Tomase: Stubborn Steelers must change or Tom Brady will once again destroy them

John Tomase
December 12, 2017 - 12:17 pm
Tom Brady

James Lang/USA Today Sports

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The Patriots once again face the Steelers with everything on the line. And we'll once again ask the only question that matters -- is Pittsburgh paying attention?

Year after year, the Steelers meet the Pats in a game that matters. And year after year, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin beats his chest and announces, "We're going to do what we do." And year after year we're reminded that what they do is get housed by the Patriots.

The squads have met eight times since Tomlin became head coach in 2007, and the Patriots have won six of them. The two losses came in 2008, when Matt Cassel was taking snaps instead of Tom Brady, and 2011, when the Patriots owned the worst defense in the league.

Overall, Brady is 10-2 vs. the Steelers, including three playoff victories in three tries. He routinely picks them apart because the Steelers never vary their defense. They play their zone, Brady finds the holes, and the Patriots roll.

But will this year be different? The Steelers have been insisting since the preseason that they can't defend Brady the same old way anymore. That means more man and less zone. That means four-man pressure up the middle instead of the edge blitzes that Brady spits on while stepping up in the pocket. That means being less predictable, because Brady feasts on predictable.

Forget about Monday's shocking 27-20 loss to the Dolphins. The Patriots leave one of those in the latrine every couple of years, usually in Miami, and we shouldn't read too much into a loss that lacked Rob Gronkowski, Marcus Cannon, and Trey Flowers. The Pats will be much closer to full strength this weekend.

When we talk about paying attention, we mean to the kinds of defensive approaches that have given Brady the most trouble over the years, starting with the Giants in two Super Bowl losses and continuing through clubs like Baltimore, Houston and even Atlanta in last year's playoffs, at least until the Falcons ran out of gas.

These teams pressure Brady up the middle, eliminating his step-up lanes and giving the otherwise unflappable TB12 some periodic cases of happy feet. The Dolphins succeeded on this front on Monday, with defensive tackle Davon Godchaux delivering one of Brady's most vicious licks of the year on pressure right in his face.

The Steelers claim they finally recognize how they must approach defending Brady. They've been saying so since training camp, when defensive coordinator Keith Butler told USA Today that the same old, same old wouldn't cut it anymore.

"I learned that we've got to play something else besides zone," Butler told the paper. "With Tom Brady, you can't let him see the same defense too much during the game. Because if he does, then he's not pulling the ball down, and he's letting the ball go, the timing is all perfect, and he'll eat you up. You've got to make him pull the ball down a little bit – make him freeze where he's not real decisive of where he's going to go with the ball."

The Steelers have routinely been terrible at this, sending James Harrison off the edge in a futile attempt to make Brady uncomfortable. Instead, a tackle just rides Harrison right up the field while Brady strolls into the pocket and samples a buffet of wide-open targets. Harrison isn't a factor anymore at age 39, but the Steelers still bring pressure with the likes of defensive end Cameron Heyward (9 sacks) and linebackers Vince Williams (7) and T.J. Watt (6), J.J.'s little brother.

"We have to be able to develop a four-man rush and not just blitz all the time," Butler said during camp. "This year we have to be able to play conventional coverages with conventional people playing those coverages and conventional people rushing the passer. We've got to be able to do that in order to advance defensively, in my opinion."

They need to change, but can they change? With linebacker Ryan Shazier still hospitalized following a serious back injury, the Steelers do not present a particularly formidable defense. They just surrendered 38 points to the Ravens in a 39-38 victory, two weeks after allowing the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers to hit a series of big plays in a game Pittsburgh stole on the final play, 31-28.

Now comes the best offense Pittsburgh will see all year in New England. Will the Steelers alter their approach to rattle Brady? They've been claiming for months that the answer is yes, but color me skeptical. I'll believe it when I see it.

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