Commentary

Versus Pats, Steelers' D never rests

Getting to the bottom of the one-sided rivalry starts with Brady and the passing game

Updated: October 27, 2011, 12:25 AM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It played out like a cross-examination.

Despite the New England Patriots' overwhelming success the past decade, their dominance of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the other AFC juggernaut during that same span, seemingly has been so one-sided that it clearly required an investigation. So reporters arrived in Foxborough on Wednesday armed with bright lights and cameras ready to pry answers out of those chiefly responsible for New England's hegemony.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesTom Brady has 14 touchdown passes and just 3 interceptions in his career against the Steelers.

First on the witness stand: Bill Belichick, whose squad has a 6-2 mark against Pittsburgh during his reign as head coach, including two victories in AFC title games. How does he explain New England's success in the series?

"We've had our moments against them; they've had their moments against us," Belichick droned. "They're a good football team; they give everybody problems."

Everybody but the Patriots, it seems. Although it's hard to argue with Belichick's assertion that the Steelers are "one of the top organizations and top football teams in the National Football League, year in and year out," the series is hardly as even as he suggested. The Steelers' two victories came in 2008, the year Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was sidelined by an ACL injury, and 2004, which produced a frightful Halloween visit to Heinz Field (one that New England atoned for in the postseason en route to its third Super Bowl crown).

More often than not, no team has elicited as much emotion -- and production -- from Brady as these Steelers. And it doesn't always require Anthony Smith foolishly guaranteeing a victory. Not only does Brady have a 6-1 career record against Pittsburgh, but he's completed 173-of-255 passes (67.8 percent) for 2,008 yards, 14 touchdowns and 3 interceptions -- a glossy quarterback rating of 104.8.

This against a defense that's seemingly been cemented atop the league since the Steel Curtain days. Clearly there's tomfoolery at play, some sort of magic dust these Patriots are using before games.

"Like I said, it's just execution," Brady shrugged when pressed on the issue, particularly his stellar passing numbers, during his turn on the witness stand Wednesday. "It's guys getting open and us completing it. There's no special thing we do. There's no magic dust we put in our cereal in the morning or anything like that."

So much for the magic dust theory. That's a bummer for Pittsburgh fans. After all, it would be easy to manipulate the Patriots' breakfast spread at the team hotel. Finding a way to slow Brady when he has consistently carved apart your defense like some sort of breakfast ham is decidedly more difficult.

Still, it just doesn't add up. Even amid all of New England's success during the past decade, the Steelers might have usurped the Patriots as the AFC's top dog, particularly after winning the conference crown last season.

Both sides certainly have impressive résumés in the new century. Since 2000, the Steelers are 115-60-1 during the regular season. They've won 12 playoff games and won three AFC titles and two Lombardi trophies. (A third slipped away in a 31-25 loss to the Packers during Super Bowl XLV last season.) The Patriots are 126-50, winning 14 playoff games while claiming four AFC titles and three Lombardi trophies. (A fourth slipped away in a 17-14 loss to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII in 2007.)

So how in the world can two programs with so much in common produce such one-sided results when they meet?

"They've played us pretty good a few times too," Brady pleaded, echoing the sentiments of Belichick before him. "We've had our moments, and they've had their moments. I think we realize the kind of challenge that it is and we put a lot of time into the preparation and we put a lot of effort into understanding what we're trying to accomplish from a game-plan standpoint, and then we've executed well."

Brady remained effusive in his praise of the Pittsburgh defense despite evidence to the contrary -- at least against New England.

"It's a good defense; it's a very good defense," he said. "They're first in the league in pass defense, and I know you probably don't care about that, but they're pretty damn good if you ask me."

Maybe there's simply something about the sight of Pittsburgh's black and yellow that brings out some of New England's most inspired play. The Patriots' spread-formation passing game is the kryptonite to Dick LeBeau and his vaunted zone blitz scheme.

During NBC's broadcast last season, an in-game graphic noted the Patriots had passed on 73 percent of their plays during regular-season games against the Steelers. During all other games in the Belichick era, the Patriots had a much more balanced 55-to-45 pass-rush ratio.

The Steelers enter Sunday's game with the league's top pass defense, allowing only 171.9 yards per game -- or less than half of the 350.5 yards per game that Brady & Co. are producing as the league's top passing offense. Do the Steelers expect more of a pass-first attack from New England? Detectives in Pittsburgh have been working hard on that angle all week.

"I think they attack how they choose to attack you," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin told reporters on Tuesday. "We know they are capable of moving up and down the field passing the football, but we are not going to underestimate what they are capable of doing running the football. … They are good enough to determine how they want to attack you and have a strong chance at being successful."

Pittsburgh authorities also interviewed Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski on Wednesday. His three-touchdown haul last season helped New England score its latest triumph over the Steelers. Even the second-year player wouldn't crack when asked about the secrets to the Patriots' success.

"I feel like, in that game, we just played together all as a team, and everyone competed well," Gronkowski said. "It is a whole new year now, though."

A whole new year. But will there be a new result? The Steelers have to find some answers to Brady and the Patriots' passing game before their defense can ever rest.

Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots and Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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