First, the good news for Stillers fans, heading into this year�s tourney:
--The number one seed, New England, has a GARBAGE defense, the kind that usually spells an early exit for most playoff squads.
--The second seed, Baltimore, has a GARBAGE QB, the kind that usually spells an early exit for most playoff squads.
Want more good news? The Stillers defense has allowed 9, 0, 20, 3 and 7 points its last 5 games (and really should�ve given up only 16 to San Francisco if not for a GARBAGE penalty that resulted in an undeserved TD). That is championship-level defense. Yes, the �old, slow and over� Stiller defense is suddenly all fresh and new again � and more importantly, has shifted from being a staunch run defense/mediocre pass defense to being a staunch pass defense/mediocre run defense. THAT is what helps you win come January.
The bad news is, the Stiller offense has scored less than 20 points in four of its last six outings. THAT is anything but championship-level offense, and if anything keeps the Stillers from the Bowl this season, this will be the culprit.
Please refer to my pre-season commentary where I said basically:
�The Stillers will go as far as their offense takes them.�
That idea applies now more than ever.
When the critics say the Stillers are winning ugly, what they�re really saying is the offense isn�t scoring enough points � these close games certainly aren�t the defense�s fault. The Stillers can move the ball between the 20s with the best of them; after that, they become the Cleveland Browns. You can beat Seneca Wallace with this kind of ball, but last I looked, he wasn�t suiting up for the playoffs.
If it�s not the QB taking an asinine, unnecessary sack in the red zone, if it�s not a lineman committing a holding penalty, it�s some WR dropping the ball in the end zone, or the RB fumbling near the goal line. We�ve seen it all year � let�s not see it in the new one.
How to Beat Tebow in Three Easy Steps
Now comes Denver and Tim Tebow, statistically the most inaccurate QB in the league. I�m in the camp that says Tebow�s not NFL QB material, but there�s no denying he�s got certain intangibles that make him dangerous to face. Tebow�s blend of running ability, toughness and will to win have led to Denver trying to bend the pro game to his collegiate spread-option set.Beating this type of QB isn�t always easy, but the formula is simple:
- Limit zones and maintain man coverage on the receivers; the DBs are NEVER to leave their man regardless of what Tebow does. Let Keisel and Harrison deal with Tebow�s scrambles and designed runs � stick to your coverage-first responsibility.
- Containing Tebow is the job of the front seven � refer back to what Kansas City did last Sunday. The Chiefs formed a �Bermuda Triangle� around Tebow with their DLs and LBs, a prison from which Tebow never escaped. Surround, seal, tackle.
- Maintain scheme the ENTIRE game, including the last 5 minutes. Teams that have lost to Denver have switched from aggressive man coverages to soft zones at the end of the game. Chicago was especially guilty of this � after squelching Tebow all game with tight coverages, they sat back in zones in the last few minutes, allowing easy checkdowns and dump-offs. In the end they paid the price.
I can�t stress these points enough: the Jets lost because they tried to set the edge with a defensive back on Tebow�s winning TD run. Sending Troy Pola after Tebow is fine, but hey, he�s Troy Pola. The other DBs should be used almost exclusively in coverage.
Tebow often attempts to beat you with cheesy �Flacco� underthrows, hoping to catch the DB in perfect coverage and penalize him for it. Its worked more than once. The Stillers cannot afford to allow this to happen next Sunday. The Stillers shouldn�t be tempted to trick Tebow with LeBeau�s exotic coverages, because Tebow can�t read defenses in the first place. You can�t fool a fool who can�t get fooled to begin with.
I expect the Stillers to recognize the above, and throw some cover-one and even cover-zero packages at Tebow. The key � once again � is tight press-man coverage. This would be similar to how the Stillers played Brady during the win over New England.
Tebow�s receiving corps won�t scare anyone, but they�re not as bad a group as some make them out to be. The deep threat is the underrated Eric Decker, who makes up for a lack of blazing speed with crisp route-running. Former Oregon star Dante Rosario plays tight end as a big slender WR; he�s the go-to guy when Tebow needs to get out of a jam.
It may seem easy to dismiss Denver because of Tebow�s recent poor play. NOBODY should be doing that considering the way the Stillers keep almost any opponent in the game because of low point production. Should the Stillers play their low-scoring ugly game and get into �Tebow Time� you never know what might happen. Likewise, keeping things ugly sets you up to lose on cheap special-teams plays too � so it isn�t just about the QB.
Last year I expected the Stillers to reach the Super Bowl � I would�ve nearly been angry had they not. This year? Thanks to the offense, I�m ready to accept the team for what it is and just enjoy the ride. The Stillers offense is, in the words of its head coach, �what it is.� That�s going to make for some ugly football. The Ravens pulled it off ugly in 2000, and the Patriots did it for Brady�s first two Bowls. Both those teams had superior defenses and special teams, however.
Beware the Switch
The Broncos haven�t helped Tebow�s passing game � they�ve handcuffed him by calling run plays almost exclusively on first downs. It�s understandable given Tebow�s subpar passing skills, but it�s also made him predictable. Despite the conservative approach, however, the Broncos have lost their last few games.
So then -- what if Denver decides to say �screw it� and send Tebow out throwing on early downs? It�s something the Stillers need to prepare for � in the words of one ESPN commentator, the �unleash� of Tim Tebow. The Stillers did the same thing for Roethlisberger during the �05 playoff run, helping the offense notch a huge early lead against the surprised Colts.
This is a game the Stillers should win � but there are two major concerns. The first is lack of point production from the offense, the second is lack of turnovers produced by the defense. At least one of these trends will have to change for the Stillers to move on to Baltimore � and set up the �nightmare� scenario for Ravens fans.
Then there�s the injury factor. Losing Mendenhall hurts, but Roethlisberger�s bum ankle might hurt worse. This is not the same Roethlisberger � note how he chose not to run during one play in Cleveland where he had acres of open space ahead of him. Ben�s mobility is affected, which is bad enough, but the real killer is loss of accuracy � he simply can�t step into his throws as he normally would. Why the Stillers didn�t use Batch against a beatable Cleveland team is beyond me � they could have created a much-needed �bye week� by sitting Roethlisberger. Ah well, the joys of looking back and second-guessing.
Scouting the Conferences
I stick with my pre-season call for Green Bay not to make the Super Bowl. Aaron Rodgers is now the most overrated player (not just QB) in football � that doesn�t mean he sucks, it�s simply that he�s not all he�s cracked up to be. Green Bay�s scoring machine didn�t miss a beat without him last Sunday, and he�s prone to second-half fizzles in playoff games. The TV guys can drool all over Green Bay, I won�t.
So who�s going to Indy? The NY Giants could surprise, while the Atlanta Falcons will once again be held back by �Mr. Un-Clutch,� Matt Ryan. I stand by my pre-season pick, the New Orleans Saints, to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
The AFC picture is much more jumbled, with the Stillers, Ravens and Patriots all having weaknesses that could get them knocked out. And lookee here � the Cincy Bengals in the playoffs? Have fun watching them from your couch, Carson Palmer � careful not to choke on your chips!
The ball gets rolling Sunday � I want to see Tebow at his absolute ugliest. I want to be kicking back with a beer and laughing by the fourth quarter, yukking it up with my friends, the game well out of reach.
But wait, I almost forgot � I�m a Stillers fan.
Better get the Pepto ready just in case�
Enjoy the game,