The Steelers won 16 games this season with a resilient defense, one that has stayed healthy all year. The Steelers offense on the other hand, has changed a lot from week one. They featured veteran Tommy Maddox at QB and mid-career ex-Eagle Duce Staley (#22) as running back. The Steelers sought a balanced attack early in the season. Then Maddox was injured, and replaced by rookie Roethlisberger. Then Staley was injured and long-time Steeler Jerome Bettis (#36) rallied from several years of declining numbers to return to dangerous status. As a result, the Steelers have returned to their roots as a running team.

The Pats lost on Halloween after falling far behind with three turnovers in the first quarter. The Steelers then used their running game to run the clock and keep a tie out of reach.

Keys to the game:

Put the Steeler defense on its heels.

This running offense is slow, so the Steelers depend on a fierce defense to prevent the opposition from scoring too often, too early. The Patriots need to overcome that.

The Patriots will likely need a quick-out passing attack, like the one they used in Super Bowl 36 against the Rams. The Steelers blitzing attack is the best in the league and the best way to neutralize it will be for Brady to hand the ball off or pass it after no more than three steps. A fast-moving offense, with occasional use of no-huddle, is the best way to beat the Steelers.

Stop #36 on first down

Against some defensive lines, Bettis can easily get four yards just by pushing the pile. Achieving this on first down opens up the Steelers playbook: they can draw on the clock and rush for short gain, they can use the play-action, draw in the Pats secondary and go deep for a score.

It is essential that the Pats stop first down running plays for a loss or a push. That forces the Steelers to depend on Roethlisberger to read the Patriot's cryptic defensive schemes and go to the air. If the Patriots can conceal their plans and jam/cover Roethlisberger's favorite receiver Hines Ward well, this match up means -6 points for the Steelers.

Finally, Bettis has small hands. He should be forced to fumble at least once tonight.

Score early

I believe the team that scores 17 points first will win the game. Both teams are good at protecting a lead. Although the weather could be a lot worse, and that likely makes a comeback by either team easier.

Corey Dillon is the x-factor

I think Dillon really, really wants to play in the Super Bowl. He's the most motivated person in the game, and he's probably in the best position to allow his desire to translate to points.

Don't bet against the dragon slayers.

The Patriots made a big statement last week. They are a disciplined team and I think they'll burn the fuel from that Colts win today. See also the 2004 Red Sox and the ALCS. I think a similar chemistry is in effect tonight.

Posted January 19, 2005.

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