Timing right for Steelers against Pats

The Pittsburgh Steelers travel to New England for a critical AFC game against the Patriots, who are missing two very key players.

PITTSBURGH – In the Tom Brady era, the Pittsburgh Steelers have beaten the New England Patriots only once.

One might chalk that up to, well, Tom Brady.

Brady became the starting quarterback in 2001 and since then the Patriots have won three Super Bowls. He beat the Steelers five times, including two AFC Championship games.

In all of the games of his illustrious career, Brady's completed 63 percent of his passes at 7.2 yards per attempt and 11.4 yards per completion, with a touchdown-interception ratio (based on 100 percent) of 69-31. His passer rating is 92.2.

Against the Steelers, a team with one of the NFL's best -- if not the best -- defenses of the 2000s, Brady's numbers are all better (67 completion percent, 7.8 YPA, 11.6 YPC, 79-21 TD-INT ratio, 102.3 passer rating). He thrives against the Steelers' cover-3 zones.

Dick LeBeau's style of defense, started here in the mid 1990s, rips apart West Coast offenses, but when providing cushions and challenging a quarterback to with a short, precise game, Brady shines.

Today, in a 4:15 p.m. game at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots (7-4) will play the Steelers (8-3) without Brady. His replacement, Matt Cassel, is starting to put up Brady-like numbers as his first season as starter winds into the 12th game.

So the question becomes: Can Cassel do what Brady's always done? Or: Is it the New England system that matches up so well with the Steelers?

"They haven't changed," said veteran Steelers cornerback Deshea Townsend. "They run pretty much the same style of offense. Brady's had some success, but we've done all right -- as long as we don't give up the big play."

But doesn't Brady pick apart those big cushions? Doesn't he consistently release the ball before pressure arrives?

"When I look back on the games when he was successful," Townsend said, "we gave up the big plays. We gave up big plays last year. When they won the AFC Championship game in 2004, we gave up some big passes. If we make you go short, you can go short, short all you want, but it's pretty tough to be consistent."

Brady has been consistent since 2001. Cassel has been consistent for a couple of weeks. He started slowly, but has thrown for more than 400 yards the last two games. He's on pace to throw for 3,804 yards, which would set a team record for first-year starters.

"He's not Tom Brady," Townsend said, "but he is a good quarterback. That system is the same and he's going to fit into it."

If Brady's loss doesn't hurt the Patriots, perhaps the loss of their defensive quarterback will. As much as Brady's hurt the Steelers over the years, so has strong safety Rodney Harrison. But he's missed the last five games and the difference in the Patriots from their first six games is clear:

With Harrison, the Patriots allowed 6.7 yards per pass attempt, 10.3 yards per completion, and an 86.9 passer rating; without Harrison, those numbers spiked to 8.0, 12.5, and 96.8. For the season, the Patriots' pass defense has fallen to 29th in YPA, 25th in YPC, 26th in passer rating, and 30th in touchdown passes allowed.

"Man, he's been around a long time," Steelers receiver Hines Ward said of Harrison, who was drafted by San Diego in 1994. "He's been playing with high energy for 13, 14, 15 years. It's definitely a blow to their secondary. That's like losing Brady, but on the defense. He puts guys in the right position and is a beast in the run game. He gives me fits every time I've got to block him."

Harrison's replacement is former first-round pick Brandon Meriweather, who lines up next to second-year starting free safety James Sanders. The cornerbacks are 5-foot-8 Ellis Hobbs and Bengals castoff Deltha O'Neal.

"They lost a lot of leadership, a lot of knowledge of the game, and definitely a physical ballplayer," Ward said. "But I think (Patriots Coach Bill) Belichick will have his guys ready, geared up for this game. When the Steelers and Patriots play, Belichick, I think, looks for the challenge. He loves the matchup that we have. But definitely losing a guy like Harrison is definitely a big blow to their defense because he's the guy who sets the tempo. I'm glad I don't have to play him this year."

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