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SUPER BOWL XL was only a couple of minutes old, and the Seahawks were moving the ball at a nice, regimental, up-tempo pace, and then they encountered their first third-and-long. Uh-oh. That's when the Steelers' blitz package is at its most exotic.
James Farrior, normally an inside linebacker, set up outside on the left, and Clark Haggans shifted from his left outside position to an inside spot. Farrior got a half-step on his man, forcing quarterback Matt Hasselbeck to step up in the pocket, and Haggans collected the sack. The chess game was on.
"The play," said Dick LeBeau, defensive coordinator of the victorious Steelers, "helped our bogus." Your what? "Bogus blitz," LeBeau said. "You show it, then back off it. We were doing it all day. It's what you do against a team that's max protecting."
Max protect means maximum protection, which is an exaggeration because usually only one extra man who'd normally be a receiver stays in to block. Seattle coach Mike Holmgren is a former quarterbacks coach. Nothing bothers him as much as seeing his passer under duress. He's usually very quick to leave an extra blocker, sometimes two, in there.
So when the Seahawks had third-and-long later in the first period, the Steelers ran the bogus blitz, rushing only three and dropping eight, vastly outnumbering Seattle's receivers. The result was an incompletion. The next third-and-long for Seattle ended in another misfire, against a three-man rush in a bogus blitz. Ditto the last one of the first half, after Hasselbeck had mismanaged the clock in a two-minute drill.
It wasn't a good day for QBs; neither Hasselbeck nor Ben Roethlisberger was sharp. Receivers weren't exactly starring, either. Even Hines Ward, the game's MVP, dropped two passes, one in the end zone. Tight end Jerramy Stevens, who scored the Seahawks' only touchdown, dropped three.
It was a day made for opportunistic defenses. Seattle's front seven was repeatedly beating the Pittsburgh blockers off the ball-except on one play, a 75-yard power-right run against the nickel defense by Willie Parker early in the third quarter. "We felt great about the way the first half went," Seattle defensive tackle Craig Terrill said. "We were only down 7-3, and we felt that we had control of the game. We put it to Roethlisberger. We got to him. We were playing fast. They didn't expect it."
You can't really say two great defenses slugged it out. It was more a matter of which offense would make the most mistakes, and that honor went to the Seahawks. They turned the ball over only once, but that interception, by Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor, came two plays after Hasselbeck's 18-yard completion to Stevens to the Pittsburgh one-yard line was negated by a holding penalty. Seattle also had a touchdown wiped out by an offensive pass interference call and missed two field goals.
Once the Seahawks loosened up and sent out more receivers, the Steelers blitzed again. They sent their little guys. Free safety Chris Hope came off the edge clean and forced an incompletion that ended a series. On a delayed blitz over right guard, cornerback Deshea Townsend got a sack that forced a punt on Seattle's next-to-last possession.
Of course, the blitz-bogus blitz chess match would have been incidental if the Seahawks had used the rushing of Shaun Alexander to build a platform from which Hasselbeck could have thrown. But it seemed as if Holmgren knew the Steelers would be homing in on his keynote runner, because 10 of Seattle's first 13 snaps were pass plays. Alexander's first-half total was a meager 31 yards on 10 carries.