Print and Go Back NFL [Print without images]

Thursday, September 5, 2002
Updated: September 9, 1:56 PM ET
Game Plans: Steelers and Patriots

By Ron Jaworski and Sean Salisbury
Special to

The New England Patriots host the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday in a rematch of the AFC title game (ABC, 9 p.m. ET).

ESPN analysts Ron Jaworski and Sean Salisbury break down the game plans of each team.

Salisbury on the Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers believe they're the best team in the AFC -- a notion derived from confidence, not arrogance. With the addition of more offensive weapons like rookie Antwaan Randle El and Terance Mathis and an improved Kordell Stewart, the Steelers believe they are a better team than they were last season, when they were favored in the AFC title game against the New England Patriots, their opponent again Monday.

On their defense, ranked No. 1 in the NFL last season, Kendrell Bell and Casey Hampton are both a year older and better, and James Farrior has replaced Earl Holmes in the linebacking corps. Under Bill Cowher, they are as well-coached as any team in the NFL. He has led the Steelers to one Super Bowl appearance and three AFC title games, including last year's loss to the Patriots. The only step left for him is a Super Bowl victory.

Five keys for the Steelers:
1. Pound Brady: Tom Brady is a gutsy player. From the second he leaves the locker room, the Steelers have to hit him in the mouth and put pressure on him. They can't allow Brady to sit back and pick them apart. They need to hit him, hit him and hit him again. I'm not talking about just sacks; they have to beat him up and rattle him.

2. Shackle Smith: Last season, Antowain Smith had a career year. If the Steelers take him out of the game, New England will be a different team. The Patriots have good weapons, but they don't equal the Rams or the Colts at the skill positions. Like most teams, Pittsburgh will try and stop the run first. If the Steelers are successful, they will be in a decent situation and most likely win. The hard-nosed Pittsburgh defense is awesome, especially against the run.

3. Keep Stewart improving: Last year's AFC championship game is one that Stewart wants back. There are still people who believe his overall performance for the season was a fluke, but I'm not one of them. Stewart nearly took the Steelers to the Super Bowl. He has improved, and with added weapons, he must continue to improve. Last season Stewart told me he wanted to be a piece of the machinery, not the machine. He doesn't need to be spectacular. He needs to manage the offense and show the world he is just going to play.

4. Outcoach Belichick: Bill Belichick is the best defensive game plan coach in football. As he did in Super Bowl XXXVI against the Rams, he understands how to take a team's best weapon out of the game. If Belichick's philosophy is to stop the Steelers' running game of Jerome Bettis and Amos Zereoue and force the other players to win, then Steelers offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey shouldn't allow his offense to sit in stationary formations. Using motion, he should move Plaxico Burress, Hines Ward and Randle El around, even putting Randle El or Ward in the backfield or in the slot. Mularkey needs to outfox Belichick and beat him at his own game.

5. Win on special teams: Last season the Steelers' special teams struggles may have cost them the Super Bowl. The mishaps and misfires led to the firing of special teams coach Jay Hayes. They replaced kicker Kris Brown with Todd Peterson. Under new special teams coach Kevin Spencer, the Steelers can't allow their special teams to flounder. The Steelers have great returners, but their special teams can't jump offsides or miss field goals. New England is too sound and won't beat itself.

Jaworski on the Patriots
With their Super Bowl victory as evidence, the New England Patriots are an outstanding football team. It boggles my mind that more people don't give them the credit they deserve for reaching the top of the NFL a year ago. However, the Patriots are not a complete team. They don't dominate with their running game and they don't overwhelm teams with Tom Brady throwing the ball. But they are solid in both areas.

Their defense, however, is awesome. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel and head coach Bill Belichick do a great job with the defensive design. At the same time, the Patriots also have outstanding defensive talent, led by cornerback Ty Law and safety Lawyer Milloy. Law and Milloy had huge games in the AFC championship game against Pittsburgh, and then again against St. Louis in the Super Bowl. People have a tendency to think the Patriots' success was just a result of their coaching. While coaching played a large part, the Patriots also had great players to execute the game plan. Don't overlook their ability to once again outplay the Steelers on Monday night.

Five keys for the Patriots:
1. Stop the run: The Patriots can take the same blueprint they used in the AFC title game, beginning with an emphasis on stopping the Steelers' ground attack. The Patriots were able to take Jerome Bettis (nine carries, eight yards) out of the game early, which set up the rest of their defensive plan.

2. Pressure Kordell: With the running game nullified, the Patriots were able to force Kordell Stewart into known passing situations and come with their pressure packages. The Patriots kept Stewart from developing a rhythm in the passing game.

3. No room for receivers: The defensive backs played a lot of tight, press, man-to-man coverage on the Steelers' receivers. They will continue with that same approach. The secondary did an excellent job and forced Stewart to make the "stick" throws. When the Patriots were ahead 21-3, they backed off a bit and played a safer defense, which allowed the Steelers to come back. On Monday, however, I think they will start with the pressure and stay with it.

4. Troy Brown: He is the heartbeat of New England's offense. In the Patriots' three wideout set, he is the slot receiver -- and one of the best in the league. The Steelers don't like to drop their cornerbacks. They will bring in either a safety or a nickel back to cover the slot receiver. This is a matchup that favors Brown, who had 121 receiving yards against Pittsburgh in the AFC title game. I expect the Patriots to get the ball to Brown frequently out of the slot position.

5. Run, run, run: New England must come up with a solid running effort. Antowain Smith came into training camp out of shape, and the Patriots were talking about signing Jamal Anderson. I don't think they have solidified their running game. Somehow, the Patriots need to run the ball to control the clock. That will be tough to do against the NFL's No. 1 defense, which faced a league-low 919 offensive plays a year ago.