PITTSBURGH -- The last two losses to the New England Patriots haven't really been too bad for the Steelers.
At least by normal Patriots-Steelers standards.
And the even better news is the Steelers have gotten healthy and matured. The Patriots, meanwhile, have lost the best weapon Tom Brady's had since the Randy Moss days in Rob Gronkowski.
The injured tight end caught three touchdown passes in the Patriots' 28-21 win over the Steelers on opening day 2015 at Gillette Stadium
Earlier this season, in a 27-16 Patriots win at Heinz Field, Gronkowski caught four passes for 93 yards and a touchdown.
The Steelers also played that game without right tackle Marcus Gilbert, linebackers Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree. They used injured safety Sean Davis sparingly off the bench and still had James Harrison rotating behind starting blindside pass-rusher Jarvis Jones.
Those Steelers -- seemingly from another era -- were like these Steelers in that they were without defensive lineman Cameron Heyward, tight end Ladarius Green and were shuffling at No. 2 receiver as Sammie Coates nursed broken fingers.
It really did seem like a different era, since that loss to the Patriots was four weeks away from the start of the Steelers' current nine-game winning streak.
The core of the difference -- aside from the health of Roethlisberger -- is the Steelers can now attack Brady with Shazier, Dupree and Harrison as healthy linebackers in a resurgent defense.
"We've been getting after the quarterback a lot better," said Shazier. "Someone told me we've been leading in sacks from Week 9. Also, I think it's more of everybody making the plays that come their way."
The Steelers had only 12 sacks in their first nine games, and in their last nine -- all wins -- they've had 32.
The start of the win streak coincided with the insertion of Harrison and Davis into the starting lineup.
Harrison had one of eight sacks against the Cleveland Browns and dedicated his franchise-record game ball to the memory of his late father in a stirring locker room speech. He's had 5.5 sacks since regaining his starting job.
Dupree also came off the PUP list and played his first game that day in Cleveland. He didn't become the starting bookend opposite Harrison until the fourth game of the win streak in Buffalo, but he had 2.5 sacks against the Bills and has five in six games. His hit on Kansas City QB Alex Smith last week popped up an errant pass that became Shazier's fourth interception in the last four games.
Shazier's also grown exponentially in his understanding as he finishes his second season as the defensive signal-caller.
"I think I've grown a lot, not just in the knowledge of the game, but with my health," Shazier said. "When we played them last time, I really wasn't healthy and I didn't get to play that much. Now that I'm healthy and able to focus in more and not worry about my injuries and things like that, I think I can let my game grow. The experiences are allowing me to help my team out so much more."
Shazier buries himself in the film room during his free time. He's taken his role as defensive quarterback seriously and is regarded as one of the point men -- along with free safety Mike Mitchell -- in the evolving defense since Dick LeBeau left prior to the 2015 season.
"(Studying film) is definitely allowing me to become a better leader," Shazier said. "I still have a long way to go. I have a lot to learn from the guys who are older than me and the leaders on this team, but I feel like from my play and the things I've been doing and my study, my knowledge of the game is definitely growing."
Shazier agrees that the Patriots "are a pretty complex team. They find ways to confuse people. They'll probably confuse the smartest people in the world with some of the stuff they have. But at the end of the day it's still football."
And that's where the growth of the three rookie starters comes in. As defensive coordinator Keith Butler said, "Every time we’ve played against (the Patriots), they’ve tried to find our rookies."
Davis, the strong safety, has started the last nine games and in those games has 37 tackles, 1.5 sacks, an interception and a fumble recovery.
Burns has started the last 11 games at right cornerback and has a total of three interceptions and 13 passes defensed.
Hargrave will be part of the interior pressure needed against Brady as the nose tackle or nickel tackle next to Stephon Tuitt. Hargrave has been a part of the DL rotation since the opener and has been credited with 15 starts. He has a pair of sacks and four other quarterback pressures.
"They've been doing their job," Shazier said. "This is our 19th game of the year and you learn a lot in 19 games. They're not making all the rookie mistakes that people expect young guys to make. They're playing the way our defense is meant to be played, and that's helping out a lot."
(Read the accompanying Steelers Notebook from Thursday by clicking here.)null