and their starting nose tackle and corner are both out.

C) The Patriots might be favored, but the pressure is really on Bill Cowher. He's hosted four AFC Championship Games and is 1-3. If he loses this one, winning 20% of the championship games *at home* looks pretty bad. Oh, and the Patriots are 5-0 in AFC Championship games.

D) No rookie quarterback has ever led his team to a Super Bowl. Ever. Hey, records were made to be broken, but that's an awful lot of pressure on Roethlisberger.

The Bottom Line

This game is a heck of a lot closer than the Colts game. The Patriots took a beating in the earlier game, but excepting the next week against Philadelphia, Pittsburgh hasn't played as well since then. Their running star against the Patriots in October (Duce Staley) has been in and out of games with injuries, and his replacement (Jerome Bettis) hasn't historically done well against the Patriots. Their rookie quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger) has more interceptions than touchdowns since playing the Patriots, and the Patriots usually feast on teams that turn the ball over. And the Patriots have more proven cornerbacks to replace Ty Law than they did in October, making it more difficult for Pittsburgh to attack down the field, thus meaning the Patriots can commit to stopping the Steeler run in ways they couldn't before.

Add to that the pressure on Bill Cowher (currently 1-3 in home AFC Championship games) and Ben Roethlisberger (no rookie QB has ever taken his team to the Super Bowl) and the fact that the Patriots are 5-0 in their history in AFC Championship games and under Belichick they've played their most impressive playoff games in this round, and it looks like a lot is going the Patriots way. Will it be enough to overcome the 14-point margin of the first game? I think so. After all, if the Patriots simply hadn't turned the ball over, the Steelers probably would have scored 14 fewer points right off the bat, and with all the other factors that have changed in the Patriots favor since then, it looks like the Pats will indeed win. This is one of those games I wouldn't bet on no matter what -- too much uncertainty -- and I won't predict a blowout. But I can see a seven- or ten-point win.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "If Peyton Manning couldn't figure out the Patriots defense, how can Ben Roethlisberger? Sure, the Steelers will run a lot, but the Patriots offense is good enough to score about half the time on the Steeler defense. So if the Pats can get a lead and the Steelers can't score by running, then it will be up to Big Ben, with a Super Bowl berth on the line. I like the Patriots chances."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 1-0!

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