Socci: Patriots-Steelers Not The Mismatch It Appears To Be On Paper

By Bob Socci, 98.5 The Sports Hub
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Tom Brady scores a touchdown against Troy Polamalu and the Steelers in 2010. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Tom Brady scores a touchdown against Troy Polamalu and the Steelers in 2010. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Football

 

BOSTON (CBS) — About a decade ago, the great New York Times columnist Dave Anderson wrote of the winds that swept past the surrounding parking lots and swamplands of the Meadowlands and roared into old Giants Stadium.

Howling from the west, they blew against the eastern stands and funneled back to the western end, wreaking havoc on football Sundays. “Perhaps the wildest wind of all,” Anderson recalled in a 1993 column was that which whistled into East Rutherford on Jan. 11, 1987.

That’s the day the Giants hosted Washington for the NFC Championship. Steadily blowing at 35 miles per hour, the wind gusted up to 50 miles an hour, stirring an unconventional thought by Bill Parcells.

Back then, it was almost automatic to receive the opening kickoff when awarded the choice. But as New York’s head coach, Parcells decided he’d rather the Giants take the wind than the football.

So when the pregame coin toss fell in its favor, New York kicked off, the breeze at its back. Shortly thereafter, the Giants forced a 23-yard punt against the current. They took over at the Redskins’ 47-yard line en route to an early 17-0 lead, which was unchanged in the end, and their first Super Bowl.

The pre-game decision by Parcells wasn’t lost on one of his assistants.

“It wasn’t a very common decision because, let’s face it, you take it in the first quarter you’re not going to have it in the second quarter,” Bill Belichick, then the Giants’ defensive coordinator, said this week. “That was what [Parcells] decided to do and we were able to really take advantage of that situation against the Redskins.

“That decision, the initial points and the way that the game started really was a huge part of what was reflected in a huge degree by that decision that Bill made. That was a good lesson for me to learn in my career. It was a great decision by Coach Parcells.”

Twenty-six years later, once more feeling a westerly wind, Belichick heeded that lesson as the hooded coach of the New England Patriots.

He had recently seen Miami’s Caleb Sturgis fail to expand a 17-3 lead with roughly 10 minutes left in the third quarter. Kicking into the wind in Foxboro, Sturgis careened his 46-yard try off the right upright.

The Patriots reeled off 14 unanswered points to tie it and were driving toward another potential score. Then on second-and-20 with 26 seconds left in the quarter, Stevan Ridley rushed to Miami’s 30-yard line. Although as judicious as any coach in his use of timeouts, Belichick chose to stop the clock with 18 seconds to go.

By doing so, he preserved enough time to attempt a 3rd-and-10 conversion and, if unsuccessful, allow Stephen Gostkowski the aid of the wind for a go-ahead, 48-yard field goal.

“Of course in a close game like that — the game was tied at the time — you hate to waste timeouts because they can be valuable at the end, as we’ve seen many times this year,” Belichick explained Monday. “But I felt like it was worth it to be able to have a better opportunity on the kick. Not saying that Steve couldn’t have made it going the other way. I just think it would have been a harder kick based on the conditions that were out there [Sunday].

“It wasn’t just the direction of the wind. There was also a significant crosswind that all the specialists had to deal with.”

ON A RELATED NOTE

After the aforementioned NFC Championship game between the Giants and Redskins, Parcells hailed the effort of his diminutive returner Phil McConkey for repeatedly catching punts in challenging conditions. By Parcells’ postgame estimation, McConkey’s sure hands saved New York more than 120 yards of field position.

It’s that so-called hidden yardage — of which there may be no true accounting — that comes to mind whenever New England’s Julian Edelman fields a ball off the bounce or dares to advance punts others only observe.

Edelman’s 12.5 yards per return is the fourth-highest career average in NFL history. Yet, as impressive as it is, the number isn’t enough to measure Edelman’s true impact on punt returns.

SAME OLD STEELERS?

The city of Pittsburgh is home to the most crowded showcase in pro football, with an NFL-high six Lombardi Trophies. Two have them were earned by the Steelers since 2006, thanks to victories in Super Bowls XL and XLIII.

Such tradition makes Pittsburgh’s 2013 predicament so surprising. After an 0-4 start, the Steelers come to Foxboro Sunday with a 2-5 record.

Their last loss was a 21-18 final at Oakland. The Raiders scored on their first play, a 93-yard run by Terrelle Pryor, and took advantage of a blocked punt to lead 14-0 by the midpoint of the opening quarter.

