And if they do succeed in the Super Bowl Feb.6, the Steelers will be the first team of their kind to do that in more than a dozen years. Passing teams have dominated the NFL lately. By contrast, the Steelers' thing is three-pronged: Playing stout defense, running the ball with Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley, and hoping hot young passer Ben Roethlisberger can convert occasionally on third down.
His third-and-four 46-yard bomb set up Bettis' 12-yard run for the touchdown that ended a tight one, 17-6.
Roethlisberger, the model Miami (Ohio) rookie who has incredibly won every game he's played in pro football (11), is doing it on talent alone. Most of the time, the Steeler brain trust gives him no help whatever. He is asked to hand off on first and second down and then complete third-down passes against defenses that invariably load up against him on that down, knowing a pass is certain. Thus he remains not rookie of the year but player of the year.
Halfback Pass Could Be a Staple
THE HALFBACK PASS that Bettis threw for a 10-yard touchdown earlier in the fourth quarter last week was a reminder that the 31 other NFL teams have joined the Steelers in all but ignoring such a weapon lately. It's one of football's great offensive plays. And it doesn't have to be reserved for select occasions.
When Hall of Fame Coach Vince Lombardi perfected the halfback pass 40 years ago, one of his running backs, Hall of Famer Paul Hornung, threw the ball or ran it one day on every Green Bay play for half of an exhibition game against Philadelphia, throwing twice for touchdowns.
"Coach thought we needed the practice," Hornung said later. He added that the same plan would have worked in a regular-season game because, when a running back is in position to run or throw the ball, the same two or three defensive players assigned to contain him on the sweep must simultaneously guard against the pass.
It helps, of course, if the ball is thrown by good running teams, and Pittsburgh is one of those. After Roethlisberger had delivered two long passes — one for 26 yards, one for 22 — to advance the Steelers to the Jet 30, Bettis carried the ball on four consecutive plays before throwing it. He isn't much of a passer, but passing skill isn't the key. What it takes is a coach who will call it.
Don't Count Patriots, Eagles Out
THE TWO OTHER teams with a chance to win Super Bowl XXXIX are New England and Philadelphia. Though both have already lost to Pittsburgh, both are capable of reversing the result. That is, their players know how to aggressively attack the Steeler defense, which is the only way Pittsburgh can be had.
As coached by Dick LeBeau, the Steelers are so sound defensively that a good conventional offense can hardly stir against them, as the games of a long season have repeatedly proved. The kind of team that can win a Pittsburgh game is one that will come out passing on first-down plays, when every NFL defense, including Pittsburgh's, must think run as well as pass.
And as it happens, Tom Brady of New England and Donovan McNabb of Philadelphia are both experienced passers who have indeed come out passing to win big games, this year and also in other years. Neither is the wait-and-see type. Both have an attack mentality. Both understand that the Steelers are vulnerable because they don't score a lot of points.
In a word, the Steelers can be outscored. And that's why teams emphasizing defense and running plays — as the Steelers do so well — have consistently lost to passing teams in recent Super Bowl games. Since long before quarterback Troy Aikman's day in Dallas as an early-1990s passer, the only run-and-defend team to win the Super Bowl was the 2000 Baltimore team, which did it by knocking opposing quarterbacks out of the playoffs. That brought a change in NFL rules against quarterback brutality, but that's another story. The root question this year is whether Bettis' runs and an occasional Roethlisberger pass — in combination with Pittsburgh's great defense — will be enough to hold off a determined passing team.
Are Colts Super Bowl Contenders?
THE INDIANAPOLIS COLTS, with Peyton Manning at quarterback, deserve to be listed as a Super Bowl contender too, some would say, right up there with Pittsburgh, New England and Philadelphia. But the Colts must still answer two questions convincingly.
Can Manning win big games? He's often had trouble against good teams with good defenses.
Can the Colt defense win big games? It's had trouble all year with all kinds of teams.
For one example, the 5-8 Houston Texans outscored the Colts in the last three quarters last Sunday, 14-9. Though Manning won the first quarter and the game, 23-14, the Colt defense, again, failed to elevate itself into a class with Pittsburgh, New England and Philadelphia.
