"I thought to myself, 'I've got to go the guy who scares me the most,'" Clark recalled after a victory that exorcised a lot of demons for the Steelers. "And then I thought, 'You know, I'm not scared of anybody.'"
That seemed to be the collective mindset of a Pittsburgh secondary strafed by New England quarterback Tom Brady in the past, particularly in the last four meetings in which the Patriots' star had essentially played pitch and catch against a Steelers unit he had basically belittled. Playing considerably more man-to-man coverage and utilizing the trademark LeBeau zone-blitz far less than normal - Pittsburgh normally is a high zone character team - the Steelers finally turned the tables on Brady and on a New England team that had won its previous four contests at Heinz Field.
Not since last Nov. 7, in a 34-14 loss at Cleveland, had the Patriots scored fewer points. In the 14 games between that defeat and Sunday's loss, New England had averaged 34.6 points and scored at least 30 in all but one of those outings. In seven of the games, New England, which hung 39 on the Steelers here last Nov. 14, scored 35 points or more.
But the Steelers entered the game with short memories - "History doesn't last very long in this league," noted strong safety Troy Polamalu - and with a defensive game plan that was more aggressive than what it had deployed in previous meeting. And LeBeau, who one national media outlet this week had suggested was "owned" by Brady, orchestrated a masterful scheme.
|Patriots Rob Gronkowski vs Steelers Ryan Clark Oct 30, 2011 (Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)|
Not only did the Steelers rely on more man-coverage, but they also played nearly the entire game with six defensive backs on the field. The defense got strong play from young non-starters like No. 3 safety Ryan Mundy and emerging cornerbacks Keenan Lewis and Cortez Allen. The performances of those two, and former nickel corner William Gay has reduced onetime starter Bryant McFadden to afterthought.
Mostly, though, the Steelers leaned heavily on ninth-year veteran cornerback Ike Taylor, a player LeBeau regards as a "shutdown" defender, and a cover guy who chased New England star Wes Welker all over the field. Welker still had six catches, but only for 39 yards, none longer than 10 yards. Even in the Pittsburgh nickel package, Taylor generally stays outside. But he followed Welker into the slot many times on Sunday, a role out of character for him and for LeBeau's principles.
The result: Brady, who had thrown for an average of 373.7 yards his last three times versus the Pittsburgh defense, was limited to a season-low 198 yards. In every other game this season, Brady had passed for at least 226 yards. He still managed to post a passer rating of 101.8, but he never seemed to be in total synch, and certainly did not enjoy the time in the pocket ("He just stands back there flat-footed sometimes and scans the field," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had lamented last week) that he has had against the Pittsburgh defense in the past.
New England had just one 10-play drive, and an offense that had suffered only eight three-and-out series all season, had three of them. Brady's longest completion of the game was for 23 yards.
By unofficial count, the Steelers played man coverage, or some combination that included man coverage, more than 50 percent of the snaps. That's a very high quota for the Steelers, who, at 6-2, now own the AFC's best record.
|Patriots Wes Welker vs Steelers Oct 30, 2011 (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)|
Taylor, who many Steelers feel has few equals as a cover player, was superb. But so were his colleagues in the secondary, a unit that tackled well, and answered back, at least for a week, the critics who had identified it as too old and too slow. Unlike past meetings, the Steelers permitted few run-after-catch yards.
One of the most outspoken critics of a Steelers team that was humbled by Baltimore in the season opener, former Tampa Bay defensive tackle and current NFL Network analyst Warren Sapp, was cited several times privately by happy Steelers players as they exited the locker room.
"The thing is, we wanted to make it a football game," Clark said. "We've played against them sometimes when it was more like basketball. If you let (Brady) turn it into a basketball game, you're not going to beat him. We decided we were going to be physical with them, make them earn everything."
On the flip side, extending the basketball analogy, the Steelers employed a clock-draining four-corners offense, but not the way that most observers have become accustomed to them doing it. Instead of their usual withering running game, the Steelers applied finesse instead of physicality. Basically, Roethlisberger out-Bradyed the New England star, using short, quick passes to control the ball. Roethlisberger threw for 365 yards, completing 36 of 50 attempts, including at least five each to four different receivers. Early on, Roethlisberger kept connecting inside the hashes to tight end Heath Miller, who had four catches on the Steelers' game-opening scoring drive, and who finished with seven grabs.
Later in the game, Roethlisberger went to his triumvirate of speedy young wideouts, Antonio Brown (nine catches, 67 yards), Mike Wallace (seven for 70 yards) and Emmanuel Sanders (seven for 70 yards). Roethlisberger had only one completion of 25 yards or more, but it really didn't matter. The Steelers used the short passing game, not the run, to dictate the tempo. On each of its five scoring drives, two touchdowns and three Shaun Suisham field goals, Pittsburgh held the ball for 10 or more snaps.
The Steelers held huge advantages in yards (427-213), first downs (29-19), plays (78-50), and time of possession (39:22-20:38). In the first quarter, for instance, the Patriots had the ball for just three plays and 1:24 of possession time.
"I looked over at (defensive end) Brett Keisel," Clark said, "and he was, like, 'I can get used to this.' "
For all the offensive excellence, though, it was a Pittsburgh secondary that stood tall. Compared to its New England counterparts, who played off-man too often and left the middle of the field virtually uncovered, the secondary was giant.
The Steelers' defense played without four starters, with one linebacker (Lawrence Timmons) out of position, and then with the dominating Woodley out of the game for the final period. One Boston-area scribe, detailing Brady's past success against the Steelers, termed the Pittsburgh defense "hapless" last week.
Clearly, the Steelers took that to heart. Clark was one of several defenders who said they didn't necessarily read the stories but understood the gist of them.
"It's a proud bunch, and they played like it," LeBeau said.
Said Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin, when asked about the contributions of several young defenders: "These guys, they not only buy into what we talk about in terms of setting the standard, but they make it a reality. (Today) wasn't too big for them."
Or, apparently, for any of the Steelers.
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