PITTSBURGH – Knowing that the New England Patriots pass on the Pittsburgh Steelers almost 20 percent more than they do against the rest of the league, Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau was on the hot seat going into last year’s game.
“If we execute our defense,” LeBeau said, “it’ll be difficult for them to slowly go down the field on us.”
But the Patriots picked the Steelers apart. And after two possessions the Patriots led 10-0 on their way to a 20-point lead and a 39-26 win.
It was quarterback Tom Brady’s sixth win in seven games against the Steelers, and it looked like all the rest. He averages 31 points per start against the Steelers with a passer rating of 91.2.
Four days after that loss, LeBeau was asked how he would coach against the Patriots the next time in what seems to be a hopeless matchup.
“You’ve just got to get the game film out from ’04,” LeBeau said. “I think we beat them 35-3 [34-20] or something like that. He was the quarterback that day. I think we had two interceptions for touchdowns. He’s gotten us and we’ve gotten him. I hope we do get him again. He is a great player but he’ll not do the same thing.”
LeBeau did not reveal any specifics then, nor did he this week when asked again how the 5-2 Steelers might defend the 5-1 Patriots and their top-ranked offense.
“You have to have good vision to break on the ball that he’s getting rid of quickly, and then you’ve got to tackle the catch,” LeBeau said.
“These guys lead the league in yards after the catch. It’s mostly reflective of his accuracy. He hits them right in stride and they’ve got some tremendously quick and gifted athletes that take the ball and run with it.
“How do you defend that? You tackle them when they catch it and don’t allow those yards after the catch to occur.”
Rodney Harrison, a former Patriots safety and now an analyst for NBC TV, explained why the Steelers match up so poorly against Brady.
“Pittsburgh, they create a lot of pressure off the edge with their outside linebackers, and that’s not the way to attack Tom Brady,” Harrison told The Fan radio in Pittsburgh this week.
“You have to put pressure up the middle and force Tom Brady out of the pocket, specifically to his left side, and jam those receivers and play man-to-man coverage. That’s the way you have to play Tom Brady, kind of like how the Jets played them last year in the playoffs.”
The Steelers have been using more man coverage this season. And after last week’s game, Tomlin looked at cornerback Ike Taylor as he entered the locker room and assigned him to Wes Welker, the slot receiver who leads the NFL with 51 receptions.
Welker is second in the league in yardage, just ahead of Mike Wallace, with 785 yards. Brady’s other weapons are tight ends Rob Gronkowski (29-401) and Aaron Hernandez (27-289) and wide receiver Deion Branch (26-369). BenJarvus Green-Ellis has rushed for 391 yards at a 4.3 clip.
Defensively, the Patriots rank dead last in the NFL. Tomlin dismissed it as an anomaly due to the Patriots allowing late yardage after jumping out to big leads. Yet the Patriots, by average, lead by only 8-3 after the first quarter and only 16-9 at halftime this season.
There are problems in a youthful Patriots defense that’s populated by several high draft picks in recent years. Harrison said that the bye will only help that young-but-talented unit come together.
The Patriots are 9-2 under Bill Belichick coming off a bye.
“Bill Belichick focuses on the little things once you go into the bye,” Harrison added. “He looks at all the film and sees where he needs to get better at. That’s the thing he works on and that’s what makes him such a good coach, and then the players focus on the same thing.
“The Patriots are a very good team and a well-coached team, and if they stay healthy it’s going to be tough to beat them.”
The Steelers know as much. Now, can they finally do something about it?