- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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This is not opinion. This is fact.
The New England Patriots' future Hall of Famer dominates the "Steel Curtain" defense like no other quarterback in NFL history. Brady beats Pittsburgh at Heinz Field. He beats Pittsburgh at Gillette Stadium. He owns the Steelers in the regular season and in the playoffs.
Brady is an impressive 6-1 all-time against Pittsburgh. He will look to add to that record Sunday when the Patriots (5-1) travel to meet the Steelers (5-2) in a possible playoff preview.
Brady is the one quarterback Pittsburgh's vaunted defense doesn't want to see on the opposing sideline. According to ESPN's Stats and Information, he's thrown for 2,008 yards and 14 touchdowns, with only three interceptions.
Brady also has a 104.8 career passer rating versus Pittsburgh and a 67.8 completion percentage.
"It's just a terrible matchup for the Steelers," Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. explained. "Any time you design a defense or offense, you're going to have strengths and weaknesses. ... Their defense isn't a good fit for the Patriots. If you're just looking at the roster, you want to force the Steelers to play nickel. You want to take Casey Hampton off the field when he's healthy and replace him with William Gay. Hampton is a good player and Gay isn't. The Patriots have the weapons and the receiving threats to do that."
On paper, this looks like it will be a tough battle between New England's No. 1-ranked offense against Pittsburgh's third-ranked defense. But Brady's history with Pittsburgh proves that the battle may not be so tough after all.
Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's zone-blitz scheme thrives off disguise and confusion. But Brady, 34, is so cerebral that he stays one step ahead of Pittsburgh.
The most recent meeting in 2010 was a perfect example. Brady read Pittsburgh's defense like a book. He utilized short, decisive passes to carve up the Steelers and was 30 of 43 for 350 yards and three touchdowns.
Brady makes it look easy against Pittsburgh. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, now in his fifth season, has yet to beat Brady.
"He is just very good physically and mentally," Tomlin said this week. "He is very talented in both areas. He is tough to trick, he makes quick decisions, he has pinpoint accuracy and he has the arm to do the things he desires to do."
Schematically, Pittsburgh has a hard time adjusting to New England's multiple formations. For years the Patriots have used the spread offense to pick apart the Steelers' 3-4 defense. Other teams are starting to catch on. The Green Bay Packers did some of the same things to beat Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLV this past February.
Pittsburgh's biggest strength is its front seven and its biggest weakness is cornerback depth. New England is able to dictate Pittsburgh's personnel groupings by putting three or more receivers on the field. Stud tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski often are moved outside the box and used as receivers. This forces Pittsburgh to go three- and four-deep at corner, while removing a linebacker or defensive lineman.
If Pittsburgh stays in its base defense, Patriots receivers like Wes Welker, Hernandez and Gronkowski could have a field day against far-less athletic linebackers James Farrior, LaMarr Woodley and Larry Foote.
If Pittsburgh takes its linebackers off the field in favor of extra cornerbacks like William Gay and Keenan Lewis, New England will have an easier time running the ball with its deep stable of running backs. The Patriots are tied for 10th in the NFL in rushing and average 4.6 yards per carry.
There are no easy answers for the Steelers.
"Both teams know each other well, so I don't think there will be a ton of surprises here," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said this week. "It will come down to preparation, execution and decision-making on game day."
It also doesn't help Pittsburgh that Pro Bowl outside linebacker James Harrison will miss his fourth consecutive game with an eye injury. Getting to Brady is key, and Woodley (seven sacks) has been Pittsburgh's only consistent pass-rusher this year.
"I think [Harrison] is one of the top 10 or 15 players in the league, and now they're weaker at two positions," Williamson said. "Lawrence Timmons was a force on the inside. Now, he's disappeared on the outside. So they're much weaker there, and they're much weaker inside where Timmons used to be."
The key chess match in this game will be between Brady and Pittsburgh safety and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Troy Polamalu. Brady usually gets the best of Polamalu with his ability to make great pre-snap reads.
But Brady knows Polamalu is capable of making big plays at any time. Polamalu has 43 tackles and one sack this season.
"Troy is a phenomenal player," Brady said this week on WEEI radio in Boston. "I watched a bunch of his highlights with Coach Belichick yesterday in our film study. He's as good as he's ever been. He flies around the field. He's incredibly fast and instinctive. He covers a lot of ground out there. You have to keep your eyes on him on every play."
Giving the Patriots two weeks to prepare is bad news for opponents.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, New England coach Bill Belichick is 8-0 after the bye since 2003. The Patriots have the second-longest active win streak following the bye, trailing the Philadelphia Eagles, who have won 12 in a row.
"New England adapts week-to-week to their opponent better than anyone in league on both sides of the ball," Williamson said. "Where I think the Steelers are more like 'We're the Steelers, and we're just better than you.'"
The Steelers have won championships. But they haven't been better than the Patriots for a long time.
It will remain that way until Pittsburgh solves the Brady conundrum.
3dEric D. Williams
3dEric D. Williams