"Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please." (Mark Twain)

Friday, February 03, 2006

Super Bowl Preview: You Mean There's Going To Be a Football Game? 

After all the hype, the pregame pageantry, the wardrobe malfunctions, and the shameless profiteering, two excellent teams will play an actual game on Sunday afternoon. I'm not going to offer any predictions, because that would be stupid (what, do you really think I might predict a Steelers victory?), but I would like to talk X's and O's a bit, as they say.

For the past two weeks, the Big Story (as Joe Piscopo used to say) has been Jerome Bettis - and with good cause. Bettis wasn't the NFL's leading running back this year (that would be the Seahawks' Shaun Alexander, of course), and indeed, he wasn't even the leading rusher on his own team - he gained a total of 368 yards all season, and 101 of those came in one game against Chicago on December 11, while teammate Willie Parker quietly racked up 1,202 yards. Still, if I had third down and two to go, or was stuck three yards from the goal line, I'd hand the ball to the Bus. I don't know how many times he was tackled for a loss this year, but I would guess that it was approximately zero. Playing what is likely to be his last game, in his home town, he figures to have a big day.

That is especially worrisome, given that defense has been the Seahawks' question mark. Early in the season, I was frustrated by the Seahawks' alleged "bend but don't break" defensive philosophy. Seattle fans got tired to death of watching the Squawks give away yardage like it was candy until opponents got to the twenty yard line. Usually, it worked out well enough - a lot of field goals; not many TD's - but still, it's no fun watching your secondary get burned for 40 yard passes and 15 yard rushes as a matter of course.

But then, sometime around week 12, when the Seahawks went to Philly for a Monday night game in the snow, something unexpected happened: Our defense stopped bending. The secondary tightened up, the run defense got solid, the tackling got better, and the Seattle defense joined the big leagues. In the NFC title game, our secondary shut down the NFL's leading receiver cold. They'll have to do the same thing this Sunday - Pittsburgh's Hines Ward is no Steve Smith, but he's no piker, either. And if the Steelers can open up the game with passes, then Parker and especially Bettis will start pounding on us like a tough steak. If Seattle is going to win this game, they need career performances from the guys in the box - Chuck Darby, Grant Wistrom, and Lofa Tatupu, especially - and also from the secondary. They need to apply pressure to Rothlisberger, while still containing the run. In addition to the trio mentioned above, cornerback Marcus Trufant (my son's favorite Seahawk) and big-play safety Michael Boulware are the guys to watch.

But - while Bettis has been the story, the real marquee matchup is the Seattle offense against the Pittsburgh defense. This might be the greatest "irresistable force vs. immovable object" pairing in the history of the Super Bowl. The Seahawks have the best offensive line in the game today, hands down, anchored by probable future Hall of Famer Walter Jones at left tackle. These guys have made some very good defensive lines look like straw men, and they are equally effective at pass blocking and run blocking. And, speaking of run blocking, fullback Mack Strong is quietly having the best year of his career. Meanwhile, Matt Hasselbeck has turned into a first rate quarterback, and that's coming from someone who has never, before this year, been a believer. Alexander is outstanding, of course, especially when it comes to cutback routes that leave quality linebackers standing flat-footed and pie-eyed. And our receiver corps - including wideouts Darryl Jackson (now healthy, and fast as ever), Bobby Engram, and Joe Jurevicius - provides Hesselbeck with a wealth of targets.

Unfortunately, the one game this year that left our offense flustered and confused was the one against Dallas, in which the offense frankly appeared absolutely flummoxed by the only 3-4 defensive scheme they faced all year. The bad news? Pittsburgh runs a 3-4 much, much better than Dallas did. Already in this postseason, their zone blitz schemes have left three outstanding offenses looking like chumps. A lot of commentators have already noted that Seattle's running game needs to be firing on all cylinders to neutralize Pittsburgh's defense (anchored by the man who might be the best all-around athlete on the field, Troy Polamalu), but we will have an additional weapon in tight end Jerramy Stevens. He has really come along this year, and if Hasselbeck can connect with him on some short post and slant patterns early in the game, the Steelers' linebackers will have to hold back. That would give Alexander an extra step, and Hasselbeck an extra couple of seconds to find his receivers downfield. If Stevens has a good day, Pittsburgh is in trouble; on the other hand, if Stevens is taken out of the game, it could be a long afternoon.

On special teams, the edge goes to Pittsburgh - Antwaan Randle El has run back two punts for touchdowns this year and averaged 10.2 yards, where Seattle's punt returner, Jimmy Williams (since benched) coughed up two fumbles against Washington in the first round of the playoffs. Both head coaches are wily veterans, with assistants that seemingly are extensions of themselves. But that's marginal stuff, and this is not a game that will be won or lost at the margins. It will be won or lost at the line of scrimmage. Big guys with names like Chardric (Darby, the Seahawks' defensive tackle) and Marvel (Smith, the Steelers' offensive left tackle) may not be going to Disneyland, but whoever does end up going will owe a big debt to the big uglies.

It is a terrible cliché (like most everything else I've written here), but this Super Bowl looks like the kind of matchup that promises to be not merely a "Super," but a genuinely good, game. Ignore the naysayers (headline from The Onion: "Analysts Predicting Most Evenly Matched Blowout In Super Bowl History"), and settle in for what may well be a classic.




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