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The Steelers led the NFL in rushing attempts the last two seasons, carrying the ball on 61% of their snaps in 2004--the most ground-heavy attack in 20 years--and on 57% of their plays in '05. "It's our personality," veteran back Jerome Bettis says of Pittsburgh, which averaged 138.9 rushing yards per game this season. "Physical and hard-hitting." � The Seahawks boast the NFL's leading rusher in league MVP Shaun Alexander, who churned out 1,880 yards; their offense was more balanced than the Steelers'--51% of Seattle's plays were rushes--yet only two teams averaged more than the Seahawks' 153.6 rushing yards per game in '05. "We're going to make you stop the run to beat us," Alexander says. � So which offensive players will have the biggest say in the outcome of Super Bowl XL? Don't be surprised if it's the quarterbacks. Though no one can be sure what Seattle coach Mike Holmgren and Pittsburgh coordinator Ken Whisenhunt will cook up, the ways in which their teams won a total of five playoff games last month showed just how imaginative their game plans can be.
In the first half of their three playoff wins, the Steelers called more passes (56%) than runs and outscored opponents by a combined 52-23. That means Whisenhunt is comfortable putting his team's fate in the hands of second-year quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. As the Cincinnati Bengals and the Indianapolis Colts did in playoff games against Pittsburgh before them, the Denver Broncos began the AFC Championship Game by jamming the line to stop the run--"We want to put the game in Roethlisberger's hands," Denver middle linebacker Al Wilson said before the game--then saw Big Ben pick apart that defense. In those three games Roethlisberger completed 69% of his throws in the first half (34 of 49) with six touchdowns and one interception. "We don't feel we have to continue to try to run if it's not there," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said last Friday. "We'll take the chunks downfield if we can. Whatever element of our game gets going the fastest, that's the element we'll go with."
One reason for Pittsburgh to think the 23-year-old Roethlisberger can make hay in the passing game is that the Seattle secondary has proved to be vulnerable, especially to the deep pass. Having lost two strong corners to free agency in the past two years-- Shawn Springs (to Washington) in 2004, Ken Lucas (to Carolina) last March--plus free safety Ken Hamlin to injuries suffered in a bar fight in October, the Seahawks allowed 222.4 passing yards per game in '05 (25th in the league). Look for Roethlisberger to pick on left corner Andre Dyson just as he went to work on Denver rookie cornerback Domonique Foxworth. Roethlisberger is getting increasingly comfortable with third wideout Cedrick Wilson, who in the postseason has averaged 24.5 yards per catch.
More than six years older than Roethlisberger, Hasselbeck also has come into his own this season; and because of that Holmgren won't hesitate to call 40 pass plays against Pittsburgh, if necessary. A bright, confident and sometimes stubborn player, Hasselbeck, 30, has a maverick streak that can give Holmgren fits. The quarterback got on the wrong side of his coach on Nov. 20 in San Francisco, taking a sack when Holmgren thought he should have thrown the ball away. After the series, as Hasselbeck walked away from Holmgren on the sideline, the coach angrily grabbed Hasselbeck by the jersey and threatened to put in backup Seneca Wallace. "Go ahead," Hasselbeck snapped back. "Do it. Put him in." Holmgren had Wallace warm up but didn't make the switch. The next day the two apologized to each other. Since then Hasselbeck has been on the best run of his career: 15 touchdown passes, two interceptions and a 7-1 record.
Now, says Holmgren, who coached Brett Favre and Steve Young, "I trust Matt as much as I've trusted any other quarterback." On Sunday, watch how cunning Hasselbeck can be. He'll quick-count the Steelers if he thinks they aren't set; on another play he might use a double cadence, shouting out "set-hut-hut" to try to draw them offside before starting the cadence that will actually set the offense in motion.
Hasselbeck has used mobility to his advantage in the playoffs--though it didn't help Jake Plummer much in the AFC title game. The Steelers chased down Plummer, forcing fumbles on two sacks. In Seattle's case, quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn has worked hard to perfect Hasselbeck's quick-timing passes and throws on the run. And with the emergence of tight end Jerramy Stevens as a short and intermediate receiving threat, Hasselbeck hopes to be able to use three- and five-step drops plus quick throws to stave off the Pittsburgh blitz.
When these teams last met, in early November 2003, Hasselbeck was just establishing himself as the starter in Seattle; he completed 18 of 31 passes for 215 yards and a touchdown in a 23-16 home win over Pittsburgh. Two days later Roethlisberger was 19 of 28 for 230 yards with no touchdowns and one interception in leading Miami ( Ohio) to a 33-10 upset of Bowling Green in Oxford, Ohio.
Now either one could wind up being the Super Bowl MVP on Sunday night.