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Savran: Preparation is key for both sides

Saturday, August 10, 2002

The adage "Physician Heal Thyself" applies to football coaches as much as it does to the medical profession.

Coaching staffs keep as close a watch on themselves as they do their opponents.

They monitor their tendencies, wanting to avoid calling the same plays out of the same formations under the exact same circumstances.

Repeatedly call the same pass play on the same down and distance, and it won't be long before a defensive coach in a darkened video room picks that up and devises a counter attack.

Especially if that coach is Bill Belichick.

Much has been made of the New England Patriots calling out the Steelers' plays at the line of scrimmage during the AFC championship game, as if they'd been in the huddle right next to Kordell Stewart.

That could have been a by-product of a number of things.

A helpful hint or two might have come from former Steelers linebacker Mike Vrabel, although a defensive player likely wouldn't know much more about his former team's offense, other than some audibles which can be changed easily.

It could have been the result of a player tipping what was to come.

A lean in a stance, the positioning of the quarterback's hands under center, line splits, something as innocuous as a back wiping his hands on his pants when he's about to carry the ball. Or a quarterback licking his fingers before a pass play.

More than likely, it was just a matter of outstanding preparation by Belichick, who might be a "D" student in personality, but is magna cum laude when it comes to defense.

It also might have been -- partially -- because the Steelers failed to heal themselves adequately:

They might not have engaged in the proper introspection to stay out of the trap of predictability.

But if you're still looking for reasons, excuses, just someone or something to blame, I suggest that the Patriots, on that day for those three hours, simply outplayed your hometown heroes.

They were more aggressive, they were more physical, they knocked the Steelers on their collective rear end.

Trends, planning, outfoxing the other guy, that's all part of it. But when reduced to its basic, Neanderthal common denominator, this sport is a matter of me knocking you off the ball before you do it to me.

Plain and brutal.

In an age of quarterback throwbacks and flanker reverses and tricks and treats that even Mike Mularkey has yet to dream, this remains a game of force, not fancy.

Significant in the proceedings on that not-so-sunny January afternoon was that the Patriots consistently achieved penetration to shut down the Steelers' running game.

New England defenders took residence a yard or more on the offensive side of the line of scrimmage.

When that happens, I don't care who's running -- Jimmy Brown, Barry Sanders or Gale Sayers -- you just ain't goin' anywhere.

Some believe an immobile Jerome Bettis should have been relieved by the more elusive Amos Zereoue. But when your offensive line allows interlopers into your backfield as if they lined up there and linebackers can see if the running back has lettuce stuck between his teeth from lunch, negative yardage is the result.

No doubt the Patriots' scouting and awareness of what might be coming was an enormous help.

The advantages the offense is supposed to have -- knowing the snap count and the play -- often were neutralized. The Steelers' offensive linemen failed to adapt, adjust, and block wrong-colored jerseys.

The coaching staff didn't do them any favors by failing to recognize what New England was doing, and perhaps long before that, forgetting to remember what they themselves were doing.

But (please pardon the coachspeak) there is a school of thought that suggests if you execute, you can bring a chalkboard to the line of scrimmage, diagram the play you're going to run, then run the ball right down the defense's throat.

Not that their offense was unsophisticated, but players from the '70s Steelers teams have told me they really didn't have a great variety of running plays.

But what they did run, they ran to perfection.

"Here it comes again, boys. Stop it if you can."

Most times, they couldn't.

Count this as a lesson learned. A reminder to closely examine their own patterns as diligently as those of their opponent. Important stuff.

But before becoming immersed in where to place their "X" to best exploit the other guy's "O," you gain a huge advantage by first knocking that "O" on his backside.

Stan Savran is the host of a sports talk show from 3 to 6 p.m. weekdays on WBGG-AM (970).

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