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Six Points... on the win over the Patriots

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Pittsburgh finally beat New England because it finally flipped the script. The head-to-head records don’t lie. The Steelers have been at the mercy of the Patriots for the past decade, and it looks even worse when you throw out Pittsburgh’s win over Matt Cassel in 2008.

Offensively, the Patriots have always been adept at the type of ball that a team needs to play to beat Dick LeBeau’s defense: short rhythm passes. The football needs to come out quickly and well before the pass rush hits home.

Defensively, New England always did just enough to slow Pittsburgh down. The Patriots used strength up the middle to collapse the pocket and force Ben to move, where they could net a big sack or, possibly, a turnover. By the time the fourth quarter rolled around, Brady would have put the Steelers in a hole scoring-wise. That led to more desperation chances which ended up as a defensive touchdown against the Black and Gold on more than one occasion.

This time around, the Steelers flipped the script and stopped playing into the hands of Brady and Belichick.

On offense, Ben Roethlisberger essentially out-Brady’d Brady. Big Ben put away the backyard-football scrambles and shredded the Patriots with short pass after short pass. Four Steelers caught five or more passes, and yet nobody broke the 100-yard mark despite a 365-yard outing by Roethlisberger.

The quarterback took what was open and released the ball before New England’s pass rush could get to him. His only sacks came when he deviated from that script.

Pittsburgh also changed things around on defense to great effect. The Steelers went heavy with their secondary against the Patriots, partly because it’s what they needed to do and partly because it’s what they had to do with James Farrior out before the game and LaMarr Woodley injured during it.

Outside of the four regulars (Taylor, Gay, Polamalu, Clark), safety Ryan Mundy also saw extensive action, as did third-year corner Keenan Lewis, who is having an outstanding season after looking utterly lost for his first two years.

Even rookie Cortez Allen threw his name in the hat, as was most-often responsible for covering tight end Rob Gronkowski (when Mundy didn’t draw the assignment). Gronkowski was New England’s best receiver on Sunday, but his opportunities for big plays and, more importantly, scoring plays were limited by the efforts of the young guns.

The corners also played more man and less zone against the opposing wideouts, something that helps to limit the effectiveness of Wes Welker, who came in to Sunday’s game on a tear. Welker, who is excellent at finding holes in zone coverage and picking up easy receptions, was shadowed by Ike Taylor for much of the contest and ended up with his worst outing of the season.

While Tom Brady still completed 68% of his passes, his completions were catch-and-done instead of catch-and-run. Pittsburgh’s defensive backs made the tackles and limited big plays from yards after the catch.

In addition, the switch to man coverage and the secondary-heavy formations threw off Brady’s timing, allowing the pass rush to hit home on more than one occasion. Once that pass rush got there, it put the Patriots offense into a hole they couldn’t crawl out of because the medium-to-big plays just weren’t there.

I loved to see the bounce-back from Pittsburgh’s offense. When Big Ben tossed a lazy interception in the second quarter of a game the Steelers were dominating to that point, I cringed. It was the type of play the offense needed to avoid if they wanted to beat Tom Brady’s Patriots for the first time since the 2004 season.

To their credit, the Steelers offense came out on the following drive, after a touchdown by Brady, and executed another monster clock-killing drive that ended with a score.

It’s still early, but I like what I saw from the rookies. Cameron Heyward is fitting in well on the front line and could see more playing time if Pittsburgh is forced to use less linebackers (or use Brett Keisel as a linebacker) with so many players out of the lineup. He has the athleticism and, more importantly, the drive and motivation to be a great player.

Chris Carter had his rookie mistake, jumping offsides on third down, but looked quick on the rush. He’s still very raw and needs to bulk up, but I liked what I saw from him, given the circumstances.

Cortez Allen is going to be a stud at the cornerback position. He’s athletic and is the type of player than the coaches can mold, rather than a guy who is what he is. Coach Tomlin also seemed impressed with his work ethic, saying that it’s tough to get him off the practice field.

Pro Bowl voting has started. Let’s look at which Steelers are on the ballot and try to figure out their chances of making it to Hawaii which half the season in the books.

