Reputations die hard in NFL
NEW YORK – The Steelers run the ball down your throat. The Patriots overwhelm you with defensive brilliance. Indianapolis is precise with the ball. Baltimore is impenetrable without it.
Wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong.
Reputations die hard in the NFL, but they are fading rapidly this season. Philadelphia under Andy Reid eschews the run, you say. Well, the Eagles lead the league in rushing.
The Jets put fear of running the ball into opposing offenses with their myriad schemes and unpredictability. That's another accepted bromide since Rex Ryan became their coach in 2009. Look at the rankings: New York has yielded 4.2 yards a carry on the ground per game, ranked 25th in the NFL. The Jets also have allowed nearly 22 points a game.
And this one: San Francisco can't win on the road. True, perhaps, before Jim Harbaugh was hired as coach this year. These 49ers are 3-0 away from Candlestick Park, all impressive victories: at Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Detroit.
Most noteworthy in all this upheaval is what's happening with the Steelers and Patriots. Neither trend is a one-season phenomenon, either.
For all its success and all its legacy as a pound-the-rock team, the Steelers have adapted as well as anyone to the NFL's current pass-first and pass-often mentality. Never was that more on display than in last Sunday's 25-17 victory over the Patriots, in which Ben Roethlisberger threw 50 times in 78 plays — as many passes as New England's total snaps.
The ideal way to beat the Patriots is to limit how often their prolific, clutch offense is on the field. That used to mean running the ball and eating the clock.
Pittsburgh found another way — a very effective way.
"I think it's great to have a team like this where we can run or pass," speedy wideout Mike Wallace said. "We adjust to the team we play against and hopefully some of these weeks we can come out and do what we want. We have guys around here like chameleons, just adapt to whatever the situation is."
More than ever, that situation is for Pittsburgh to pass. Roethlisberger has become so comfortable with Wallace and even younger receivers Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders — not to mention standbys Hines Ward and tight end Heath Miller — that opening up the attack not only is an option, it's the best option.
"I don't know that's an automatic guarantee, that's the formula," said Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride, whose team plays at Foxborough on Sunday. "Hey, if you can play that well on Sundays, I think it is the formula. But to be able to do that, I don't know that everybody can do that week in and week out. I don't think the Steelers would be able to do it week in and week out against them. That's the way it played out Sunday.
"We'd love to have it play out that way again, but it will be challenging, I think it's a lot more difficult than people are thinking it is."
On the other side, the Patriots' aura as a defensive force has disappeared. Yes, Bill Belichick built his reputation and his early career on being a defensive mastermind, and many of his Patriots teams have been stingy, with a penchant for big plays.
Not recently. With the emergence of Tom Brady as an elite quarterback, New England has gone in a different direction. Shootouts are acceptable and, unfortunately for the Patriots, D sometimes stands for debacle when they don't have the ball.
The Patriots are 5-2 because of Brady and the offense, and in spite of the defense, which ranks last overall and against the pass. Yes, behind even those 0-fers, Miami and Indianapolis.
Plus, New England's shoddy defense has been a particular detriment on the road in the team's two defeats. Against the Bills, it folded like a cheap tent in a Buffalo nor'easter, helping make a 21-point lead disappear, then bending and breaking in the final minutes.
Even worse, at Heinz Field, the Steelers came up with 57 varieties of exploiting a bad pass defense. With the exception of nose tackle Vince Wilfork, the Patriots were overwhelmed.
"I think our outlook is really that we're going to get better," said cornerback Devin McCourty, a Pro Bowler as a rookie in 2010 who now too often looks like, uh, a rookie. "We really don't worry about what everybody else says. We're just trying to get better and we're trying to do it as soon as possible ... trying to make sure it keeps coming over on Sundays, not just for a week, not for two weeks, but that we can be consistent stringing each game together."
They've been consistent in the wrong way so far.
Yet the Patriots remain a prime contender. The Eagles seem to be reinserting themselves into that role, and they're doing it with the ground game.
Throughout Reid's 12-plus seasons in charge in Philly, and even when Brian Westbrook was in the backfield, the Eagles were a pass-first (some would say pass-happy) bunch. They still like to throw it, and who wouldn't with Michael Vick's powerful arm and such targets as spectacular DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, steady Jason Avant and Brent Celek, and versatile RB LeSean McCoy.
The Eagles are most dangerous when they set the tempo with their running attack, though. Sure, Vick's speed and elusiveness are uncanny skills for a quarterback — even for some running backs — and Reid readily recognizes it.
He also knows that a healthy McCoy is even more skilled a runner than Westbrook was, and nearly as good a receiver. Philly keeps opponents off-balance with its willingness to plug away on the ground; in the past, Reid often pulled the plug on runs early in games.
Reid insists the approach is no different this year.
"Really haven't changed. Whatever works we're going to do and the better you can mix it, the better off you're going to be," Reid said. "Obviously, if you get a lead, you're probably going to end up running the ball a little bit more. That's just how it ends up working out. Philosophy hasn't changed."
The action on the field says otherwise — for lots of teams.
AP Pro Football Writer Rob Maaddi in Philadelphia and Sports Writers Will Graves in Pittsburgh and Tom Canavan in East Rutherford, N.J., contributed to this story.