It comes down to stopping the run
Boston Globe football writer Nick Cafardo answers your questions about the Patriots every Thursday. Click here to submit a question for next week ...
Nick, which matchup do you think will be most critical on Sunday in Pittsburgh, Corey Dillon vs. the Steelers defense, Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley vs. the Patriots defense, Tom Brady vs. the Steelers defense, Ben Roethlisberger vs. the Pats defense or Bill Belichick vs. Bill Cowher?
A: Well, I think Bettis-Staley vs. the Patriots defense. I mean, that's what it comes down to. The Steelers are a one-dimensional team. They don't try to be anything else but a running team. They can lull you to sleep and occasionally take a shot down the field to Plaxico Burress as they did vs. the Patriots in the first meeting. They won't be frustrated too much in their quest unless the Patriots get off to a big lead. If the runners can be stopped, which means the Patriots are likely winning the battle at the line of scrimmage, then you make Big Ben beat you. I'm not saying he can't. He's won 15 straight, but it takes them out of what they like to do.
I grew up back east and love the Patriots. After seeing what they did to the Colts, do you still feel Pittsburgh will beat the Pats?
Mark, Lodi, Calif.
A: I'm not very good at predicting the outcome of games, but my mantra has been that I will pick the Patriots until they prove me wrong. I didn't feel well picking the Patriots last week after watching first-hand what Peyton Manning did to Denver, but they certainly proved me wrong. I'm picking the Patriots again, but I'm not going to sound too convincing. The Patriots have a lot going for them, including playing the Steelers the second time around and being able to learn from their mistakes in that Oct. 31 game. What I've heard from the players this week is that they're mighty embarrassed about how the Steelers outmuscled them in that game. That's one of the motivating factors that drives them, and when they put their minds and bodies toward the goal of not letting it happen again, they usually prevail. If Brady doesn't turn it over, it becomes a real slugfest. Then it comes down to which team can stop the running game. The way Corey Dillon has been carrying the ball, I can't envision stopping him cold, but neither can I foresee the Patriots shutting down the Steelers ground game. I do believe Brady is more capable of making a big play with his arm than Big Ben, and that's what it might come down to.
I'd like your opinion on things I think will be important in the upcoming AFC Championship game. In the past, it appeared the best way to slow down Jerome Bettis was to tackle him around the ankles and wait for help, yet nobody seems to be doing this. Why? Also, Ben Roethlisberger apparently has the ability to throw some serious fakes when he runs. Do you think the Pats will treat him more like Donovan McNabb this time around, keep him in the pocket, and if he does run, focus on where his hips go, not his fakes? He seems to turn 3-yard runs into 20-yard runs this way. Last, is the short pass working its way back into the offense to help keep the heat off Brady this week? Thanks!
Ed, Fresno, Calif.
A: I couldn't agree with you more about Bettis. Tim Fox pointed this out on a Sportsplus show I did this week with Ron Borges. You have to tackle him low. You see too many guys try to tackle him around his body and it doesn't work. That is one of the fundamental things I think the Patriots will do well in this game. I'm sure Romeo Crennel has noticed the same thing. Bettis is an older back. He's a powerful runner who can carry you on his back if you don't use proper technique. I think defenses get lazy or tired because of the pounding they're taking and their fundamentals get shabby. Roethlisberger does move well for a big guy. He's just one of many tough guys on the team. I think he surprises people with his movements as a runner. You don't expect him to make a move on a linebacker, but he can and he does. I don't see him as a Donovan McNabb type runner, but I haven't noticed him that closely as a runner. As for the short pass, it will be back if the Steelers stop Corey Dillon, otherwise I would expect their offense to remain the same.
What is the injury status of Richard Seymour for Sunday's game?
A: As of Thursday he remained questionable and a game-time decision. From what I'm hearing he's doing a little bit more every day at practice.
Last weekend CBS kept showing Roethlisberger during pregame warmups grabbing his hand, and they hinted that he could be injured. After his performance against the Jets, do you think there's anything to that? Is Roethlisberger injured?
Ryan, Portland, Maine
A: I'm not sure anyone's going to tell, but if you saw some of his throws it sure looked like he was favoring it.
I did not see Ty Law on the sideline during the Indy game. I would have thought that, as one of the team captains, he would have been there to support his teammates. Does this surprise you? It is a foregone conclusion that we have seen the last of him in a Patriot uniform?
Roland, New Bedford
A: He had surgery. He's now recovering and he'll be at the game in Pittsburgh on Sunday. Law is the ultimate team player. His teammates will tell you that. If he could have been there, he would have.