QB: Ben Roethlisberger You have to love his chances this year. Big Ben just won his second player-of-the-week award for his performance against the Patriots. Two AFC stalwarts, Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers, are injured and struggling, respectively. Plus, all the big vote-getters (Rodgers, Brees, Vick, Newton) reside in the NFC. The path is clear for Big Ben.

RB: Rashard Mendenhall Mendenhall hasn’t passed the eye test and his stats don’t match up with the AFC elite this season. Unless he explodes in the second half, he has no chance.

WR: Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Hines Ward – Wallace is as near a lock as you’ll see on the team, as he’s placed himself in the NFL’s elite group of receivers. Brown has an outside chance, but would really need to step up his game to make the roster. At this point, Hines Ward has no shot of making it.

FB: David Johnson No chance. FB voting goes to the guy with the most name recognition or to the fullback on the NFL’s best running team. DJ won’t get help in either category.

TE: Heath Miller – A decent chance. With Antonio Gates struggling through injuries and most of the power TE’s (Graham, Witten) in the NFC, Miller has only two obstacles in his way: Patriots TEs Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. If Heath can notch a few touchdowns in the second half, it will greatly help his case.

OL: Max Starks, Marcus Gilbert, Chris Kemoeatu, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey Pouncey is the only player in the group with a realistic shot at making it to the Pro Bowl. He’s not playing as well as he did last season (when he did make it), but Pro Bowls tend to yield Pro Bowls, so he’ll always be in the discussion. Outside of Pouncey, nobody really has a chance, though I would certainly back Ramon Foster if he continues to play as well as he has since taking over at right guard.

Now, let’s look at the candidates on defense and special teams.

DE: Ziggy Hood, Brett Keisel – Hood isn’t well-known enough and hasn’t stood out enough to garner any attention from Voters. Keisel, however, has played very well after making the Pro Bowl last season. Plus, he has the whole beard dynamic going for him. The beard plays.

DT: Casey Hampton – Injuries have limited his play this season, so no dice.

ILB: James Farrior, Lawrence Timmons Farrior is likely a no go, especially now that he’s missing time with injuries. Timmons is having an off-year and has been playing more OLB, which will hurt him. Plus, it looks like Baltimore’s Ray Lewis will lock up one of the spots as usual, limiting the potential openings.

OLB: LaMarr Woodley, James Harrison – Harrison has too much ground to make up after missing a number of weeks in the first half of the season. His streak of Pro Bowls will end this season. Woodley is a more interesting case. He’s the leading sack-artist in the AFC despite a slow start, but just went down with an injury against the Patriots. If he can come back sooner, rather than later, he can lock up another double-digit-sack season and another Pro Bowl appearance.

CB: Ike Taylor, William Gay – Taylor should be a look, as he’s getting national attention for his play now. If he doesn’t make it to Hawaii, it will be a travesty. Gay is having a very, very solid season, but he doesn’t have the stats, nor the positive name recognition to sneak into a spot next to Taylor.

SS: Troy PolamaluThis is a tough one. On one hand, Polamalu has name recognition, something that is extremely important for Pro Bowls, but no All-Pro lists. On the other hand, Buffalo’s George Wilson is having one hell of a season at the position. I don’t think he’ll make it (at least not as a starter), but I wouldn’t count him out either.

FS: Ryan Clark I’ve really enjoyed Clark’s play this season. Unfortunately, he’s playing the same position as Ed Reed and the Chargers’ Eric Weddle. No chance.

K: Shaun Suisham With some shoddy accuracy on field goals this season, Suisham is closer to being replaced than making a Pro Bowl. Sorry, but no chance.

P: Daniel Sepulveda – Has played well, but would need a miracle to get selected over Oakland’s Shane Lechler, who remains the standard at the position.

KR: Antonio Brown – He’s excelled returning both punts and kicks, with few negatives. Unfortunately, he also has yet to break a big return for a touchdown. His lack of a home run could mean a trip to Hawaii for other AFC North return-men such as Cleveland’s Joshua Cribbs or Cincinnati’s Brandon Tate.

ST: Arnaz Battle – This one is tough to predict. I do think that Will Allen should be on the ballot instead of Battle, but the setup almost makes you approach this as: “I’ll vote for generic Pittsburgh special teamer.” One thing that could help Battle: the Steelers have the AFC’s best record, which always seems to factor into this position. I’d give him a decent chance to make it.

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