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.