But as different as this Pittsburgh team seems from its predecessors, there’s a lot that’s familiar about the Steelers. The way Belichick sees them, they strongly resemble the 2011 squad that beat the Patriots, 25-17.

“If you didn’t know what year it was and just looked at the jerseys and looked at the plays, you’d recognize the Steelers,” he said on Wednesday. “They haven’t changed their offense or their defensive schemes dramatically from the last time we played them.”

On offense, Pittsburgh still has the big arm of big Ben Roethlisberger, throwing to a group of fleet receivers and a reliable tight end, Heath Miller. Per usual, the Steelers also feature a dangerous back; in this year’s case it’s rookie Le’Veon Bell.

Defensively, they’re again led on the field by Troy Polamalu and from the sideline by longtime coordinator Dick LeBeau, who’s as much a Pittsburgh institution as Iron City beer.

“I think if you look at them on a play-by-play basis, you don’t see [their record],” Belichick said, noting that the Steelers beat the Jets a week before New York knocked off his Patriots. “When you look at them, I think you see a good football team that’s kind of like us. We’ve been in a lot of close games. We’ve won more than we’ve lost; they’ve lost more than they’ve won. Most of their games have come right down to the end.

“They’re perfectly capable of playing with anybody in this league. I don’t think they lack any confidence to that and they shouldn’t. They’re well-coached, they have a good program, they have a good football team and I’m sure they feel like if they play well, they’ll win.”

The biggest reason to feel that way is Roethlisberger. Though in his 10th year, at 6-foot-5 and a listed 241 pounds, he’s still a load. What’s more, he rarely if ever concedes a play.

“I think it’s extremely difficult when you face a quarterback like this [because] the play is continually going,” says New England’s defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. “He’s going to be able to get maybe out of a tackle or get the ball downfield, so everyone needs to stay alive, stay focused, do their job all the way through, until the end of the play.

“I actually think that’s where Roethlisberger really thrives the most. … I think he looks forward to those plays where he can kind of move around in the pocket or get outside the pocket and get the ball downfield or find the open receiver and really create something that may be a little bit more than what’s on paper. I think those are definitely the biggest challenges with a quarterback like this.”

Just as the Patriots’ defense must be alert to apparent improvisation by Roethlisberger, their offense must beware of the same from Polamalu. In his 11th season at safety, he still flows as freely as his long black hair.

“He’s a very instinctive player,” Belichick says. “You can say that he’s guessing, taking chances, but I’d say he’s right most of the time; most of the time he makes the right decision. Whether some of those plays are called blitzes or he just blitzes on his own, I don’t know exactly how they do it.

“But there are times where you look at it and say, ‘That’s not really where you’re supposed to be.’ But where he is is the right place to be. He’s right in the middle of the play or he’s doing something that’s disruptive to the offense.”

Whatever his method, Polamalu creates madness for opposing offenses.

“Just because this is where they’re supposed to be isn’t necessarily where he is,” Belichick continued.  “He has a great nose for the ball. A lot of times he winds up in the center-guard gap. Sometimes he winds up in a tackle-tight end gap. Sometimes he’s 20 yards deep, sometimes he’s out in the flat, sometimes he blitzes off the edge and sometimes he lines up in one of those places, and runs somewhere else as part of the disguise.

“It’s really hard to tell even where he is, whether he’s going to stay there or not when the ball is snapped. He has excellent timing and really has a good feel for the game, makes a lot of plays. Even when he plays close to the line of scrimmage, he plays very strong. … Call it whatever you want to call it, but he knows where the ball is or where it’s going, and he gets to the right place at the right time way, way, way more often than he’s wrong.”

Wherever Polamalu goes, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will be watching him closely.

“Well safety is typically the last line of defense. If you get by the safeties, there’s no one there to catch you,” Brady explains. “[Polamalu’s] a guy that, even though he’s a safety, he still makes plays in the backfield. He can do both.

“Ryan Clark is very similar to that, so they have two [safeties] that really control the deep part of the field and also do a great job at the line of scrimmage. It’s almost tough to practice against because whatever you’re practicing, they’re probably not going to do.”

Such unpredictability is why no one should take Sunday’s outcome for granted. The Steelers are still capable of being the Steelers, even when they don’t seem like themselves.

Bob Socci is in his first season as the radio play-by-play voice of the New England Patriots. You can follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.

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