I have put the "to be released or traded soon" curse on Ty Law by wearing a No. 24 jersey this year -- my prior purchases have been jersey No. 11 (Drew) and No. 87 (Coates). In light of how solidly Asante Samuel, Randall Gay, and Earthwind Moreland have played in the secondary, what are the chances the Pats keep Law and his huge cap number in '05?
AJ, Bronx, NY
A: Good hearing from you AJ. Do me a favor, don't wear No. 12. I was talking to Ty on the phone yesterday from Pittsburgh, where he's rehabbing from ligament surgery on his left foot. He honestly doesn't know how it's going to turn out. The way the Patriots operate, they'll make another attempt to rework his deal so the cap number of more than $12 million is more manageable, but even though he's missed so much of the season, I don't sense he's willing to take a paycut. As he told me, he broke his foot, not his ability. I think he really wants to stay here and finish his career as a Patriot, but he also understands there'll be a demand for him just as there was for Lawyer Milloy. I just did a talk show in Kansas City the other day, and they're talking up Law as a guy who could solve their defensive woes. There will be no shortage of suitors if the Patriots should release him. As well as Samuel and Gay have performed, Law is a special player, one of the few shutdown corners left in the NFL.
I enjoy the mailbag. It's a good information source since I live on the West Coast. Anyway ... I saw on Sportplus last week that you said that you didn't think the Patriots could beat Manning and the supposedly high-scoring Colts. You also said that Pittsburgh is the best team and will win it all. In fact, when you said that Tim Fox rolled his eyes in disbelief over the lack of faith in the hometown team. ... My question is how do you feel about the Patriots facing the Steelers in Pittsburgh now? Will Corey Dillon be a difference maker? And, do you have a renwed faith in the hometown team? That was a mighty impressive win Sunday night!
Cash, Los Angeles
A: Cash, I love your name. It beats Credit. Maybe you've heard that before. Well, I did expect Manning to do his thing, but in the end I did pick the Patriots. Tim always rolls his eyes at me. He used to roll his eyes back when he played and I'd ask him a question. He was actually the best interview of some of the old Patriots, which were a blast to cover. Great personalities and they didn't have watch every word they said. To get back on the subject, I don't understand how anyone could think this would be a slam-dunk for the Patriots. It might be, but going by the pregame facts of both teams, the Steelers are the best team in the league this year. Even the Patriots will tell you that. I really respect that Steelers team. I like Bill Cowher as a coach. He's been so consistent for so long. I don't think the home-field advantage will be huge in Pittsburgh's favor, but an advantage nonetheless, and now they have the underdog status to rally around since the Patriots are favored. The Patriots certainly know how to win games of this magnitude and the Steelers don't. I suppose the Steelers' streak of 15 straight has to end sometime. No doubt, I believe the Patriots and only the Patriots stand between them and a Super Bowl championship.
After a week of the media fawning over Peyton Manning I think we can now say that Brady is the best QB in the league. Brady consistently comes up big in the biggest games and Manning does not. Manning is an excellent QB, but he really has done most of his damage on poor D's. He has not only been unable to beat the Pats, but not been able to beat any good teams in the playoffs (his only 3 playoffs wins have come against KC and Denver -- poor defensive teams). Plus Brady being 6-0 vs. Manning cannot be overlooked. Although it's not all Manning's fault you would think he could carry his team to at least a couple of wins there. Do you agree we can now rate Brady as the No. 1 QB in the NFL?
A: Rich, you can rank Brady anywhere you want. Free country. I wouldn't dislike you if you named Manning, McNabb, or Vick over Brady. It's your opinion and I would respect that. The way I look at, and I've changed my mind about a hundred times on this, is Brady is the best money quarterback there is. I think Manning is the best quarterback. Because Manning can't beat one team -- a team that we're calling a "dynasty" -- doesn't diminish what he's accomplished.
Great column Nick -- vitals for out of town Pats fans like me. My question is why nobody has seemed to mention Asante Samuel's hit on Brandon Stokely. He was, I think, their top receiver all day, and their most successful play was to run him in motion and throw to him out of the slot. But when Samuel flattened him (I was surprised he got up), I don't think he saw another ball all day. Why hasn't anyone paid more attention to this?
Jon, New York
A: After I wrote that night, I thought to myself, "I forgot to mention the Samuel hit." I'm with you. That was fun to see. It reminded me of one those old Lawyer Milloy hits that I used to enjoy. You'd have to be gun-shy after getting smacked like that. I know I would be. I believe he did make some catches after that. Stokley is a pretty tough guy, but he had to feel it.
