Steelers players give insight on ways to solve their Patriots Problem
Play man coverage, but not too much man coverage. Create turnovers. Get pressure up the middle. Limit penalties and time of possession. Be stingy on third down.
Sound theories all for NFL defenses hoping to produce a winning formula against the New England Patriots, the most successful franchise of the 21st century.
Theories, however, are only as good as the application of them, and that's where even the best laid plans can go awry.
What looks good on the blackboard Wednesday doesn't always transfer to the green grass Sunday. So the Steelers have discovered in recent seasons, losing eight of the past 10 matchups against the Patriots, including a lopsided 36-17 defeat in last year's AFC championship game. Only once in the past 13 years have they beaten five-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Tom Brady, and that was six years ago when JuJu Smith-Schuster was in junior high.
Will the Steelers be able to solve their Patriots Problem on Sunday at Heinz Field when the teams with the best records in the AFC square off with home-field advantage on the menu?
That depends on whether Steelers clean up recent problems in stopping the run — 282 yards combined the past two games — and eliminate the big plays that have plagued them in the second half of the season, and seemingly every time they encounter Brady.
“It isn't easy,” safety Mike Mitchell said.
The Patriots are coming off a surprising 27-20 loss in Miami on Monday night that snapped an eight-game winning streak. The Patriots' flaws were exposed in that game. Brady threw two interceptions and was sacked twice. The offense was 0 for 11 on third down, and the Dolphins possessed the ball for 36 minutes, limiting Brady's time on the field.
Problem is, the Patriots rarely lose in successive weeks. Since 2001, when the Bill Belichick-Brady coaching-quarterback tandem took root, the Patriots are 40-11 after a loss. The blueprint used for success one week typically doesn't carry over to the next.
Still, you have to start somewhere when building a game plan.
“You're going to use the template of people that were successful,” Mitchell said. “We're not going to do what someone that lost by 30 is going to do. At the end of the day, we have to do what we do. We have a certain personnel here that plays a certain way. We're going to do what we do.”
The Steelers can rely fundamentally on the plan from their most recent win over Brady — a 25-17 victory at Heinz Field in 2011. They controlled the clock, giving Brady only 21 minutes of possession. They also sacked him three times.
But only three defensive players — and eight overall — remain from that win. Starting cornerback William Gay now plays only in the dime defense, Cam Heyward was a rookie in 2011, and James Harrison was inactive for the game.
Defensive coordinator Keith Butler was the linebackers coach under Dick LeBeau. Since replacing LeBeau, his defenses are 0-3 against Brady.
“You have to believe you can beat them,” Butler said. “You also have to believe this is your best game to beat them. I think our guys believe that, they really do.”
Butler and two Steelers defensive players who won games against the Patriots while playing for other teams — Mitchell and linebacker Arthur Moats — shared their insight on what it takes to contain Brady.
A sampling of what worked in each instance:
• Nov. 18, 2013: Panthers 24, Patriots 20
In his only season in Carolina, Mitchell was on the field when Brady tried to lead a game-winning touchdown drive in the final 59 seconds.
The Patriots reached the Carolina 18 with 3 seconds left. Brady's pass in the end zone was intended for Rob Gronkowski but was intercepted, and a penalty flag for pass interference was picked up, leaving Brady livid.
Mitchell said the Panthers that day mixed coverages in the secondary, alternating between man and zone. They intercepted Brady once and sacked him twice.
“I'm sure plenty of teams have tried to play man and got their (butts) whupped,” he said. “So it's not really going to depend on what type of coverage it is. It's going to depend on the execution.”
Mitchell recently watched film of the Patriots' 42-27 loss against Kansas City in the NFL season opener. Brady was sacked three times and completed just 16 of 36 passes.
“Kansas City did a great job of playing man and then mixing in other coverages as well,” Mitchell said. “Tom was looking like, ‘Is that man? No, it's not quite man?' And he holds the ball for an extra second and that's when you hit him. … That's how you beat him.”
• Sept. 25, 2011: Bills 34, Patriots 31
In the four seasons he played for Buffalo, Moats walked off the field a winner just once in eight tries. On this day, the Bills overcame a 21-0 deficit and won on a last-second field goal by Rian Lindell to improve to 3-0.
Yes, the Bills once were 3-0 and had a better record than the Patriots.
Brady was a mere mortal in this game, throwing four interceptions. One of the picks was returned for a touchdown. Overall, the Bills had 24 points off the interceptions.
“I just remember we created a lot of turnovers,” Moats said. “In the eight times we played them, probably four came right down to the end, but that one time we got a couple turnovers in the red zone, and that helped us.”
Brady wasn't sacked in the game, but he converted only 3 of 9 third downs.
“You have to create a hostile environment,” Moats said. “That's how you're able to generate that kind of success.”
The Steelers would like to generate pressure up the middle, which is where Vince Williams has amassed seven sacks. That also puts a premium on defensive ends Heyward and Stephon Tuitt to be pests in the backfield.
“That is a big key to it,” Butler said. “But it's also the coverage part to it. The coverage has to be good, and the rush has to be good. If you can do both, then maybe you can make it hard on them and hopefully get a pick or two even though he hasn't thrown many.”
Brady has thrown only six interceptions this season against 27 touchdown passes, which has helped him lead the NFL with a 105.2 passer rating.
Two of those interceptions came in the loss to the Dolphins when the Patriots played without Gronkowski.
How the Steelers execute their defensive game plan against Brady and company will go a long way toward determining which team holds the AFC's top seed after the game.
“We respect who they are, and we respect their weapons,” Mitchell said. “Find out Sunday.”