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Patriots' defense made the difference more than special teams

| Monday, Jan. 28, 2002

Now, the Steelers' new house really feels like a home.

Now that the New England Patriots have celebrated winning the AFC Championship on the Steelers' turf, as the San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos did at Three Rivers Stadium at the conclusions of the 1994 and 1997 seasons, the Steelers have truly come full circle.

They can rebound from this, as they did in 1995, but it will take some time to realize as much.

For now, anticipation has been replaced by devastation.

It came to this again because the Patriots were able to force down their hosts' throats a lethal dose of the Steelers' own medicine.

Remember - Patriots 24, Steelers 17 - for a couple of special-teams gaffes if you must, but understand that the Steelers were denied what they felt was their rightful place in Super Bowl XXXVI because of defense.

The Patriots might not have come in adorned with the NFL's No. 1 regular-season ranking, but they're heading for New Orleans today because of a defense that was as well designed as it was relentless. The Patriots are booked for Bourbon Street because they toyed with the NFL's No. 1 rushing attack and dared quarterback Kordell Stewart to beat them through the air. New England is supreme in the AFC because its defense, disguised and dissected, came from everywhere yesterday at Heinz Field.

The Patriots did so with multiple formations and multiple personnel groupings and enough blitzes and stunts and wrinkles to keep the Steelers scratching their heads until they were desperate.

The Patriots found a way to take away the outside and deny the inside on the ground. While doing so, they were also able to pressure Stewart and contain him, aside from a 34-yard scramble in the first quarter. While all that was happening up front, the Patriots dominated in the secondary, making enough one-on-one plays to maintain the lead the special teams had provided until they were able to seal the deal with a couple of late interceptions.

"We felt like if we were patient, persistent, then we could wear on them and at some point, break them," Steelers offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey said. "It didn't happen."

The Patriots wouldn't let it happen.

And the Steelers didn't figure out what was happening until it was too late.

"It took us a whole half to figure things out and that's entirely too long," guard Alan Faneca said.

It took that long because the Patriots rarely, if ever, gave the Steelers the same look at the same personnel grouping as they had the previous snap. For the most part, the Patriots played with three down linemen and four linebackers. One of the linebackers was constantly lining up with a hand on the ground and rushing, but which one• And from where• And was that four, five or six defensive backs in coverage?

There was more traffic along the New England sideline between plays than there is at the average Boston "T" stop during rush hour; such was the extent of Patriots coach Bill Belichick's shuffling. The Patriots might have started 11 players on defense, but they relied on 18 extensively, as five linemen, six linebackers and seven defensive backs saw significant action.

That's the way the Patriots had played all season and that's what the Steelers had anticipated.

And still, New England found ways to overwhelm the Steelers.

"We just could not get into a rhythm in the first half," Mularkey said. "The one thing that we've been good at all year is completing third downs. I know we were not making third downs. It's tough to get a rhythm going three-and-out.

"We have not had that problem all year."

They had it yesterday.

The Steelers finished 4 for 14 on third downs, including 1 for 8 in the first half.

And they rushed for a season-low 58 yards on 22 carries (an un-Steelers-like 2.6 average), including 34 on nine attempts in the first half (Stewart had all 34 of those yards; Jerome Bettis, Amos Zereoue and Hines Ward combined for 0).

"It was more the blocking," center Jeff Hartings said, when asked if a rusty Bettis was a factor in the ground game grinding to a halt.

"There was just nowhere to run," Bettis said.

That being the case, the Steelers became a one-dimensional team.

And a beatable one.

Welcome home.

Mike Prisuta is a sports writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

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