When facing the Pats, just shut your mouth
Len Pasquarelli says the Steelers and young safety Anthony Smith learned a valuable lesson Sunday -- don't give the Pats extra motivation.
No designated spokesmen. No fabricated quotes. Not even any packaged, syrupy platitudes citing the brilliance of the undefeated Patriots. And, for gosh sakes, don't raise the issue of that whole video spying incident from the opening game of the season. Mum is the order for the week. Turn the locker room, coach Mangini, into a monastery full of mutes.
Because, as the Pittsburgh Steelers painfully discovered Sunday in a 34-13 beatdown, silence might not always be golden, but it certainly tops the alternative when facing a New England team for which even the most innocuous verbiage is a red-flag rallying point.
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In pursuit of perfection, the Patriots don't require any additional motivation, but there was Pittsburgh second-year free safety Anthony Smith, stoking the competitive inferno of a club that thrives on challenges (real and contrived) by guaranteeing a victory over New England last week. And there was Smith on Sunday afternoon, clearly targeted by coach Bill Belichick and the New England passing game, a bull's-eye figuratively emblazed between the "2" and the "7" on the front of his jersey.
"He basically called us out," said Patriots wide receiver Jabar Gaffney, who caught one of four Tom Brady touchdown passes and one of the two on which the Patriots obviously went after Smith like sharks converging on chum. "He's young. He'll learn."
Indeed, in a season in which New England has decided to play with absolutely no regard for down, distance or score -- and in which offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels regards a running game as something only the opposition secondary should do in chasing his talented receiving corps -- Smith was turned into the latest ember in the Patriots' scorched earth policy.
Next on the list of potential immolation victims are the Jets, who lost to the Patriots 38-14 in the season opener, and who nabbed a New England videotape assistant illegally filming the signals of their defensive staff. The indiscretion cost Belichick $500,000 and the Pats $250,000 plus their first-round pick in the 2008 draft (although they do own the 49ers' first-round pick).
It was obvious that they didn't care about running the ball. ... They were in attack mode all the way.
-- Steelers CB Ike Taylor
To his credit, Smith, who became the starter when the Steelers lost free safety Ryan Clark to a splenectomy three weeks ago, stood by his locker and fielded questions long after a public relations official suggested the interview was over. In his locker hung a T-shirt with a representation of a $100 bill on the front of it.
The image of the currency was about as counterfeit as Smith's much-publicized guarantee, which was hardly offered with much resolve. Taken in the full context of his interview with the Pittsburgh media last week, the so-called guarantee wasn't so much a dare aimed at the Pats as it was a confirmation the Steelers would come here to win.
But in this season of revenge, when the Patriots are hell-bent on making the league pay dearly for any suggestion that their three previous Super Bowl victories are tainted by charges of cheating, any discouraging word provides impetus.
Good thing for Smith he wasn't the pilot of the plane that buzzed Gillette Stadium a few hours before the game, trailing a banner that read: "Barry Bonds, 756 homers, *. Bill Belichick, three Super Bowls, *."
Fortunately, the New England players and coaches were in the locker room most of the time the plane was flying overhead. Had they gotten a good look at it and its message, they might have ordered up the anti-aircraft artillery. As it was, they turned the big guns on Smith and a Pittsburgh defense that entered the game statistically ranked No. 1 in the league.
Even Brady, the embodiment of cool detachment, spent some time jawing at Smith and other Steelers defenders.
"To tell you the truth," Smith said, "if [Brady] was talking to me, I didn't notice him."
But the Patriots, who like to flaunt their "Humble Pie" T-shirts but play with a justifiable dose of arrogance and undeniable chippiness, took note of where Smith was aligned on several key plays.
And they attacked him with a vengeance.
Early in the second quarter, Brady got Smith, who appeared to be playing a Cover-1 look, to bite on a well-executed play-action fake. As the young safety moved forward, Randy Moss sprinted by him and gathered in a 63-yard touchdown pass, his second score in a lightning-quick span of 1:59.
Then, five minutes into the third quarter, the Pats dug deep into the playbook to torch Smith again, this time with a rare gimmick play. Brady threw a long lateral to Moss, who was flanked to the right. Moss gathered in the backward pass on one tricky hop, then calmly tossed the ball back to the quarterback. Brady wound up and lobbed a 56-yarder to Gaffney, with the ball barely sailing over the sprawling Smith, who nearly recovered from his initial misstep.
Asked after the game to describe Brady's most notable attributes, Moss, who finished with seven catches for 135 yards, said: "Poise. Patience. And the determination to go out and kill you at any given time."
Once again operating out of spread formations with three or four wide receivers, Brady surgically carved up the Pittsburgh defense, ringing up 421 total yards against a unit that entered the game having surrendered just 230.8 yards per game. Against a secondary that had allowed just 154.0 passing yards per outing, Brady threw for 399 yards, with 32 completions in 46 attempts, including 24 completions to his wide receivers.
In the second half, New England ran the ball three times -- and just two of those were designed running plays. In one stretch, the Patriots called 33 consecutive pass plays, and they didn't have a designed run in the second half until only 2:49 remained in the game.
"It was obvious that they didn't care about running the ball," Pittsburgh cornerback Ike Taylor said. "Not at all. They were in attack mode all the way. The only thing we can do is keep playing hard and hope we get another shot at them. Hopefully, if we get that chance, we'll do things a lot differently."
And in a lot more quiet manner.
Hear that, Jets?
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.