In the two weeks leading up to the Colts game, I asked myself, "What is Belichick going to find that almost no one else has that will shut down the Colts' offense?" Well, he obviously found it, and several of the defensive players, notably Harrison, said that the coaches had given them a great plan that they were excited to execute. Having watched the game, I'm still not sure exactly what the plan was. It seemed to be a typically aggressive, unpredictable Patriots defensive showing. Can you shed light on just what we did that was so effective?
A: Well, let's give the proper credit to Romeo Crennel. He does the game plan. He calls the defensive signals. Romeo's MO is to use different looks, which he did in often disguising which linebacker would rush the passer. They jammed the receivers at the line, got them off their routes and they got just enough pass rush to get Manning off his rhythm. They also played sound fundamentally. They covered well and they also tackled well, allowing very little in the way of yards after the catch. Nothing fancy.
I was busy this week, and in the locker room at work we were talking about how Peyton Manning was going to light up the Pats secondary. We thought anyone being covered by Earthwind (and Fire) Moreland was going to have the biggest game of their career. And then, much to my surprise, Earthwind was inactive, and in his place someone we got "off the couch." Could you tell me the story about what happened, and where we got the acquisition from?
A: The conclusion you can draw is either Earthwind is in the doghouse or just not good enough. I was surprised by that as well. But because we can't watch practice, it's hard to tell who's excelling during the week except for what our sources tell us. Hank Poteat got the nod. To his credit he learned the Patriots system in a short period of time and played fairly well. One thing about Poteat, he has fresh legs. But I'm sure they kept things real simple for him.
Thanks for the great writing. There are a lot of happy Patriot fans here in Santa Monica. Not just Back Bay and Southie, but also here you had kids driving around screaming "Touchdown, Brady!" after the game. Another amazing team effort, although it would be easy to single out Corey Dillon and Tedy Brushi for their incredible playing. Question: Do you think the Steelers are going to look carefully at the relatively long patches of yardage the Colts gained late in the second quarter? They came close to scoring there. They never had any momentum afterwards. Would you have considered those moments the most dangerous time of the game for NE?
Bevan, Santa Monica, Calif.
A: Bevan, I don't think the Steelers deviate much from what they do, so I don't think the Colts style of doing things would help them too much. They run and run some more, and they use zone blitzes and hit you in the mouth on defense. When I hear that Bill Belichick will outcoach Bill Cowher, or when I hear Belichick say the Patriots were outcoached the last time they played, I laugh because the Steelers don't change much week to week and have won 15 straight games, while the Patriots change things every week and won 21 straight. There aren't many X's and O's on the Steeler side. The most complicated thing they do is their zone blitzes. I think one thing that happened in the last game between these teams is the Patriots had problems identifying where the zone blitzes were coming from so it made it hard to block. I think that's why Brady got hit a little bit in that game.
Is there any advanced scouting in football or is everything done breaking down film after the game is played? Are there members of Belichick's staff whose job it was to watch the Jets/Steelers game to begin analyzing a potential opponent?
A: Brian, there are advance scouts, or pro personnel people who go out and scout the games in person, but the majority of the work is done on film. Belichick is looking for something from his scouts that he can't see on the film. A lot of that might be some inside buzz on what's going on with a certain team or a certain player off the field that might affect his play in the upcoming game. It might be something the scout spotted in a pre-game warmup, or the way a player was running or throwing.
I had reviewed the Jets game a few times, specifically the play on which Richard Seymour was injured. The evidence is persuasive, though not absolutely convincing, that Mawae injured Seymour intentionally. I've heard virtually nothing about this, but I'd recommend checking out the tape and seeing for yourself. Does the league look into this sort of thing, ever? As I recall, last year Ted Washington thought that Mawae broke his leg intentionally. If so, shouldn't he be suspended?
Jack, North Andover
A: Jack, I have watched it a couple of times. I see where you would think it was intentional. It looks that way. It looked as if Mike Vrabel was the object he was seeking to hit or hurt, but got Seymour instead. As I pointed out last week, there were no complaints about the hit that I heard from the players. Usually you hear something if there's a dirty play. Sometimes players turn the other way because they know someone on their team might have gotten away with one, too. Mawae has that reputation, as does Rodney Harrison. Believe me, the league looks at those guys with reputations very closely. They usually can't get away with much, though you mentioned the Ted Washington situation and I must say Mawae did get away with that one.