PITTSBURGH Maybe Bill Belichick's 5-9 record against the Pittsburgh Steelers allows them to talk less reverently about the New England Patriots' defensive mastermind.
Certainly, they admired his imaginative schemes that reduced NFL MVP Peyton Manning into a frustrated, head-shaking shell of his normal touchdown-making self during New England's 20-3 divisional-round victory.
They are impressed that Belichick and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel consistently manufacture ways to shut down teams with a secondary so injury-depleted that Troy Brown, a wide receiver and kick returner, is the nickel back.
But while Belichick is considered a great NFL coach for winning two Super Bowls in three seasons, the word ''genius'' isn't heard in the Steelers' locker room. In their minds, Belichick became a much better coach when he got much better players in New England than he had while going 3-8 against Pittsburgh as the Cleveland Browns coach from 1991-95.
What Belichick does is ''not overrated he's done some great things when it comes to coming up with great game plans,'' Steelers wide receiver Antwaan Randle El said Thursday. ''I wouldn't say it's overrated; it's just a matter of adjusting to it. And we've adjusted all year.''
Steelers coach Bill Cowher is flowery in praising the Patriots coach's style and system, even acknowledging that he's borrowed from it. But he seemed to dismiss talk Belichick can design a game plan so unique and daring that rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger shouldn't even bother walking onto the field for Sunday night's AFC championship game at Pittsburgh.
To Cowher, there's nothing ''mystic'' about Belichick at all.
''I don't think they'll show him anything that he hasn't seen at any point this year,'' said Cowher, who is 8-4 against Belichick. ''Maybe something different than we've prepared for, but that's all part of football.''
Cowher is shown consoling a dejected Roethlisberger at his locker in the Steelers Digest team publication this week, a photo taken shortly after the rookie threw two costly interceptions during Pittsburgh's 20-17 overtime victory over the Jets on Saturday.
Roethlisberger said he was down on himself at the moment but felt better within minutes and isn't worried about becoming similarly distraught or rattled by whatever Belichick throws at him.
''I know what I did wrong, the mistakes I made,'' he said. ''You can't dwell on the past; you've got to move on. This game's too big.''
No matter how exotic the Patriots become in their blitzing or pass coverage schemes to confuse the rookie QB, the Steelers still plan to pound twin power backs Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley repeatedly, just as they did in beating New England 34-20 on Oct. 31. Staley ran for 125 yards and Bettis 65, while the Patriots managed only 5 yards rushing without injured star Corey Dillon.
Jets running back Curtis Martin, a chess fan, refers to the deep-thinking Belichick as the Bobby Fischer of football, but the Steelers said no game plan can make that big a difference if a team controls the line of scrimmage.
Belichick ''isn't playing,'' wide receiver Plaxico Burress said. ''All he does is call the plays, and he puts his players in good position to make plays. That's why they've been so successful and been able to win so consistently.''
Patriots tight end Christian Fauria said much the same thing Thursday, suggesting no game plan can compensate if the opponent is executing better.
The Steelers ''haven't changed the way they line up,'' he said. ''Their linebackers are still disruptive and being aggressive and knocking everybody down. The defensive line is getting up the field, disrupting things and putting people on the ground.''
The Steelers are in much better shape than they were for their 24-17 upset loss to New England in the January 2002 AFC championship game, when Bettis' serious groin injury effectively left them without a running game. Bettis, severely limited by the injury, was held to 8 yards on nine carries.
Still, they aren't making a big deal about being underdogs at home, despite having a better record than New England (15-1 during the season to 14-2), a higher-ranked defense (No. 1 to No. 9) and a 9-0 home record.
''We don't know what they're going to do, but they don't know what we're going to do, either,'' linebacker Joey Porter said. ''They've still got to play us in our back yard. We're undefeated at home, and we like our chances.''
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