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I hope everybody had a great Thanksgiving. While you were huddled over your 22 pound turducken, passing Grandma the candied yams, maybe you saw a bit of the annual NFL action out of the corner of your eye. And when you did, I hope you remembered to give thanks for being a Steeler fan.
Now, on to this week’s contest with the New England Patriots. When they lost franchise quarterback Tom Brady to a season-ending knee injury, they could’ve easily shrugged their shoulders and wrote the year off. Instead, they picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and have managed a very respectable showing thus far. While they’ve been aided by the easiest schedule in the NFL, they’ve also had to overcome even more injuries to their best defensive player (S Rodney Harrison) and every member of their backfield.
For maintaining competitiveness and working through adversity, head coach Bill Belichick deserves a great deal of credit. Whether this coaching tour de force is enough to erase the taint of Spygate is another thing.
If there’s one lesson to be learned from the Spygate fiasco, it’s that Bill Belichick is a complete bullshit artist. For years Belichick went out of his way to mention how much he loved the game and respected the sport, his fellow coaches, and the players. Yet the scandal put a sizeable dent in the game’s integrity and Belichick’s wrath at actually being accused of cheating (which he most definitely did) led to the Patriots disrespectfully running up the score on teams throughout the season. The lesson was that Bill Belichick did have a great deal of respect for the game…as long as he was its unquestioned genius.
STEELER DEFENSE vs. PATRIOTS OFFENSE
In honor of Black Friday, here’s what everybody in the NFL will want under their Christmas tree this year: Matt Cassel. Write it down, he will be a starting QB in the NFL next season. If not for the Patriots, then for the likes of Detroit or San Francisco. Brady’s injury couldn’t have come at a better time for Cassel, who is an unrestricted free agent after this year. With the low quality of quarterbacking in the league, he’ll be the best FA QB prospect since Drew Brees. The only real question is how far along is Tom Terrific’s bum knee and will the Pats have to franchise Matt in order to protect themselves next year?
The other burning question is whether Cassel is actually a talent or a product of a winning system. Is he the next Steve Young or is he the next Rob Johnson? The first month of his tenure was rough, of course he was starting for the first time since HIGH SCHOOL. After those early games when the team was averaging about 10 pts/per, the Pats shifted to a run-based/ball control/West Coast offense. Cassel slowly began to thrive until the coaches have gained enough confidence in his throwing that they’ve began running an offense more in line to what they had under Brady. Cassel has passed for over 400 yards in two consecutive weeks.
Still, let’s be realistic. A lot of what makes the Patriots so tough is they have a motivated Randy Moss, arguably the greatest deep threat WR ever. They also have Chad Jackson, while not a great receiver, he was drafted to stretch the field with his speed. With that, opposing defenses are forced to use a lot of double safety help over the top, a fact Anthony Smith probably still has nightmares about. The vertical passing game opens up the underneath passing game for Wes Welker, the best slot receiver in football.
And if those guys were covered, they can still go to TE Ben Watson or excellent screen runner RB Kevin Faulk. Faulk missed time due to injury but he is one they got back. The rest of their RBs have not been so lucky. They primarily feature Benjarvis Green-Ellis, an undrafted free agent who was on their PRACTICE SQUAD although Sammy Morris has returned in recent weeks and will get some playing time.
According to the latest reports, it looks like the Three Amigos will ride again in our secondary. Deshea Townshend, coming off a sprained hammy, and Bryant McFadden, nursing a broken forearm, both practiced on Thursday which usually indicates they’ll give it a go. Good timing as they’ll join Ike “Can’t See Me” Taylor to face the daunting task of covering those Patriot receivers.
The other important thing to note is Brady’s Kryptonite has always been his statue-like pocket presence. Cassel is much more mobile so even if our hellacious pass rushers get in on him (and to be honest, the Pats O-Line is a bit overrated), they will be dealing with a far more maneuverable QB.
STEELER OFFENSE vs. PATRIOTS DEFENSE
NE still empoys a 3-4 scheme although they’ve made changes over the years to use more four down linemen formations and using more 1 gap 3-4 instead of 2 gap 3-4 schemes. The defense wasn’t all that hot last season but they did have a knack for making the right plays at the right time. After the David Tyree miracle catch, Archie Manning noted that he and his sons talked about how if the game gets close, Eli could not afford to get sacked because they noticed over the years that the Patriots had an uncanny knack for getting big sacks in crunch time.
