Steelers defense searching for right recipe to beat Tom Brady in Foxborough
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Age hasn’t slowed New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Perhaps the Pittsburgh Steelers defense will have better luck than Father Time.
Entering the season opener Sunday night at Gillette Stadium, the Steelers are hoping to keep the 42-year-old Brady and the Patriots off-balance with a strategy that often is crafted but rarely executed.
Like other NFL teams, the Steelers will use a pass rush designed to get in Brady’s face to alter his line of vision while deploying various looks in the secondary in an attempt to eliminate the mismatches that the six-time Super Bowl champion likes to exploit.
“That’s the recipe for success against Brady,” Steelers defensive captain Cameron Heyward said. “We know how much of a great passer he is, but I’ve never seen a good passer on his butt. That’s not a discredit to him, but if we put pressure in his face, and he can’t step through or follow through, that allows our pass coverage to get picks and get a lot of turnovers.”
Again, it’s a game plan that is sound in theory. Pulling it off is the difficult part.
When the Steelers handed the Patriots a 17-10 loss in December at Heinz Field, it was just their third win against Brady in 14 attempts, counting postseason. The Steelers led the NFL in sacks for the second year in row, but they brought down Brady just once. However, the Steelers did pressure Brady into throwing a rare interception, and cornerback Joe Haden’s pick at the Steelers’ 4 midway through the fourth quarter preserved a 14-10 lead.
The interception was just the fifth that Brady had thrown in those 14 meetings, and the sack was the seventh in the past five appearances. Still, they managed to eke out a win against the Patriots for the first time since the 2011 season.
The mission Sunday night will be trying to beat Brady at his home stadium for the first time. The only time the Steelers have won at Foxborough since 1997 was when Matt Cassel was under center in 2008.
“We have to work together,” Heyward said. “The secondary is going to hold back and make sure he doesn’t have an open receiver. When we have blitzes, we have to make sure we hit home.”
With Sean Davis likely missing the game because of an ankle injury, the Steelers will have three new starters on defense: cornerback Steve Nelson, free safety Kameron Kelly and Mark Barron or Devin Bush at inside linebacker.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick doesn’t expect the Steelers to take the same defensive approach that was used in Week 15 last season.
“They have a pretty broad system,” he said. “They are able to do a lot of different things. They don’t do them all every week. They played us differently last year. We know they are capable of adjusting what they need to do.”
Brady so often has relied on an up-tempo style to find weaknesses in the defenses. He is quick to the line of scrimmage where he can run the no-huddle or take a few seconds to identify mismatches.
“You can have a (defensive) call ready, but you can’t provide too much information for him,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “Just because he’s at the line doesn’t necessarily mean the ball is going to be snapped. He can gather information, change the play and then attack.”
Pre-snap communication will be the key to the Steelers not tipping their hand for Brady. With a rookie inside linebacker in Bush potentially relaying the calls from the sideline, the Steelers will have little margin for error.
“We feel like if we are talking pre-snap, everybody can be in the right place,” slot corner Mike Hilton said. “Once we get settled with the call and everybody is on their keys and in the right spot, we’ll be fine. We have to make sure we are on top of it pre-snap and everybody is in the right position.”
If that happens, the Steelers believe they are well equipped to finally beat Brady at his home stadium. Given Brady’s age, they might not get another shot.
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .