PONTIAC, Mich. -- Just a hunch here but, if you're looking for a sleeper-type player in Super Bowl XL, a guy who might author one of those improvisational wild-card plays for which the opposition really can't plan, consider Pittsburgh's Antwaan Randle El.
Randle El, 26, posted a career-worst 35 receptions. After averaging 14 rushes over his first three NFL seasons, he carried the ball only a dozen times this year. And the Steelers stopped using him on kickoff returns, as he registered but one runback. But Randle El, in the estimation of some observers, might be the most explosive, spontaneous playmaker in the Steelers lineup, and he could make a difference on Sunday evening.
"He could return a punt 80 yards for a touchdown," said one AFC coach who has studied both the Super Bowl teams. "He could take a six-yard slip-screen, make a defender miss, and run 60 yards. Heck, he could throw a touchdown pass. Even if you take all the 'gadget' stuff out of the equation, he still makes plays for which you can't account. And in a game as close as this one might be, that could be huge."
In the regular season, Randle El didn't touch the ball more than nine times in a game. His average of 5.75 touches per game in-season hasn't been much increased in the playoffs, where he is averaging six touches per outing. But offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, who doesn't rely nearly as much on gimmick plays as did predecessor Mike Mularkey, may decide Sunday night is the time to get the most out of his wind-up toy. In a tight game, the key might be getting the ball to Randle El and letting him use his speed.
Here are five more keys for the Steelers if they are to win Super Bowl XL:
1. We've used this statistic in the past but, given its potential repercussions in Sunday's game, it is worth regurgitating: During the regular season, the Seattle offense ran just 192 third-down plays, second fewest in the league, behind only Indianapolis (188). So the Seahawks' offense, which averaged 6.25 yards on first down in 2005, also second-best in the league, simply doesn't put itself in many tough situations. That said, the Seahawks ranked just 13th in the league in third-down conversion rate, at 39.6 percent. And a big part of the problem was that the unit struggled in third-and-long situations. Seattle had 93 third-down plays on which the yardage to gain was seven yards or more, and converted just 16 of them, or 17.2 percent. Of the 27 sacks the Seahawks surrendered, fifth fewest in the league, eight came on third-and-seven or longer. And Matt Hasselbeck threw four of his nine interceptions in third-and-long circumstances.
So, while it's easier said than done, the Steelers' defense has to find a way to force the Seahawks into long-yardage situations, where they will have the opportunity to knock the Seattle offense off the field. Fail to do so and it could be a long day, because the Seattle offense is a precision unit, one capable of dictating tempo and essentially hoarding the football. Although their average time of possession wasn't especially high (29:17), Seattle's offense can click off a lot of plays, and sustain inexorably long marches. Seattle scored 54 touchdowns from scrimmage and the average drive was 7.4 snaps and 68.4 yards. The latter was a league high. Seattle had 40 touchdown drives of 60 yards or more, 31 of 70-plus yards, 21 of 80-plus yards and five of 90 yards or more. In fact, the Seahawks are accustomed to playing with a long field, as evidenced by just 10 touchdown drives on possessions that originated on their opponents' side of the 50-yard line.
The Pittsburgh defense has to shut down tailback Shaun Alexander on first down, and then force Hasselbeck to throw, so the Steelers can unleash their blitzes. Even then, there are no sure bets because Hasselbeck gets the ball out so quickly. A keen Seahawks observer, who has seen every game the club played in 2005, pointed out that Hasselbeck gets through his pass-read progressions so quickly, he is often onto his fourth receiver by the time he's one stride shy of his five-step drop. The Steelers' defense faced the no-huddle offenses of Cincinnati and Indianapolis five times this season and won three of those games. Seattle isn't a no-huddle team, but will get up the line of scrimmage quickly, snap the ball and go. The Steelers have to be prepared for a different kind of up-tempo offense in this game. Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren has the purest West Coast design around, and that means he wants the ball coming out fast, on three- and five-step drops that frustrate defenders. The Steelers have to figure a way to have Hasselbeck on the ball a tick longer, to allow the blitz to impact him, and that means creating third-and-long scenarios.
2. Slow the Seahawks' weak-side running attack. Maybe it's because, in tackle Walter Jones and guard Steve Hutchinson, the Seahawks have the best left-side blocking tandem in the league. Or maybe it's because the Seattle tight ends simply don't block very well. Whatever the reason, the Seahawks don't run much to the tight end side, and are far more productive on the ground when they go to the weak side.
By unofficial count, more than 60 percent of Alexander's rushing yards came to the weak side. In the left-run situations, fullback Mack Strong basically functions as a tight end, and the league's premier lead-blocker is adept at sealing off defenders or just engaging them long enough to provide Alexander a crease. Where the Seahawks might have some problems is accounting for the free-hanging linebacker that a 3-4 defensive alignment typically creates. Pittsburgh is going to have to be very physical upfront on the weak-side runs and, of course, play with gap discipline. And the Steelers' cornerbacks, the versatile DeShea Townsend and the emerging Ike Taylor, both of whom support the run well, have to play smart. They'll have to try to get up into the lanes before the physical Seattle blockers get out on them. Watch tape of the Seahawks and it's incredible how often a big blocker, such as Jones, has scraped off down field and is tying up a cornerback at the second level. The Seahawks love to get their big bodies on cornerbacks, to beat the smaller guys up, because they feel it erodes them and might make them a step slower in coverage later in the game. So the Steelers' cornerbacks have to hang in physically.
