Commentary

How the Steelers do what they do

Beating this well-coached, physical Pittsburgh team on road too much to ask for Pats

Updated: November 12, 2010, 11:07 AM ET
By Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

Every week during the season, Mike Reiss and Tedy Bruschi break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week's breakdown is on Sunday's game between the Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field.

Mike: When you think about the Patriots and Steelers, a lot of big games come to mind. Patriots coach Bill Belichick made the point this week that it's almost like playing a division rival, and he expects it to be a good, tough, physical contest. Hard to argue with that analysis.

Tedy: This is a rivalry, for sure. Some of the biggest games I would always look to on the schedule were if we played the Steelers or played the Colts. There's a lot riding on this game, a lot of history between these two teams. They remember what the Patriots did to them in past AFC Championship Games, so this rivalry is true, this rivalry is real.

Mike: In your 13 seasons, I counted it up and you played the Steelers 11 times, four of which came in the playoffs. Of those games, six were on the road: one at Three Rivers Stadium and five at Heinz Field. What memories stand out to you when it comes to traveling to Pittsburgh?

Tedy: There is no more satisfying feeling than winning in Pittsburgh, at Heinz Field, because as soon as you walk into that city and that stadium, you feel the Steelers. It's what that entire area and city is about. They are strongly followed, the fans have incredible passion for that team, so when you walk into that stadium, you feel the challenge that you are presented with. I remember when we lost there on Halloween in the 2004 season, 34-20. It was an embarrassing loss. And then we came back for the AFC Championship Game and it was a daunting task because they were playing great football. We ended up taking it away from them on the way to our third Super Bowl title. That was the most gratifying non-Super Bowl victory that I can remember. I always looked at the Steelers as the school bully that needed to be taught a lesson. They are going to hit you, you just have to hit them harder.

Mike: Before we get into breaking down the matchup, let's continue with our reader suggestion of breaking down one technical aspect of football. Last week, you touched on pre-snap shifts and what it means when players are moving around before the snap. This week, the question is on defensive schemes and game plans. How many different calls might a defense have in one game and has there ever been a time where the game plan dramatically changed from when you received it to game day?

Tedy: Let's start with the fronts. Defenses will usually have a base front. For the Patriots it has been the 3-4. When it comes to front terminologies, the first digit (3) represents the number of defensive linemen and the second (4) the number of linebackers. The other most common front is the 4-3. It was common for the defenses that I played on to have multiple variations of fronts ready for the game. Coaches always want to be prepared for anything. Injuries and failure to perform can warrant a front change within the game.

While in those fronts there are calls that linebackers can give to defensive linemen to attack certain tendencies. If an offensive formation is built to attack the left side of the defense, a linebacker recognizing this can move the entire front when the ball is snapped. "Louie!!! Louie!!!" is a pre-snap call I used to get this done. The "L" in the word equates to "left. "Roger" for the opposite. The number of line calls a defensive front has to know in a game plan can range from 10 to 20. You don't want to make it too complex for the big guys in front of you.

Coverages range from variations of zone and man. Zone coverage is when a player covers an area of the field and man is when a defender covers an offensive player throughout the down. Adjustments for these coverages can be limitless. The adjustments are based on offensive personnel, offensive formations, down-and-distance tendencies, end-of-half or end-of-game situations, what other defensive players you are working with, alignment of receivers, abilities of receivers ... and I'll stop now because that's just the tip of the iceberg. In terms of game plans changing, we used to make adjustments and changes all the way to the Saturday before the game.

Patriots' defense vs. Steelers' offense

Mike: Earlier this year, I know you tipped your cap to Steelers coach Mike Tomlin for keeping his team together during Ben Roethlisberger's four-game suspension. Now Big Ben is back and he seems like the right place to start when breaking down this aspect of the matchup. Since his return, he is 69-of-109 for 917 yards with six touchdowns and three interceptions.

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
Patrick Green/Icon SMIBen Roethlisberger can be at his best when plays break down and is difficult for defenders to bring down. A lethal combination.

