Tim Benz: If Steelers are to beat New England, get ready for a shootout
Since the start of the 2000s, a few constant sports-related questions have hung over Pittsburgh:
• Will the Pirates ever sign a big-name free agent?
• Will Pitt and Penn State ever play annually again?
• Will the Steelers ever slow down Tom Brady?
In the first 17 years of the century the answers have been:
• No way
• Yeah, right
• We'll believe it when we see it.
Well, don't expect to see it this Sunday when Brady and New England come to town.
And Pittsburgh shouldn't approach this game like it will.
If the Steelers are to beat the Patriots on Sunday, they should be ready to do it the same way they just beat Baltimore: in a shootout.
No, that wasn't beloved “AFC North football.” It was more like Big 12 football.
It might need to be that way again against the Patriots.
For the first seven weeks of this season, the Steelers emerging defense finally had the appearance of one that could potentially combat Brady's relentlessly precise passing game.
It was getting pressure up the middle. The pocket was being collapsed off the edge. The middle of the field was being taken away better than it had in almost a decade. Even the back third looked above average.
But injuries to Joe Haden and Ryan Shazier seem to have changed that. Not only had those two players been excellent this season, but the depth behind them has been stretched.
Tyler Matakevich, Shazier's backup, is also hurt. So the defensive coaching staff seems to be throwing whatever it can against the wall to see what sticks between promoted special teamer L.J. Fort, reclamation project Sean Spence and converted outside backer Arthur Moats.
If Haden can't return by next week, Coty Sensabaugh is struggling to fill the void and rookie Cam Sutton is still very green.
Also in the secondary, safety Mike Mitchell just played his first game back from injury and showed some ill effects and/or rust against the Ravens.
T.J. Watt had a knee that was barking at him, too. Plus, he might have hit a rookie wall. Before his game-saving strip of Joe Flacco on Sunday, he had just one sack since Oct. 29.
Bud Dupree has just one in his last four games. That goes for Stephon Tuitt as well.
“It gives us a sour taste,” said Moats. “The performance was very much below the line.”
So if Joe Flacco and Brett Hundley combined to put up 66 points in two of the last three weeks — all together now — “Can yinz imagine what Tom Brady and the Patriots are gonna do, n'at?”
“They are who they are. He is who he is,” said offensive lineman Ramon Foster. “We'll just have to deal with them next Sunday.”
Easier said than done.
I'd suggest the Steelers enter this game with one of two approaches:
Embrace the idea of winning a shootout like they did against Baltimore.
Or possess the ball for 40 minutes and keep Brady on the sideline like they did the only two times they've beaten him — in 2004 (34-20) and '11 (25-17).
Since the latter might require a few three and outs along the way, I say buckle up and go score for score.
“We can win a shootout against anybody,” running back Le'Veon Bell said. “We feel like we can score points whenever we need to. We ended up scoring 39 today. And that was not even playing our greatest football.”
For its part, the defense would prefer the game didn't have to go in that direction.
“Gotta get stops. Gotta get off the field,” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “It's self-inflicted. Penalties. Missed tackles. Absurd things we are doing.”
If you saw Sunday's third quarter, you'd agree “absurd” is a good description.
What also is absurd is thinking you can keep trying to put a square peg into a round hole and assume it's going to work.
That's in part why Pittsburgh has struggled so much over the years against Brady and the Patriots. They've continually tried to do the same things on defense they do against everyone else, just hoping to do it better against the best quarterback in history.
That hasn't panned out.
So if you want a different answer, it's time to start asking a different question.
After 16 years, stop asking: “Will the Steelers ever slow down Tom Brady and the Patriots?”
Start asking: “Can the Steelers outscore them?”
The path to that answer seems more clear right now. It starts with Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown.
If the Steelers don't go down that path, a different path may end up taking them to Foxborough in January instead.
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.