|Steelers to put Matt Cassel, Patriots to the test|
|Written by Admin|
|Wednesday, 26 November 2008 14:46|
The stand-in for Tom Brady who became a standout for the New England Patriots hasn't seen anything like the Pittsburgh Steelers.
``You do it against the Steelers,'' Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark said, ``you did something.''
If Cassel can do it Sunday, he will add another amazing accomplishment to a season in which he's grown from a backup to the reigning NFL MVP for the fourth straight year to the league's 11th-rated quarterback - ahead of Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger.
The Steelers' defense allowed the second-fewest points last year and is even stingier now, giving up the fewest yards rushing, the fewest passing and the fewest points in the NFL. They also have the most sacks in the AFC.
asn't allowed more than 290 yards in any game this season.
``We change from one week to the next based on game plan. It is all based on what their defense does,'' said Cassel, a first-time starter who is learning on the fly. ``In the last two weeks, we threw the ball a lot. I don't know if that will be the case this week.''
If it is, he must avoid linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, who are second and third in the AFC in sacks. And he'll have to keep the ball away from safety Troy Polamalu, whose five interceptions lead the conference.
``There aren't enough superlatives to use on their defense,'' New England coach Bill Belichick said. ``They lead the league in everything and deserve to. They are very good at every position and have a great scheme.''
The Patriots have more at stake as they try to dominate - or at least eke out a win - as they did in last year's 34-13 victory over the Steelers at Foxborough.
New England (7-4) trails the New York Jets by one game in the AFC East and is just 5-4 in the conference, a potential tiebreaker for a playoff spot. Pittsburgh (8-3) leads the AFC North by one game over Baltimore and is 7-1 in the conference.
But the toughest stretch is ahead for the Steelers. After New England, they'll host Dallas (7-4), then visit Baltimore (7-4) and Tennessee (10-1).
`Every team we play has the opportunity to make the playoffs this year and you might end up seeing those teams again.''
The last time the Steelers saw Foxborough, they lost last Dec. 9 as New England improved to 13-0 and clinched a first-round bye. Earlier in the week, Pittsburgh reserve safety Anthony Smith had guaranteed a win. Instead, Brady had four scoring passes, two against Smith, and threw 46 passes as the Patriots all but abandoned the run in the second half.
Polamalu, Cassel's former teammate at Southern California, and Clark were sidelined then and the Steelers allowed 34 points after starting the game with an NFL low 12.9 average points against.
Now those starting safeties are key factors on a defense that has given up just 235.4 yards per game and 11 touchdowns in the 32 series when opponents got inside the 20-yard line.
The Steelers are bound to pressure Cassel, who was excited that left tackle Matt Light wasn't suspended for throwing punches at Channing Crowder in last Sunday's 48-28 win in Miami.
``Yes!'' Cassel exclaimed, thrusting his right fist forward when he heard the NFL's decision Wednesday.
Having avoided discipline from the league, Light must deal with blitzers from Cassel's blindside and keep pressure off him.
k this is going to be a really big challenge for us offensively.''
The Steelers' offense has been spotty: 26th in total yards and 23rd in points. And Roethlisberger is just the 21st-ranked quarterback.
But the Patriots' defense is worse than the one that allowed the fewest yards in the league last year. With five games left, New England already has given up 222 points, just 52 fewer than all last season.
``They want to run the football first and throw second,'' Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork said. ``There's not too many teams that play the style they play. Luckily, we're one of them. I think we match up pretty well with them up front and everywhere else.''
The most important matchup figures to be in the trenches, when the Patriots' veteran offensive line tries to protect Cassel from a defense that has only one player with fewer than five years in the NFL.
But defensive end Aaron Smith doesn't think he can get in the inexperienced quarterback's head.
``I'd like to, but it doesn't seem like anybody can,'' he said, ``the way they're playing and the way he's playing.''
Smith and his teammates would like it even more if they can get in Cassel's face.
``If we want to be the No. 1 defense and we want that claim at the end of the year,'' Clark said, ``we have to hold them down.''
id of the ball when the it bears down on him.
``He's handled it very well. He's making quick decisions,'' Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said.
Whether Cassel's passing leads the Patriots to their third straight game with more than 500 yards of offense or whether they run the ball more, one thing is certain: Cassel, who has thrown at least 32 passes in each of his last five games, won't have a tired arm.
He threw only 33 passes in four years at USC as a backup to Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart.
``I had a lot of rest,'' he said with a smile.