FOXBORO, MA — Bill Belichick knows defense, but he’ll definitely be tested this weekend against the Steelers.
Pittsburgh is coming off of an impressive 27-10 win over the Baltimore Ravens in their first-round playoff game last weekend, and they’re going to present New England with quite a challenge when the two teams face off for the AFC Championship on Sunday.
Why you ask?
There are a few reasons, just ask Baltimore. The Ravens converted a dismal 8% of their third downs last weekend (1-of-12) while the Steelers were 7-of-16 (43.8%). The result was an extremely lopsided time of possession that saw Pittsburgh hold the ball for twice as long as the Ravens (40:45 compared to 19:15).
Baltimore struggled throughout the day on offense, finishing with just 150-total-net-yards in a game which saw quarterback Elvis Grbac picked off three times. Their only touchdown came on a 88-yard punt return by Jermaine Lewis, and the Steelers defense never gave the Ravens a shot at the end zone. In three trips inside the 20-yard line Baltimore was 0-3, and twice inside the 10 they were also kept from reaching paydirt.
To make matters worse the Steelers struck quick in that game, building a 20-3 half-time lead and making the Ravens have to try and come from behind to beat them. They got big plays from their receivers, including 6’5″ 228-pound wideout Plaxico Burress who finished the day with 5 catches for 85-yards, three of which were for 17-yards or more.
Needless to say they are dangerous on both sides of the football, and that’s a problem that Belichick is aware they’re going to have to address.
“I think a lot of the conversation has been about Pittsburgh’s defense, and rightfully so,” said Belichick on Wednesday. “This is a very active and aggressive group.”
“Offensively this is a real good football team. They lead the league in rushing and they also lead the league in big plays passing. They really provide a tough combination of things to defend because your loading up on the running game but yet they’ve had I think it’s 40-plays, something like that over 20-yards in the passing game so they do a good job of getting the ball down the field.”
They had five passes that were over 17-yards in their win over the Ravens, including completions of 20, and 32-yards (a touchdown pass to Burress). What was even more impressive was that they did it against the AFC’s third ranked pass-defense.
On defense the Steelers have a vicious pass rush that lead the NFL with 55-sacks. That defense was ranked 8th in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game, allowing an average of 206.8 per contest. On the ground they allowed an average of 74.7-yards per game (1st in the NFL), and held Ravens running back Terry Allen to 11-yards on 4-carries last weekend after Baltimore was forced to throw the football to try and get back into the game.
One of the biggest stories for the Steelers has been quarterback Kordell Stewart, who finished with 3109-yards passing and his highest quarterback rating of his 7-year career (81.7). Belichick feels that one reason why Stewart has had a Pro-Bowl caliber season is simply because he has become more comfortable on the football field.
“I think he’s matured quite a bit and he looks a lot more comfortable in the passing game,” said Belichick. “I think that also the Steelers have done a good job of putting him in situations that really highlight or accent his athletic ability.”
“He’s got some big guys to throw to, and he gets them in single-coverage and let’s them go get it.”
Stewart remains a threat to run the football as well. He rushed for a career-high 537-yards and scored 5-touchdowns for Pittsburgh this season. It’s just another thing that Belichick will have to plan for.
“They run him on quarterback sweeps,” said Belichick. “They get him out of the pocket, not so much that it’s predictable but enough to keep you off balance.”
“His ability to keep you off balance because of his scrambling creates a lot of open spaces for him back there in the passing game because you just have to account for Kordell running the ball, whether it’s a designed run or whether he improvises it.”
They’ll also have to worry about running back Jerome Bettis who is expected to return to action this weekend. Bettis missed last weekend with an adverse reaction to an injection to his sore groin. The needle from the shot struck a nerve and caused one of his legs to go numb.
His absence didn’t matter, as Amos Zereoue came in and rushed for 63-yards on 24-carries including 2 touchdowns.
Pittsburgh is a very good team all around. The Patriots will have to go there and beat them at Heinz field, and it’s going to be up to Belichick to devise a game plan that can shut down an offense and defense that helped them earn the #1 seed in the playoffs.
“We know we have got our work cut out for us going to Pittsburgh,” said Belichick earlier in the week. “But we have had a lot of challenges this year and we are looking forward to the opportunity to play for the AFC Championship.”
“We are not really concerned with anything except trying to get ready for the team that has been the best team in the AFC from Week Two on.”