By: Christopher Price
September 23, 2005

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The Pittsburgh Steelers are the most predictable team in the NFL.

"I can go back to my scouting reports in Cleveland and '92, '93 and '94 -- it's the same diagrams,” said Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick of the Steelers. "The numbers and the circles are little bit different, but it's all the same diagrams.

"They have a broad base,” he added. "It's not like they just have two plays or one blitz or anything like that. They do what they do, but they do it well.”

It's a simple plan, one put in place by Head Coach Bill Cowher when he came to Pittsburgh in 1992. Step 1: Get an early lead behind an effective and balanced offensive attack that includes a world-class run game. This year, that includes the efficient young quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and running back Willie Parker. Parker stepped in to replace injured starters Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley and has been the surprise story of the year, rushing for back-to-back 100-plus yards in the first two games of the season.

"Parker gives them an added dimension, a little more speed around the corner, something different than what they've had over the years,” said New England linebacker Chad Brown, who played in the Pittsburgh defense from 1993 through 1996. "But they're still the Steelers -- they still want to run the ball. They want to run, run, run.”

Step 2: As the opposition falls behind, the Pittsburgh defense punishes its opponents with a series of blitzes designed to break the spirit of the opposing offense. This year is no different, as a collection of stout linebackers like Joey Porter and James Farrior spark one of the most aggressive defenses in the league.

"Often times, defenses like to adjust to what an offense is doing, but they want to be so aggressive that they force the offense to adjust to what they're doing,” said Brown. "That can sometimes get an offense on its heels. As a defensive player, when you're aggressive, when you're blitzing, you play a little different tempo then when you're reading and reacting. I think those two factors are big in their success.”

"They've got guys who have been in that defense and know how to play it. It's what they do,” said Patriots center Dan Koppen. "They probably won't change it for us probably because it worked so well for them. With guys who can make plays and react to things, it's just a very talented defense.”

The two-step formula is usually a good one -- they've won 16 consecutive regular season games. They'll be gunning for No. 17 Sunday when they host New England at Heinz Field.

But if everyone knows exactly what's coming, why can't more people stop it?

"They know what they want to do, and they go out there and try and do it the best they can,” said Patriots defensive lineman Jarvis Green. "They're a good team -- they've been running the ball since Coach Cowher has been there, and they've been successful at it.”

The key to beating the Steelers would appear to be scoring first, as Pittsburgh is one of the toughest teams in the league if they get on the board before you. Since the start of the 2002 season, the Steelers have won 33 regular-season games. Of those wins, 22 of them have started with a Pittsburgh score. In fact, since Cowher took over in 1992, the Steelers are 90-20-1 when scoring first, one of the best records in the league in that time.

And in recent meetings between New England and Pittsburgh, the first score has dictated the winner. Last October, the Steelers were able to get an early lead and render the Patriots offense one-dimensional (New England ran the ball just six times) on the way to a 34-20 Pittsburgh win. And in last year's AFC title game, the Patriots were able to keep the Steelers on their heels when they jumped to leads of 24-3 and 31-10. As a result, they forced Pittsburgh out of its running game, and Roethlisberger made some bad decisions '" three of which turned into interceptions.

But Belichick says if you read too much into history, you'll become history -- especially in this one.

"I don't care what happened last week, last year, last month, what the overall record between the two teams was going back to 1947 or whenever they started playing each other, or who wins when the wind is blowing in from the north,” he said. "I pay attention to what the matchups are for each individual game.”

Christopher Price covers the Patriots for Boston Metro and He can be reached at [email protected].