Steelers capitalize on Dillon's absence

PITTSBURGH -- One of the final stragglers remaining in the New England locker room, from which most players had hustled to the charter buses to ponder their first defeat in 399 days, defensive lineman Richard Seymour was questioned about the pedigree of a Pittsburgh Steelers team that had just quashed the Patriots' record 21-game winning streak.

"How good are they?" said Seymour, eyebrows arched, and repeating the query. "I don't know, man, really. They won, right? So I guess they're good enough."

A couple hundred yards of concrete corridor removed from where the Pats were dressing, Steelers players openly acknowledged they might, indeed, be plenty good enough. Although the Steelers were subdued and maybe even understated in addressing what they had accomplished with their 34-20 bludgeoning of the defending Super Bowl champions, there was a collective sense that this was a special victory.

And that the Steelers, now 6-1 and with only one NFL franchise sporting a better record, might be a more special bunch than anyone had expected coming into the season.

Oh, sure, Bill Cowher invoked the anticipated coach-ese to drive home the point that, even with the significance of the victory, the game still counted for just one win. To some extent, it seemed, his players bought wholesale into the rhetoric.

But not for long.

Having succeeded in embracing the streakbuster mantle, the Steelers appeared intent on continuing in that role next Sunday here, when the undefeated Philadelphia Eagles travel to Heinz Field for an emotional interconference matchup. So, consecutive victories over undefeated opponents, for the Steelers? Don't bet against it.

Behind rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (now 5-0 as a starter), a physical running game that balances things nicely for the first-round passer, and a very aggressive defense, the Steelers clearly are playing with great momentum.

"You know, really, nobody thinks we're the team to beat," noted cornerback Deshea Townsend, who blew Sunday's contest open with a 39-yard interception return for a first-quarter touchdown, Pittsburgh's third score in a scintillating 3:33 span that left the Pats in arrears by a 21-3 count. "So maybe we'll just settle for being the team that beats all of these so-called 'teams to beat,' all right? That would be OK with us."

The operative term in all of that, no doubt, was beat, because the Steelers simply pounded the undermanned Patriots in virtually ever facet of the contest. Winners of a record 21 consecutive games, New England was certainly backed into a Catch-22 of sorts when tailback Corey Dillon was deemed too gimpy to play on Sunday, the sixth Patriots starter relegated to the sidelines.

His absence all but assured the Patriots would resort to their "spread" and "empty" pass packages and, in so doing, New England played right into the hands of Cowher and of defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who spent plenty of time during the Pittsburgh bye last week preparing for those formations.

The Pittsburgh defense particularly thrived against the "empty" set, a no-running backs formation that New England had used liberally two years ago to torch the Steelers unit. The first time the Pats went "empty," quarterback Tom Brady overthrew open wideout David Patten on the game's opening possession and New England settled for a field goal. On the second "empty" snap, Brady was dumped by linebacker Joey Porter, the first of his three sacks, and fumbled. The recovery by defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen was followed five plays later by Roethlisberger's second touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress for a 14-3 lead.

The third "empty" set resulted in Townsend's touchdown. The cornerback recognized a combination in which the Pats send the tailback to the flat and the wide receiver on a curl route. He jumped in front of wide receiver Bethel Johnson, made the pickoff, then sped untouched for the third score in the Steelers' frenetic spree.

"That play," said Porter, whose monster performance included eight tackles, a pass defensed and two forced fumbles, "brought the hammer down on them and on that streak, too. That was huge."

Indeed, the Steelers broke out a huge hammer, a sledge, to deliver a message to the Pats and to a rowdy, partisan crowd of 64,737, the largest gathering in franchise history. This was a day, even New England coach Bill Belichick conceded, when the Steelers were not about to be outslugged. That the Steelers absolutely dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball was obvious all afternoon.

Led by tailback Duce Staley, who posted 125 yards on 25 carries, the Steelers rushed for 221 yards, had 25 first downs and owned a whopping advantage in time of possession of nearly 26 minutes. Pittsburgh had six offensive series of four minutes or more, including a killer field-goal drive of 8:35 in the third quarter. On that series, the Steelers ran a dozen straight times, chewing up real estate and the clock.

Notable was that, even with their offense as balanced as it was, the Steelers were fairly predictable on first down, relying on their offensive line to carve out big holes. Pittsburgh ran on 24 of its 27 first-and-10 snaps, for 116 rushing yards. Amazingly, 95 of Staley's yards came on first-and-10 runs, with the New England front seemingly helpless despite the relative monotonous inexorability of the Steelers offense.

Getting into the spirit of the holiday, Staley suggested his offensive linemen carved up the Patriots front "like a Halloween pumpkin." While somewhat forced and more than a tad hackneyed, the analogy was an apt one. Center Jeff Hartings and left tackle Marvel Smith were especially dominant on the Pittsburgh line.

Conversely, with their running game rendered an afterthought with Dillon's absence and the large deficit they faced, the Patriots at one juncture of the contest threw on 26 straight snaps and actually called 29 straight pass plays. New England finished with a measly five rushing yards on six attempts, its longest run of the day for four yards.

But the more meaningful glitch for the Pats was four turnovers which led to three of the four Pittsburgh touchdowns and also one field goal.

Pressured much of the day, even though LeBeau didn't blitz quite as much as even some of his defenders felt he might, Brady was often scattershot. He completed 25 of 43 passes for 271 yards and two touchdowns. But his two interceptions were critical and the two-time Super Bowl MVP registered only one completion of more than 20 yards. Fact is, it would not be hyperbole to suggest that Brady was easily outplayed by the callow Roethlisberger, who again demonstrated remarkable poise against a coach who is famous for getting inside the heads of far more experienced quarterbacks.

Cowher went to great pains to once again downplay the performance of Roethlisberger, who took full advantage of a New England secondary that began the day hurting, and lost star cornerback Ty Law to a lingering foot injury with about five minutes remaining in the first quarter. But there is little doubt that Roethlisberger, who has put together a pretty nifty winning streak of his own (18 straight victories as a starter, dating to a loss to Iowa in the 2003 season-opener for Miami University), has captured the confidence of his more veteran teammates.

So just how good is Roethlisberger? And, more important, how good are the Steelers? This is a team, it seems, that can't wait to find out. Next week offers another measuring stick, another undefeated opponent, another chance for Pittsburgh to stake a claim as one of the league's premier teams.

"It's another opportunity and, hey, I'm big on opportunities," said Townsend, a veteran who has finally worked his way into a full-time starter's role in his seventh NFL season. "This whole team is big on opportunities."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.