Their plan of attack was right on the nose
PITTSBURGH -- Vince Wilfork watched his counterparts with the New York Jets being turned and twisted and pushed around by the Pittsburgh Steelers a week ago, and he understood what had to be done. Though only a rookie, Wilfork knew many things had to go right for the Patriots to beat the Steelers on their home field, and one of those things began with him and fellow nose man Keith Traylor.
"I knew at the nose position we had to be stout," Wilfork said Sunday night after he and his teammates had proven to be more stout than a keg of Guinness against the rushes of Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley. So stout that the Steelers failed to gain an inch on a fourth-and-1 situation in the first quarter that set the tone for the game and stouter still early in the third quarter when a first-and-goal at the 4 ended with only a field goal.
The Steelers had run on, and often over, everyone they faced this season. They had the second-best rushing offense in football and always did it the hard way. They ran between the tackles. Ran where the big bodies were. Ran jut-jawed, like their coach, into the teeth of defenses, confident that their big and nimble offensive line would punch holes in the fronts it faced.
That was their aim in Sunday's AFC Championship game, but this time they failed miserably at it. Do not be fooled by the 163 yards the Steelers rushed for on 37 carries, because 45 of those came from scrambling quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Bettis was held under 100 yards (64) for the first time in two months, Staley averaged only 2.6 yards a carry, and the feared Steeler running game averaged only 3.3 yards a carry in the first half, when the Patriots were climbing all over them on the way to a 24-3 lead.
The first of three plays that established who would be the Alpha males in this game came on fourth and 1 at the Patriot 39 with 7:07 to play in the first quarter. The Steelers opted to go for it and were stuffed, with the New England defensive line jamming the gaps and linebackers Mike Vrabel and Rosevelt Colvin swarming Bettis like angry bees. In the end, Bettis also would fumble the ball.
"They wanted to intimidate us but they can't intimidate us," said Patriots safety Rodney Harrison. "That was an obvious sign of disrespect. Obviously you're saying you're better than us on fourth down and 1, but our guys up front did a great job of buckling down and being able to hit Jerome Bettis in the mouth."
That play, inside linebacker Ted Johnson felt, was instrumental in creating a mind-set for both teams.
"They're a tough, physical football team," Johnson said. "If you don't stand up to them, you're going to get pushed around and bullied around. That fourth-down play was a huge play for our own psyche and our own state of mind. I felt like we sent a message when we stopped that play."
Wilfork sent a message early to one of the Steelers' best blockers, center Jeff Hartings. Hartings is known for power blocking in the middle. Pittsburgh likes to combination block, often double-teaming the nose man to try to turn him. Then Hartings takes over and the guard slips off the block to get the inside linebacker before he can get into the hole.
Wilfork knew the only way that could be avoided was for him to hold his ground and to neutralize Hartings and those blocks. He came up with a way.
"I saw he was vulnerable to power," the 360-pound rookie explained. "I thought, `Just let me go and get to his chest and see what happens.' So I got into his chest."
He also often got into the Pittsburgh backfield, penetrating along with defensive end Ty Warren deep enough that the linebackers were usually free to run to the hole without being challenged and meet Bettis or Staley head-on before they could get up a head of steam. This was especially true in the first half, when the Steelers ran 23 times to New England's 10 but Staley gained only 26 yards and Bettis but 16.
Wilfork wasn't the only reason, but he consistently won the battle with the more experienced Hartings.
"Vince's play has been consistent since the third week of preseason," said inside linebacker Tedy Bruschi. "The highlight of our defensive effort against Pittsburgh was our D-line. I think the best way to know you've got a good nose tackle is that you don't notice him. The center is occupied. As an inside backer, you don't find yourself looking up and saying, `What's going on with the center?' "
What went on with Hartings was mostly that he struggled to get a stalemate and often found himself being pushed backward into his own running backs. Eventually he spoke to Wilfork about this.
"He finally said to me, `If you're going to bull [rush] me every time, our running backs will cut [block] you,' " said Wilfork, a grin crossing his face. "I said, `Let him cut me then.' When it's time to stop talking and play football, when it's all said and done, the Patriots hold their ground.
"A lot of people said how physical they were. Don't get me wrong, they've got a great offensive line and two great backs. But then again, you've got the New England Patriots. We don't bow down to anyone. What they did to the Jets the week before was exactly what they did to us in the regular season. We didn't want to allow that to happen again."
In October, the Steelers had surprised New England with some of the blocking schemes they used on their runs. Bruschi said he and his teammates studied the film of that game as well as the win over the Jets and "we really learned from it."
Wilfork learned that it was imperative he hold his ground, protect his gaps, and not be turned sideways. Warren and Jarvis Green realized the same and all three held up, thus allowing Bruschi and Johnson to make eight tackles each while Vrabel had six.
"Our D-line dominated," Johnson said. "A lot of times the linebackers were cut off, but our D-line won so many one-on-one battles. To not have your horse [Richard Seymour] in there was worrisome but Jarvis and Wilfork and Ty Warren made so many great physical plays I couldn't make any tackles. I was getting JOPs [jump on the piles].
"We had to eliminate runs up the middle. They did that all year, but our D-line took that out of their game. The seams weren't there for their runners."
Although Wilfork was credited with only one tackle, he was chief among the people responsible for taking away those seams. Warren had eight tackles and Green six, and both played extremely well. But no one was more important in stopping the Steelers than Wilfork because he gave up his body to control the middle of the line.
"We knew it was going to be a fistfight," Wilfork said. "We knew we had to go in there and throw blows and they would throw blows back. The last one standing was going to win. That was us."
Among those standing at the end was Vince Wilfork. Among those on the ground was Jeff Hartings. Right next to him lay the broken dreams of the Pittsburgh Steelers.