Every year since 1985, the best schoolboy footballers from Ohio battle their counterparts from Pennsylvania in an all-star game: The Big 33. Known to some as the Gridiron Breadbasket, the mill towns and river valleys of western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio are the fertile soil that gave rise to American football in all its current glory. The AFC North bears this proud tradition; three of its four teams represent the NFL's motherland. (The other, Baltimore, is a cutting from the Cleveland tree.) According to The Big 33, every Super Bowl has featured fighting sons of the breadbasket, including six in last year's epic contest.
Like the cities they represent, some of these AFC giants have fallen on hard times. Not so for Pittsburgh. Following their city's revival of the late 1980's, the Rooneys and head coach Bill Cowher likewise revived that storied franchise during the 90's. Now boasting five Lombardi trophies, the team Mr. Rooney bought for $2,500 has become one of the NFL's icons. While Pittsburgh itself -- "Hell with the lid off" to the Carnegies -- has formed a new high-tech identity from the rusty hulk of the industrial age, the Steelers have succeeded by returning to their roots: a hard-nosed ground game and defense, punctuated by an opportunistic air attack.
When Mike Tomlin brings his boys to Foxborough on Sunday, the game will likely come down to two unit-level battles: The Patriots' defensive backfield against the Steelers' pasing attack, and Blitzburgh's front 7 against New England's offfensive line. For our New England Patriots to come away with a win on Sunday, they will have to neutralize Roethlisberger, and protect Cassel.
Plagued by a shoulder injury for much of the season, Big Ben Roethlisberger has had an up-and-down year. Over the last few weeks, however, he seems to have leveled off. This is due in part to the growing capacity of his linemen; last week against Cincinnatti he was unsacked. Few quarterbacks have taken as many hits as Roethlisberger has this year -- 32 so far. He also rushed for a first down and a touchdown last week. While no one will mistake him for Steve Young, he's efficient when he runs. He stands tall in the pocket and won't be rattled by contact.
The Steelers have never featured their passing game, but I'm pegging it as key this week against the Pats for two reasons: First of all, I believe we have one of the best fronts in the league right now against a ground attack. Though currently ranked only 13th against the run, they have come on over the past few weeks, allowing the Fish only 62 yards.
The Steelers, by contrast, have the 23rd ranked rushing attack. So I think we're in decent shape there.
No, what worries me is not the run. In spite of his pedestrian 80.5 QB rating, I'm worried about Big Ben. Well, actually I'm worried about his receiving corps matched up against our coverage. Santonio Holmes is expected to be in game-form by Sunday. He was rocked by Crocker last week -- a performance we'd like to duplicate (without, of course, injury). And who can forget Hines Ward? Hines is a favorite of mine for his toughness, his attitude, his great hands and the same kind of field awareness for which I'm constantly lauding our own #33.
The Stillers suffered from the dropsies early last week, but it's a talented group and I wouldn't expect a repeat performance. Roethlisberger flashed some improvizational flair as well, creating outside the pocket and finding tight end Heath Miller and Faulkback Mewelde Moore in seams and on circles. These two will be critical contributors: Coverage in the flats and seams often falls into the lap of linebackers. Jerod Mayo is on his way to all-world status, but he isn't there yet. One of the few holes in his game is a tendency to get a little lost on pass coverage.
He isn't alone. Gaping holes in the defensive backfield are becoming de rigueur for the Patriots. Particularly on critical third-and-long, when there is a finite but large "underneath" to be covered, our safties have been either late or absent. As should be clear by now, the Deltha O'Neal Experiment is a failure. No doubt a wily vet, like Fernando Bryant and John Lynch before him it is clear that he is no longer quick enough. Ellis Hobbs III is a fine II, but not a 1. This unit will have to tighten up and find some cohesion if the Patriots hope to compete for a playoff spot.
Guarding the Cassel
Like the men crouched behind hastily mounted earthworks at the top of Breed's Hill in 1775, the quarterback of their namesake Patriots will be standing behind his own critical redoubt this Sunday. I noted above that Roethlisberger has been sacked 32 times this year. That's a lot, but our own Matty C, with a back-breaking 34, leads the league. Things are not going to get easier this week.
Pittsburgh will storm into town with the AFC's best defense. Number one in the NFL against the run. Number one in the NFL against the pass. Between them, linebackers LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison have dropped opposing QBs 22.5 times. Altogether, Blitzburgh has accounted for 37 sacks this year, good enough for first in the AFC. The men up front are going to have to keep Matty upright for the Patriots to compete. It will be their sternest test of the season.
We have some weapons for slowing the rush, and the keys to the armory are now completely in Cassel's hands. This offense has taken off the training wheels, and just in time. But time is what we need. Even Randy Moss needs a couple of seconds to get down field. In the meantime, I expect we'll be breaking out the screens and draws -- harking back to the Charlie Weiss days of misdirection and trickery. If we do, however, don't forget that the Steelers will start defensive player of the year candidate Troy Polamalu, a run-force specialist with across-the-field speed. In the end, it will come down to the offensive line to provide the time and open the holes.
As of now there has been no word on whether Matt Light will be suspended from this week's game. If he is, that's a blow no matter what Bill Belichick says to the press. It has been a busy year in the infirmary and the injury bug hit the line hard and early. The offensive line we finally have in place is a better-than-average group, slowly regaining their synchronicity as the starters are all finally on the field. But if Light is out, we're probably looking at one of the following two scenarios: Mark LeVoir fills in for Light, or Nick Kaczur slides over to left tackle and Wesley Britt comes in on the right. Neither option fills me with much confidence, not against the Woodleys, Farriors and Harrisons of the world. The absence of Light would present additional limitations, as our tight ends and backs will be more likely committed to pass blocking than route running, limiting our capacity to pressure the coverage.
Regardless of who plays, the five men on the field will have to show the same aggression and passion that they brought against the Dolphins last week. I'll take a couple of unnecessary roughness flags if it means Mankins and Neal have their backs up. And I'd just as soon not have to wait for Matty Ice to churn through a pile to get the fellas fired up. We'll have to come out hard and fast, and not wait for an invitation.
The waters of the Allegheny and Monongahela join in Pittsburgh to form the Ohio. The watersheds they represent are also the cradle of our sport, and are filled with a rabid fanbase that still has something to cheer about. "City of Bridges" or "Three River City" are so much nicer than "Hell with the lid off" or "Old Smokey." But "Hell with the lid off" is what the Steelers defense will bring into Foxboro on Sunday. With 10 days of rest.
But New England is beginning to find its legs. A play or two the other way plus a coin flip, and this team is 9-2. And they're starting to know that. If the Patriots play tight, disciplined defense and turn back the "Blitzburgh," they have a good chance to walk out of Sunday at 8-4, keep the pressure on the Jets, and stay in strong contention for the playoffs.
How about them apples?
Bonus Coverage: The Gridiron Breadbasket Connection (actives only)
From the Patriots: Nick Kaczur (U of Toledo), Dan Koppen (hometown Whitehall, PA), Matt Light (hometown Greenville, PA), Ray Ventrone (hometown Pittsburgh), Mike Vrabel (OSU, hometown Akron), Pierre Woods (hometown Cleveland), Mike Wright (Cincinnati).
From the Steelers: Andre Frazier (U of Cincinnati), James Harrison (Kent State, hometown Akron), Santonio Holmes (OSU), Sean McHugh (PSU), Ben Roethlisberger (Miami OH, hometown Lima OH), Gary Russell (hometown Colombus), Nate Washington (Tiffin U, hometown Toledo).