Think the Steelers run the football? The Atlanta Falcons RUN the football.
Through the first five games of the 2006 season, Willie Parker has posted three 100-yard games for the Steelers, who are averaging a respectable 125.8 rushing yards per game and 4.2 yards per carry. Remember, this is the NFL, and there are professionals who play defense, too.
But the Falcons are on another planet. They're averaging, averaging, mind you, 232 yards rushing per game, and 6.4 yards per carry.
They have two guys – Warrick Dunn and Michael Vick – ranked in the top 10 in the NFC in rushing, and Dunn's backup – rookie Jerious Norwood – ranks 16th. Also, Dunn has ripped off a 90-yard touchdown run, and Norwood has a 78-yard touchdown run – both this season.
And Vick, the quarterback, is the hub of it all. Instead of trying to make Vick into somebody he wasn't, the current Falcons coaching staff decided during the last offseason to try instead to make their starting quarterback the best Michael Vick he could be.
So when you watch the Falcons, it's like watching a college game featuring the West Virginia Mountaineers or the Florida Gators. The quarterback is in the shotgun, a running back is right next to him, and either one of those guys could end up running the football a long, long way on any snap.
"They have the option draw that you see in college all the time," said Coach Bill Cowher. "I'm going to have to start calling some college coaches about defending that thing. You are talking about the team that is No. 1, clearly ahead of everybody and setting records, rushing the football, and (Vick) is a part of that.
"And it's not like (Vick) is the only one, either. Warrick Dunn looks like he hit the fountain of youth or whatever, but he is running hard and fast, and then they bring in kids like (Jerious) Norwood who has unbelievable speed. When you talk about three guys who can run -- Norwood, Dunn and Vick -- they do a good job of presenting some different challenges to a defense in terms of testing the perimeter and reading some things with Michael, so we will have to be very disciplined to say the least."
Under the best of circumstances, it's a difficult job to try to deal with an offense like Atlanta's with just one week to prepare, and the Steelers will face the Falcons with a situation on defense that's far from the best of circumstances.
James Harrison, the team's top backup linebacker, is out with his high ankle sprain, and Cowher listed Joey Porter as doubtful with the hamstring he injured in practice before the game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
If Porter does not play, it will be the second game the Steelers will go without Porter and Harrison, and that means they will be back to using the combination of Arnold Harrison and Chad Brown at right outside linebacker.
Harrison/Brown did fine against the Chiefs, with a combined six tackles, one sack, one pressure, one pass defensed and zero obvious goofs, but the degree of difficulty now increases exponentially with Vick and the Falcons.
Neither one of those linebackers was around here in 2002 when the Steelers had their only other experience with Vick and the Falcons, and that game ended in a 34-34 tie. The Steelers held a 17-7 halftime lead and a 31-17 lead after three quarters that they built to 34-17 with 12 minutes left, but Vick was magic from then until the end of regulation.
That game posed the question, To blitz or not to blitz?
"You want to mix up your approach," said Cowher. "We played against them a few years ago at Heinz Field. He is a guy that you are not going to make a living doing it, but you certainly don't want to sit back because you are going to need some people to be able to fill some lanes. I think you have to be able to pick and choose and just try to keep him off balance as much as possible."
Off balance is Vick's specialty, but usually he's making the defenders feel that way. It's going to take all 11 defenders doing the right thing on every play to contain Michael Vick.
"In the secondary you have to be careful that you don't come out of coverage too quickly, because he still has an unbelievably strong arm, and we talk about his scrambling," said Cowher. "This is a guy who will scramble to run, but at the same time you cannot drop coverage.
"Up front you are going to have to come under control. A lot of times you talk about quarterbacks where you don't worry about containing him because you don't care if he is out of the pocket; this is a guy that the pressure lanes will be very important and at the same time, I think the biggest thing as defensive players, you can't get frustrated. You may have the most perfectly designed defense and everybody does their job, but he is going to make some plays.
"The biggest thing is to minimize the big plays that he makes, stay patient and hopefully somewhere along the line we will make a play."