Tedy: He has the big arm and can spread the ball around. The Patriots should be able to get there when it comes to attacking him, but bringing him down is another story. He's a big, strong guy, and he has a lot of fight, a will to survive. He straight-arms defenders and is very difficult to bring down. One of the things that stands out with him is that he plays street ball when plays break down. He has receivers that know what to do when he starts scrambling.

Mike: He also has a running back in Rashard Mendenhall who has been among the most productive in the NFL this season. Mendenhall leads the Steelers with 702 rushing yards on 168 carries, with seven touchdowns.

Tedy: He's not a Peyton Hillis type runner, that big 240-pound back. He is about 225 with more speed and quickness. This isn't necessarily the Steelers offense of old: line it up, dig your cleats in the dirt and we're going to run the ball at you. They have talked about not being predictable when it comes to the running game, using formations to disguise some of their runs, and they'll bring scheme runs at the Patriots. I have seen a lot of bunch formations, especially against the Bengals on Monday night, and while it looks as if they might throw they will have runs off it. So they are running out of different formations to keep defenses honest.

Mike: With that in mind, what do you see as being key for the Patriots' defense in this matchup?

Tedy: With all of their different formations -- and especially considering what happened to the Patriots last week in Cleveland -- you're going to see scheme runs from the Steelers: misdirection runs and blocking schemes that aren't just zone blocking or man-on-man coming right at you. They are going to have concepts and try to get angles on you, by sending the running back to the left and the blocking schemes going to the right -- then all of a sudden the running back is going to counterstep to the right. So, from the inside linebacker spot, getting good reads as the play develops is important. You have to stay on your key, not necessarily focusing on the running back at times, but the players up front blocking and what they're doing. That's what this Patriots defense will have to do.

Mike: When the Steelers throw the ball, you have the old standby in Hines Ward, who leads the team with 30 receptions, and also Mike Wallace, who is averaging 23 yards per catch. Tight end Heath Miller, who is a combination type in that he's effective as a blocker and receiver, is third on the team with 20 catches. However, he has been hobbled by a knee injury that kept him out of practice Tuesday and Wednesday. The Steelers did suffer a blow this week with starting left tackle Max Starks being placed on season-ending injured reserve with a neck injury. They had lost their starting right tackle, Willie Colon, in the offseason. So they're down two top tackles, but that shouldn't stop them from doing what they do.

Tedy: They run empty formations and want to spread you out at times. They know who they have at quarterback, there's Ward, and then Wallace, who has really made a mark. He has good size and 4.3 speed -- and looks even faster than that. Once he streaks down the field, he will outrun safeties. Once you see Wallace come off the line and he's building, you have to get back. The passing game is also going to be about competing for the ball. At times, Ben won't care if a guy is covered. If he wants Wallace deep he's going to put it up there and bet on his guy winning. These are the battles the Patriots defensive backs will have to win.

Patriots' offense vs. Steelers' defense

Mike: The Steelers have surrendered just 123 points this season. They've given up just 15 points in the first quarter, so while the Patriots will focus on a fast start, the Steelers make it difficult on you.

Tedy: It starts with their four linebackers -- LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison on the outside and James Farrior and Lawrence Timmons on the inside. Timmons is someone that people might not have heard about, but he's having a great year, with more tackles (87) at this point of the season than he had all of last year. He's leading the team, making plays against the run and the pass. He's very athletic and explosive. He has the ability to knife through the line of scrimmage and explodes when he makes tackles.

[+] EnlargeWes Welker
Christopher Hanewinckel/US PresswireThe Patriots would be wise to go with a spread offense against the Steelers and let their small receivers like Wes Welker try to find room to roam.

Mike: In watching some of the Steelers' past games, you mentioned that one of the things their inside linebackers do is something called a "cross-fire zone." I asked Patriots guard Stephen Neal about it on Wednesday and he said it will challenge the Patriots' interior offensive linemen to be alert, communicate, and block two very tough players in Farrior and Timmons.