This is a big defense as they rarely ever find a team that is more physical than they are. However, their size and physical play comes at a price as it’s often difficult to find linebackers who are both big and can cover. For the past few years they had to move our old friend Mike Vrabel to the inside to help with coverage. Now that his cover skills have diminished, he’ll probably stick to playing the outside backer spot and just rush the passer. He’s about as incredible as they get when it comes to making the timely big play. Honestly, it’s amazing he’s become the clutch big game player he’s been for this team when everybody who remembers his lone year starting for the Steelers will recall how ineffective he was as a pass rusher.
Adalius Thomas was their best cover LB. He was another tremendous loss as he’s out for the year with a broken arm. They’ve been forced to play rookie 1st rounder Jerrod Mayo probably a lot more than they would like but the noob has risen to the occasion. He’s a tremendous prospect and just the type of player they badly needed; an athletic smart player who can cover inside and mow down runs to the outside.
They lost Asante Samuel to free agency but it wasn’t as devastating as some might have thought. The Pats don’t place too much value on corners because they are primarily a zone defense team which stresses scheme over individual talent. They have been more susceptible to the pass than the run this year but they’re still middle of the pack in both categories. That’s not much different than last year, only people didn’t worry so much last year due to the comfort of knowing their offense was good for at least 30+ points every game.
Pothole Willie Parker’s knee is bothering him again as excessive swelling prevented him from practicing this week. At this point, I think we can safely hang the tag of “injury prone” on FWP. Luckily the one-two punch of Mewelde Moore and Gary Russell has proven quite effective in relief. They’ll have to rise to the occasion on Sunday since a ball control/possession type offense is still the best way to deal with the Patriots. Then again, O-Coordinator Bruce Arians hasn’t committed to the run all season, why start now?
The rest of the offense looks good to go so it’ll be interesting what Arians has planned for a very smart and well-coached defensive team. Whenever we’ve played intelligent D-Coordinators (Jim Johnson, Steve Spagnulo), they’ve coached rings around ‘ol Bruce. This week we get Belichick and whatever puppet he calls his DC so in this battle of wits, hopefully Arians doesn’t come unarmed.
Speaking of arms, if QB Ben Roethlisberger can keep his pointed in the direction of our WRs and not their CBs, he should have a decent day throwing the ball. I don’t anticipate the pressure being too overwhelming nor do I think the secondary is stifling enough to really hamper that aspect of our game. Big Ben has looked much stronger and healthier in recent weeks so if he stays within himself and avoids game-changing mistakes, he should have a pretty productive day.
Also of note, Mitch Berger makes his triumphant return as Steeler punter this week. Paul Ernster and his 30 yard average were sent packing to nobody’s surprise. Daniel Supulveda was lost for the year so we held a competition between Ernster and Berger. Ernster stunk so we went with Berger. Berger stunk so we brought back Ernster. Ernster was beyond atrocious so here comes Berger again. I know this is a radical idea but HOW ABOUT TRYING SOMEBODY NEW?!?
You can’t tell me those two clowns represent all there is in the free agent punter talent pool. Whoever kicks better do a good job as Ellis Hobbs had a great year on returns last year, averaging 26 yards a kickoff while Wes Welker is not explosive on returns but consistent at putting his team in good field position.
Unlike previous years where the division was wrapped up by mid-season, the Patriots are in a real dogfight with the streaking Jets. Failing a division title, they’re also looking at a three way battle with the Ravens and Colts for a Wild Card spot. The Steelers follow this week with Dallas, Baltimore, Tennessee, and Cleveland. Only one of those is a gimme (I leave it to you to figure out which) and with Baltimore one measly game behind, we really need to pick up at least two wins. This appears to be the 2nd most winnable game of the five. One thing is for sure, the loser of this game will be in an almost no margin for error situation if they hope to make the playoffs.
Topics: Afc, Archie Manning, Arians, Belicheat, Belichick, Berger, Big Ben, Bill Belichick, Bruce Arians, Cassel, Colts, Ernster, Face Me Ike, Fighting Belicheats, Giving Thanks, Goodell, Green-ellis, Harrison, Indy, Manning, Matt Cassel, Mewelde Moore, New England, Patriots, Peyton Manning, Ravens, Rodney Harrison, Roethlisberger, Sepulveda, Spygate, Steeler Nation, Thanksgiving, Tom Brady, Tom Terrific, Tomlin, Willie Parker