Foxborough, Mass. - On both sides of the great divide that separate the locker rooms of the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots, players are talking this week about the need to be physical. While analysis is being done on the myriad angles that could determine Sunday's AFC Championship Game between the Steelers and Patriots, many agree the deciding factors could be the basic principles of football.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick agrees. The last team standing at Heinz Field Sunday may be the one that simply executes the best.
"I don't think this is going to be a big scheme game," Belichick said. "This game is going to come down to fundamentals and execution. Blocking. Tackling. Throwing. Catching. Leverage. A lot of the basic things. I think that's what this came is going to come down to, that's what it's about. I don't think anybody is going to fool anybody here. The team that can play fundamentally the best without making mistakes, and play well situationally - in the red area, third down, goal-line, things like that - that will be the team that has the advantage."
The Patriots are hoping Sunday's game isn't a repeat of the teams' first match up this season, a game in which Pittsburgh dominated on both sides of the line of scrimmage in a 34-20 win. Offensively, Pittsburgh rushed for 221 total yards in that game, the most of any Patriots opponent this season, as Duce Staley ran for a season-high 125 yards and Jerome Bettis added 65 yards on 12 carries.
The Steelers made a living by running the ball this season, leading the NFL by a wide margin in rushing attempts (618) while finishing second in rushing yards per game (154.0). The rushing duties were handled by Staley (830 yards rushing) for the first eight weeks of the season before he suffered a hamstring injury against the Patriots on Oct. 31, at which point Bettis (941 yards) took over and rushed for 100 yards in each of his seven starts. A key component in any match up with the Steelers is the offensive line, a unit led by Pro Bowlers Jeff Hartings and Alan Faneca.
"Pittsburgh is one of the best [offensive lines]," Belichick said. "They do a great job. Those guys are tough, they work well together, they finish blocks [and] they don't have hardly any problems. Those guys are really good. They should probably get a little more recognition maybe than they do."
The goal of the Patriots preparation this week will be simply to match Pittsburgh's physical intensity. There's no secret their focus will be improvement from the front seven against the run.
"With Pittsburgh, you have to prepare for straight-up smash mouth football, no fancy stuff," veteran nose tackle Keith Traylor said. "I think that's what we're going to focus on. Don't play for surprises, just play for what you know you're going to get. "They're solid, they're physical, and we just have to match their physicality."
According to Traylor, the Patriots fell into the trap of trying to do too much instead of focusing on individual responsibilities.
"I think we had a few guys trying to make Superman plays," Traylor said. "But we don't have Superman on the team yet. [Tedy] Bruschi is the closest thing to it right now. You just have to do your job and we'll be alright."
The Patriots released the first official injury report of the week today. The list included only two players, both listed as questionable: defensive end Richard Seymour (knee) and fullback Patrick Pass (ankle). Pass was injured during the second quarter of last week's game but was able to return briefly in the second half.
The Steelers listed five players as probable: running back Verron Haynes (knee), inside linebacker Kendrell Bell (groin), outside linebacker Clark Haggans (groin), wide receiver Antwaan Randle El (toe) and cornerback Deshea Townsend (hand). According to a report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Bell will not start Sunday.
Speaking Of Seymour
Seymour was noticeably absent from the locker room during the media access period Wednesday, leaving only speculation to the Pro Bowl defensive end's availability for Sunday's game. Seymour, who suffered a sprained knee in Week 16 of the regular season, did not play in the season finale and also missed last week's divisional playoff game. Belichick was asked if the approach towards a player who may not 100 percent changes during the one-game elimination playoffs, and if it's an instance when a player has more say in whether or not he plays.
"Every situation is different," Belichick said. "It would depend on who it was and what the situation was. Each situation you evaluate independently and do what you think is best for the team. Without knowing and seeing and going through all the things that lead up to the game, then you make that determination. Without going through that I couldn't what it would be.
"I would need to see the player go through the entire week of preparation to see where we were [at] the game, and at the end of the week you make a decision. A lot of those decisions come down to game-time -- I don't even know what they are Saturday night -- so I certainly can't say what they are Wednesday morning."
No Repeat Performance
A running theme coming out of Gillette Stadium this week has been drastic and contrasting styles of Indianapolis, the Patriots last opponent, and Pittsburgh, their next opponent. Belichick spoke adamantly about the differences Wednesday, saying there is nothing he would carry over from the Patriots performance against Indianapolis.
"If we play like we did against the Colts, we'll get killed. It will be a lot worse than whatever it was out there the last time. Pittsburgh is not the Colts. And the Colts are not Pittsburgh. You're talking about two totally different teams. The things that we did against the Colts, if we try to do them against the Steelers, it would be 55-0. Maybe worse than that. This is a totally different team that has a totally different style of play. There is almost nothing that I would carry over or correlate from that game to this game. We couldn't make a bigger mistake than trying to do that in my opinion."
A Bruschi Bit
Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Week on Wednesday for his performance in the divisional round of the playoffs last weekend. Bruschi played a key role in the Patriots 20-3 win over Indianapolis, finishing with eight tackles, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. It's the fifth-career Player of the Week Award for Bruschi, who also named in Weeks 4 and 17 this season. Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb (offense) and Atlanta punt returner Allen Rossum (special teams) were also honored.
Belichick held his usual 10:45 a.m. press conference Wednesday in an overflowing media workroom at Gillette Stadium. More than 100 credentialed media were in attendance, according to team public relations member Kimberly Folkes, approximately double the usual amount. ... Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel spoke on a conference with national writers, while quarterback Tom Brady also held his usual Wednesday press conference. ... In case you missed them, you can download all of the press conferences from Patriots.com. ... Belichick noted that the players were given the last two days off in part because it "gives us a little more time as a coaching staff to go through and try to get things as well-aligned as we can possibly get them for the Steelers." ... The Patriots were scheduled to practice indoors Wednesday. ... The NFL Network announced it will televise press conferences from all four remaining playoff teams on Friday, January 21, in what it is billing "Championship Friday." The Patriots press conferences, scheduled to include Belichick, Brady, Bruschi and safety Rodney Harrison, will air beginning at 1:30 p.m. ET.