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Tim Benz: It might be Martavis Bryant or bust for Steelers to beat New England

| Friday, Dec. 15, 2017, 6:39 p.m.
Steelers receiver Martavis Bryant plays against the Ravens Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers receiver Martavis Bryant plays against the Ravens Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017 at Heinz Field.

All week, much of Pittsburgh has been trying to find some connecting thread between the two Steelers victories against Tom Brady-led New England Patriots teams.

That's two out of 12 chances, by the way.

What consistency exists between those two wins — one in 2004, the other in '11 — that the Black and Gold might be able to replicate Sunday at Heinz Field?

• In both cases Pittsburgh dominated time of possession. The Steelers held the ball 39 minutes in '11 and 42 minutes in '04.

• Both games were late Sunday afternoon kickoffs in Pittsburgh.

• Both games were on Halloween weekend (Oct. 30, 2011 and Oct. 31, 2004).

• On both occasions we also can assume Mars was aligned with Venus, and presumably a little old lady in Churchill was wearing her lucky Rocky Bleier jersey instead of her lucky Jack Lambert jersey.

The Steelers have the start-time and the location covered. That time of possession stat sure would be nice to duplicate as well.

But the date, astronomy, and the little old lady in Churchill's attire are out of the team's control.

Another trait present in those now-deified Steelers wins was the element of surprise.

Not trick plays. Rather, surprises in terms of personnel and scheme.

In October 2004, Bill Belichick and the Patriots coaching staff hadn't faced then-rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. They also hadn't played against Dick LeBeau's defense. That Polamalu kid was just emerging in his second year. And rejuvenated free-agent acquisition Duce Staley was about to run for 125 yards.

The Steelers won that contest 34-20. After Brady and Belichick got a look at the revamped Steelers, they retaliated with a 41-27 victory in the AFC championship game on the North Shore.

In 2011, the Steelers surprised the Patriots by playing more man defense and deploying unheralded rookie cornerback Cortez Allen to cover Rob Gronkowski. Until Gronk picked up some late yards, the Steelers contained the star tight end.

The next time the teams played each other in 2013, the Pats smoked the Steelers, 55-31.

Here's the good news: The Steelers might have another formerly unseen option up their sleeve Sunday.

Here's the bad news: It's Martavis Bryant.

Bryant has yet to play against the Patriots. His combination of “gotta face it to believe it” size and speed could — in theory — surprise their defenders.

That “X-factor” would be augmented if the Steelers could dress rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. But now he might be benched after aggravating his hamstring injury.

The team's thinking early in the week was that those two could help significantly.

“I would imagine there would be a lot of attention paid to Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell on third downs and in the red zone,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “So to have (Smith-Schuster and Bryant) being capable playmakers obviously aids us.”

Belichick is revered for eliminating an opposing team's top offensive threat. If that's too tough of a choice to make between Brown and Bell, Belichick will attempt a scheme to minimize both. Therefore, Bryant must rise up and be the Steelers' lone wild card if Smith-Schuster doesn't dress.

“They are capable of taking two guys away,” offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. “I coached with (Belichick) for three years, so I am very aware of that. They are worried about the people that they think can beat them. And that's why it comes down to other people need to make plays.”

However, the pock-marked history of the Steelers' rivalry with New England shows a chasm between the Steelers' talent and its ability to manifest on the field versus the Patriots.

Assuming a wildly underachieving Bryant will shine is quite the leap.

There's an equally wide gap between the notion of how Bryant can impact a game and how often he actually does it.

“I mean, I'm not adding more to it than what it is,” Bryant said. “To other guys it might be different, but to me it's another game.”

If this is just “another game” for Bryant, his 2017 average of three catches and 35 yards per game won't stress New England.

Plus, for three weeks in advance of New England's arrival, Tomlin has talked about embracing “the elephant in the room,” predicted fireworks and told us the team should bask in the glow of playing such a big game. Players in the locker room consistently echoed that message.

Except for Bryant. Who is downplaying it.

I rest my case for cynicism.

As usual, Bryant is marching to the beat of his own drummer, even if that drummer is woefully out of rhythm.

Steelers fans better hope that little old lady in Churchill has a lucky Cortez Allen jersey laying around, too. Maybe it has some karma left in it that'll rub off on No. 10.

Tim Benz hosts the Steelers pregame show on WDVE and ESPN Pittsburgh. He is a regular host/contributor on KDKA-TV and 105.9 FM.

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