Tedy: You see it when Farrior and Timmons attack the line of scrimmage around the center area. Picture Farrior attacking the line of scrimmage from center Dan Koppen's left and crossing over to Koppen's right. Then you have Timmons crossing behind him and going to the other side, so it's like they are forming an X. You get angles on the offensive blockers and they do it over and over again. They've done this for years and it's something I respect about this defense. They basically say "You know what we're going to do" -- Woodley and Harrison coming off the edge, safety Troy Polamalu coming down in the box, here comes the cross-fire zone -- and it's like they're daring you to stop it.

Mike: The Steelers rank first in the NFL in fewest rushing yards allowed per game. Opponents average just 58.3 yards per game, so one figures the Patriots will lean toward the air attack in this one.

Tedy: The strength of the Patriots' offense is still the passing attack and you have to look at their receivers and their strengths: They are smaller, quicker, and the more space they have to work with, the better. So in playing to that strength, look for the Patriots to spread them out and get those receivers in space so they have room to work. Get them out of the middle so they aren't beat up, like the Browns did to them last week.

Mike: At the same time, one always has to respect the presence of Polamalu. He's one of the NFL's best at his position.

Tedy: He is excellent in run support and being able to play in pass coverage, but if there is a weakness there, it's to make him play in space and defend the deep part of the field. I think the Patriots will threaten him that way. Bengals receiver Terrell Owens, against the Steelers on Monday night, had a big game down the field and I think that's a possibility for the Patriots. You can challenge these corners and this secondary with medium-to-deep passes. Who the Patriots use in that role will be something to look for.

Mike: Special teams, as always, will be important and this is an area where the Patriots have lagged a bit in recent weeks. The Steelers are strong in this area, with rookie Emmanuel Sanders adding a spark. All eyes will be on the new kicker, Shayne Graham, as well as new long snapper Matt Katula.

Tedy: Any time you're talking about the specialists, it's usually not a good thing. They should be doing their job so well that they aren't noticed. With the changes, it will be something to watch in this game because it could come down to that field goal. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis mentioned it with Graham this offseason, that he had to work out the "demons" he had from missing two field goals against the Jets in the playoffs last season. As a kicker, sometimes your mental state of mind is your most valuable asset. I hope he has worked out those "demons." There have been a number of special-teams "trick plays" this year. The Patriots are playing a tough Steelers team on the road. I think this may be the week the Patriots break out some of their own "tricks."

Mike: Before getting to predictions, let's answer a fan question -- from Adam in Rhode Island. He asks, "Do you have any interest in coaching?"

Tedy: Adam, one of my favorite things to do at ESPN is working on the demonstration set. I like it because it's as if I'm coaching up the viewer on the intricacies of football. Maybe one day I will get into coaching, but right now I like having time with my family. I've witnessed firsthand how hard these coaches work and the countless hours they put in. So let's just say my "Breakdowns" are my way of coaching all of you.

Mike: As for a prediction, I see this as a low-scoring game. Given the struggles of the Patriots' offense and the strength of the Steelers' defense, coupled with the home field, I slightly favor Pittsburgh. I think the Patriots will play a better game than last week, but still come up short. Steelers 20, Patriots 17.

Tedy: In thinking about who I should pick for this game I'm reminded of something Coach Belichick taught me. It was the week before a big game. I can't remember which one -- they were all big -- and we had played poorly the week before and there were some comments said in the media by some of our players about looking forward to having success the next week. Coach Belichick said, "You guys think you're gonna go out there and play well?! BASED ON WHAT?!" He then proceeded to list our struggles as a team and told us that until we started to fix our problems they were going to show up over and over again. Based on what? Exactly. Based on what I saw last week the Patriots have a lot of fixing to do. Steelers 28, Patriots 20.

Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th anniversary team. Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.

Tedy Bruschi

Columnist, ESPN.com
Tedy Bruschi spent his entire 13-year career with the New England Patriots after being drafted in the third round out of Arizona. He played in five Super Bowls, winning three. He retired prior to the 2009 season.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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