The Steelers ledthe NFL in rushing attempts the last two seasons, carrying the ball on 61% oftheir snaps in 2004--the most ground-heavy attack in 20 years--and on 57% oftheir plays in '05. "It's our personality," veteran back Jerome Bettissays of Pittsburgh, which averaged 138.9 rushing yards per game this season."Physical and hard-hitting." ¬∂ The Seahawks boast the NFL's leadingrusher in league MVP Shaun Alexander, who churned out 1,880 yards; theiroffense was more balanced than the Steelers'--51% of Seattle's plays wererushes--yet only two teams averaged more than the Seahawks' 153.6 rushing yardsper game in '05. "We're going to make you stop the run to beat us,"Alexander says. ¬∂ So which offensive players will have the biggest say in theoutcome of Super Bowl XL? Don't be surprised if it's the quarterbacks. Thoughno one can be sure what Seattle coach Mike Holmgren and Pittsburgh coordinatorKen Whisenhunt will cook up, the ways in which their teams won a total of fiveplayoff games last month showed just how imaginative their game plans canbe.
In the first halfof their three playoff wins, the Steelers called more passes (56%) than runsand outscored opponents by a combined 52-23. That means Whisenhunt iscomfortable putting his team's fate in the hands of second-year quarterback BenRoethlisberger. As the Cincinnati Bengals and the Indianapolis Colts did inplayoff games against Pittsburgh before them, the Denver Broncos began the AFCChampionship Game by jamming the line to stop the run--"We want to put thegame in Roethlisberger's hands," Denver middle linebacker Al Wilson saidbefore the game--then saw Big Ben pick apart that defense. In those three gamesRoethlisberger completed 69% of his throws in the first half (34 of 49) withsix touchdowns and one interception. "We don't feel we have to continue totry to run if it's not there," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said last Friday."We'll take the chunks downfield if we can. Whatever element of our gamegets going the fastest, that's the element we'll go with."
One reason forPittsburgh to think the 23-year-old Roethlisberger can make hay in the passinggame is that the Seattle secondary has proved to be vulnerable, especially tothe deep pass. Having lost two strong corners to free agency in the past twoyears--Shawn Springs (to Washington) in 2004, Ken Lucas (to Carolina) lastMarch--plus free safety Ken Hamlin to injuries suffered in a bar fight inOctober, the Seahawks allowed 222.4 passing yards per game in '05 (25th in theleague). Look for Roethlisberger to pick on left corner Andre Dyson just as hewent to work on Denver rookie cornerback Domonique Foxworth. Roethlisberger isgetting increasingly comfortable with third wideout Cedrick Wilson, who in thepostseason has averaged 24.5 yards per catch.
More than sixyears older than Roethlisberger, Hasselbeck also has come into his own thisseason; and because of that Holmgren won't hesitate to call 40 pass playsagainst Pittsburgh, if necessary. A bright, confident and sometimes stubbornplayer, Hasselbeck, 30, has a maverick streak that can give Holmgren fits. Thequarterback got on the wrong side of his coach on Nov. 20 in San Francisco,taking a sack when Holmgren thought he should have thrown the ball away. Afterthe series, as Hasselbeck walked away from Holmgren on the sideline, the coachangrily grabbed Hasselbeck by the jersey and threatened to put in backup SenecaWallace. "Go ahead," Hasselbeck snapped back. "Do it. Put himin." Holmgren had Wallace warm up but didn't make the switch. The next daythe two apologized to each other. Since then Hasselbeck has been on the bestrun of his career: 15 touchdown passes, two interceptions and a 7-1 record.
February 6, 2006
Now, saysHolmgren, who coached Brett Favre and Steve Young, "I trust Matt as much asI've trusted any other quarterback." On Sunday, watch how cunningHasselbeck can be. He'll quick-count the Steelers if he thinks they aren't set;on another play he might use a double cadence, shouting out"set-hut-hut" to try to draw them offside before starting the cadencethat will actually set the offense in motion.
Hasselbeck hasused mobility to his advantage in the playoffs--though it didn't help JakePlummer much in the AFC title game. The Steelers chased down Plummer, forcingfumbles on two sacks. In Seattle's case, quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn has workedhard to perfect Hasselbeck's quick-timing passes and throws on the run. Andwith the emergence of tight end Jerramy Stevens as a short and intermediatereceiving threat, Hasselbeck hopes to be able to use three- and five-step dropsplus quick throws to stave off the Pittsburgh blitz.
When these teamslast met, in early November 2003, Hasselbeck was just establishing himself asthe starter in Seattle; he completed 18 of 31 passes for 215 yards and atouchdown in a 23-16 home win over Pittsburgh. Two days later Roethlisbergerwas 19 of 28 for 230 yards with no touchdowns and one interception in leadingMiami (Ohio) to a 33-10 upset of Bowling Green in Oxford, Ohio.
Now either onecould wind up being the Super Bowl MVP on Sunday night.
This is a dream matchup, the best left tackle infootball against the best 3-4 pass rusher in the game right now. Unfortunatelyyou won't see it on every down--in Pittsburgh's base look Jones will face endKimo von Oelhoffen; also, Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau could havePorter stunting over the center and maybe even changing sides with left outsidelinebacker Clark Haggans. But as often as possible the Seahawks want the6'5", 315-pound Jones to be the one to take on the 6'3", 250-poundPorter. "I don't want our backs on him; that's not a great matchup for us,or anyone," Seattle offensive coordinator Gil Haskell says of blockingPorter. "In order for us to win, we've got to handle their pressureconsistently." He likes Jones's chances against Porter, who has three sacksso far in the postseason. "I think Walter will block Porter everytime," Haskell says. "He's got soft feet, quick feet, and not manypeople can beat him around the corner."
It's been amazing to see how quickly Tatupu, a5'11", 226-pound rookie, has taken charge in the nerve center of thedefense. "It's a little intimidating for me to have to tell guys like[veteran end] Grant Wistrom to move in the formation," Tatupu says,"but that's my job, and I've gotten pretty comfortable calling signals andgetting us in position." Look for Tatupu to roam behind huge tacklesChartric Darby and Rocky Bernard, picking the right gap to help stuff the run.Just as Tatupu is central to the Seattle run defense, so the 6'3",299-pound Hartings--who earned his second straight trip to the Pro Bowl thisseason--is the keystone of the Pittsburgh rushing attack. If the Steelers areable to run between the tackles, something they've struggled to do in theplayoffs, it will most likely be because the quick-footed Hartings, with helpfrom guards Alan Faneca and Kendall Simmons and fullback Dan Kreider, hasneutralized Tatupu's lateral speed.
One of the biggest surprises in the postseason forPittsburgh has been the clutch play of the 6'5", 256-pound Miller, a rookiefirst-round draft choice out of Virginia who has spent the last month sprintingup the seam and knocking over safeties like bowling pins. While quarterback BenRoethlisberger has plenty of dangerous options in the passing game, Seattlecan't underestimate the confidence the Steelers quarterback has in hissure-handed tight end, who in three playoff games is averaging 15.3 yards percatch (a yard and a half more than No. 1 receiver Hines Ward) on sevenreceptions and at times has looked like Antonio Gates East. The man he's upagainst is Boulware, a second-year player out of Florida State who at 6'3"and 223 pounds is one of the biggest safeties in the NFL--and has quicklyestablished himself as one of the most physical. Expect Boulware to send anearly message to Miller with some big hits. But don't expect Miller to beintimidated.