More will be learned Sunday in the game of the week when the 8-5 Baltimore Ravens visit 10-3 Indianapolis. At first glance, the Colts don't seem to match up well with that team. Their defense isn't the kind that could harass Raven quarterback Kyle Boller, who aimed four touchdown passes as Baltimore overwhelmed the hapless and sinking New York Giants Sunday, 37-14. On the other side of the ball, Baltimore's tight, tough defense is the kind that could be hard on Manning.
Though Manning is a handful with his three great receivers — Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley — the league will be watching this one.
Chargers in NFL's Top Five
THE SAN DIEGO CHARGERS, who get patsy Cleveland next week, have risen to become the NFL's fifth Super Bowl contender, and the AFC's fourth, winning seven straight the modern way with a strong defensive team and a reliable passer, Drew Brees.
It can be argued that they were a touch lucky to win on an intercepted pass in the fourth quarter Sunday, 31-24, but the truth is that any way they could have beaten charging Tampa Bay at this late stage of a strange season would have been impressive.
For, in their last three starts, the Buccaneers had won twice — routing Atlanta, 27-0, on the way to San Diego — and they'd won five of their last seven. And they were bound for the playoffs when Brees threw them back with 17 hits in 23 passes and the two touchdowns that got the Chargers started in the first half.
The thesis that San Diego has a better team than Indianapolis, despite Manning's 199 touchdown passes or whatever, will be tested on the Colts' home field on the day after Christmas.
Pittburgh's Coaches Don't Dig Offense
THE PITTSBURGH DEFENSE remains the NFL's single most potent and imposing platoon, offensive or defensive, entering the season's final days. It's that way due to LeBeau's overall defensive design and to the quality of his players. Although New England has also been defensively powerful for most of the Bill Belichick era there, the Steelers, even so, are possibly the best mix of defensive coaching and personnel the game has had during the league's long and continuing passing era. Two plays in last week's Jet game helped make the point:
In the first half, at a critical moment of the tightly-played game of the week, LeBeau lined up strong safety Troy Polamalu on the scrimmage line, where he was well-placed, as the play began, to blitz Jet passer Chad Pennington. But at the snap, Polamalu, the onetime USC All-American, retreated instantly into pass coverage, and not only that, he dropped back into the deep area that Pennington was aiming for. And not only that, Polamalu came up with the interception.
In the second half, at another critical juncture, LeBeau called another blitz, which was hardly unusual for him. What was unusual was that at the same time, he double-covered Pennington's intended receiver, forcing the Jet passer to scramble for less than first-down yardage. It's an NFL axiom that blitzing means single coverage on all possible receivers. It's understood that when some of the back-seven people are blitzing, there aren't enough left to double-team their opponents. Yet, somehow, LeBeau did. When Pennington looked up, he saw two Steelers surrounding his very target — on a short-pass play — leaving him no choice but to take off.
On offense, the Pittsburgh story is wholly different. The intellectual advantage the Steelers hold on defense disappears on offense, where their coaches sometimes seem not to have a clue on how to proceed. They seem not to understand that the most strategically lethal way to play offense is to threaten both run and pass at the start of every play — as Manning, for instance, so often does in Indianapolis with his sprinting play-action handoffs and fake handoffs. There are many other ways.
With two good running backs, Bettis and Staley, and with a good quarterback, Roethlisberger, the Steelers almost never integrate runs with passes. Instead, typically, they call power runs on first and second down, keeping Roethlisberger well out of the scene. Then after the runs gain five yards or so, the Steelers, on third down, typically put Roethlisberger back in shotgun formation and ask him to throw without faking a running play.
Third in any case is the most difficult down for an NFL passer. He is then invariably confronted or attacked, or both, by defensive players anticipating a pass for sure. In spite of that truth, the Steelers insist on running on early downs and passing on third down and wondering why Roethlisberger doesn't complete more passes if he's such a hotshot passer.
As Pittsburgh Coach Bill Cowher said Sunday after another narrow victory: "We've got to be more efficient on third down."
Not a clue.