Alexander is a terrific cut-back runner and all the backside defenders definitely will need to stay at home against him. Alexander is a very crafty runner and the Steelers defenders have to wrap him up and secure tackles. He doesn't break tackles as much he slips out of them and, if he gets into the secondary, Alexander is creative out in the open. For a guy who doesn't have scintillating stopwatch speed, Alexander still had 14 rushes for 20 yards or more in 2005. The Pittsburgh defense permitted just seven runs of 20 yards or more during the year.
3. Throw early and often and effectively. In the playoffs, the Indianapolis and Denver defenses both bought into the fallacy that Pittsburgh is always going to come out trying to bludgeon an opponent with the running game. Indianapolis played eight in the box from the outset, Pittsburgh countered by throwing on seven of its first 10 snaps, and the Steelers scored touchdowns on their first two possessions. The Broncos played eight defenders up close or blitzed on nine of the first 16 snaps in the AFC championship game. Given plenty of time because the Steelers kept an extra blocker in their protection scheme, Ben Roethlisberger shredded an overmatched secondary that was stretched horizontally by the underrated Pittsburgh receivers.
If the Steelers can carve out an early and workable lead by throwing the ball, it opens up all kinds of possibilities, especially in the running game. Even with all its quickness, Seattle's defense (sorry, Steelers fans, but it's an even quicker unit than the Pittsburgh defense) might not be able to staunch the running game if it can only commit seven to the line of scrimmage. Seattle succeeded in stopping the Carolina ground game in the NFC championship game with just seven guys up close. Pittsburgh is far more physical and much bigger. The Seattle linebackers in particular are undersized, with middle 'backer Lofa Tatupu weighing in at 238 pounds, and the Seahawks can't afford to allow the Steelers' rushing attack positive momentum.
The other thing an early lead might do for the Steelers is slow the Seattle pass rush. The Seahawks led the NFL in sacks, with 50, during the regular season. But as one coach who has studied the Seahawks very closely told us, many of those sacks were a function of playing from in front. If it's the Steelers with a lead, and with their offense dictating to the Seahawks, getting pressure on Roethlisberger, who has a knack for buying time but still keeping his eyes down field for potential big plays, might be difficult. Seattle did not have a double-digit sacker during the season, but ends Bryce Fisher and Grant Wistrom possess some quickness. That upfield speed could be blunted, though, if Pittsburgh has an early lead and can mix and match on offense. The Seahawks, it should be noted, have only four sacks in two postseason outings. If Pittsburgh is permitted to get into its throw-to-score and run-to-win mode offensively, Seattle could be in trouble.
Oh, yeah, the other thing an early lead probably provides the Steelers is a pseudo home-field advantage. Ford Field figures to be a sea of gold and black and the last thing Seattle needs is the throaty 'Burghers fans claiming the place as their own.
4. Don't keep "The Bus" idling too long. In what will almost certainly be the final game of his Pro Football Hall of Fame career, and in front of his hometown fans and virtually every one of his family members, tailback Jerome Bettis is apt to be pretty geeked up. So why not take advantage of his passion early on in the contest? The Steelers coaches always go to Bettis for some carries in the first half, especially on short-yardage and goal-line situations, and because he provides a tremendous physical change of pace to starter Willie Parker's more slashing style.
Bettis' primary role, though, is that of a closer. When the Steelers are milking a lead, he's the main focus of the bleed-the-clock offense, and gets a lot of his carries in the fourth quarter. But if the Steelers get Bettis off early, and he's rambling over the smaller Seattle linebackers, maybe offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt can ride the 13-year veteran even more than normal.
One key to slowing down the quick Seattle defense is to erode it physically, and Bettis is a wrecking ball personified. One more thing: Don't hesitate to get Parker the ball out in space. The second-year tailback isn't a great receiver but he does run the screen pretty well. The Steelers tend to set up the screen nicely at times, typically out of the shotgun, and Parker, a home-run threat, might run a long way if he's presented with a scattered defense out in front of him.
5. Overload but don't overreact. There is a surprisingly solid consensus among the coaches to whom we spoke that Seattle isn't all that concerned with the pass rush of Joey Porter. It's believed the Seahawks will allow Jones to take him one-on-one, and that the gambit will succeed. Porter, who had 10½ sacks during the season, is on a tear, and Jones has been troubled at times (albeit infrequently) by speed rushers, so we will see if the experts are correct in their analysis of that matchup. Where some people feel Seattle will have some protection problems is when Pittsburgh overloads two linebackers, usually Porter and Clark Haggans (but once in a while, in the playoffs, inside linebacker James Farrior), to the same side.
As savvy and veteran a line as the Seahawks possess -- with the exception of second-year right tackle Sean Locklear, a first-year starter, everyone else has at least five years of tenure -- recognition skills will be crucial. As for the overreaction part of the equation, the Pittsburgh cornerbacks can't bite on the first cut by Seahawks wide receivers, who are excellent double-move technicians. Taylor is going to be a superb corner, but he still gets caught looking into the backfield too often and often will buy a receiver's initial feint. Pittsburgh plays a lot of Cover 3 when strong safety Troy Polamalu is aligned close to the line of scrimmage, and if Taylor is out of position, it leaves too much ground for free safety Chris Hope to have to cover.
Pasquarelli's pick: Steelers 24, Seahawks 20
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.