This is a story about evolution and exploitation.
Can the Pittsburgh Steelers' great 3-4 defense evolve to avoid being exploited by the likes of Tom Brady(notes) and other high-profile quarterbacks who have picked the Steelers apart since 2006? That's the theme Sunday when New England visits Pittsburgh. This is the only game the Steelers have during the regular season against a quarterback who can run the four-wide formation with stunning efficiency.
These are the two most dominant franchises in the NFL over the past decade. They have combined to represent the AFC in seven of the past 10 Super Bowls, winning five. History is nice, but it ignores one significant issue for Pittsburgh: If the Steelers don't figure out a way to handle the constant spread-formation offenses they face against really good quarterbacks like Brady, Aaron Rodgers(notes) and Drew Brees(notes), their chances of winning another Super Bowl could become extinct.
As noted by Yahoo! Sports before the last Super Bowl, Brady, Rodgers and Brees have lit up the Steelers over the past five seasons. That point was galvanized in a 31-25 loss to the Packers and Rodgers in the title game. Rodgers completed 24 of 39 passes for 304 yards and three touchdowns on the way to being named the game's MVP.
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Pittsburgh players and coaches counter that by saying it took a couple of superhuman throws by Rodgers to secure that win. If Rodgers didn't hit one of two clutch tosses in traffic to Greg Jennings(notes), the game likely would have turned out differently, the argument goes.
That point ignores the bigger picture. Since 2006, the Steelers are 3-6 in games against Rodgers, Brady, Brees, Peyton Manning(notes), Eli Manning(notes) and Kurt Warner(notes). Moreover, they have allowed 30 points or more in five of those nine games and at least 20 in all of them. Those quarterbacks have combined for a stunning 106.3 rating (248 completions on 382 attempts, 2,955 yards, 23 touchdown passes and only two interceptions).
Dick LeBeau, Pittsburgh's Hall of Fame defensive coordinator, was unfazed by those numbers. As he talked about it in August during training camp at St. Vincent's College, he seemed more perturbed by the afternoon rain.
"I don't think you're going to see a substantial change in how we do things," LeBeau said, a light smile opening across his face. "Those quarterbacks have hurt a lot of people. That's why they are so good … I don't really worry about a lot of the numbers. I only worry about how many points they score and whether we have more than they do by the end of the game."
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"We're not built to sit back in coverage and wait for the quarterback to decide," Polamalu said. "What we do is force the quarterback to decide faster." He then shrugged his shoulders slightly and said, "We either get there before he gets rid of it or we don't."
Mostly, the Steelers haven't been winning that race, particularly against Brady. In the aforementioned nine games, the Steelers have only 11 sacks. In the two against Brady, they have zero as he has picked the Steelers apart. Brady has completed 62 of 89 passes for 749 yards, seven touchdowns and zero interceptions in two games against Pittsburgh since 2007, when the Patriots started using more four-receiver formations as the base of their offense. New England has won those two games by an average of 17 points.
Over the past six seasons, the Steelers have played nine games against quarterbacks who have led their team to a Super Bowl during that same stretch. Here are the results of those games.
Note: Excluded is Kurt Warner's game against the Steelers in 2007, when he entered the contest as a backup.
The game last year wasn't as close as the 39-26 score indicated. Pittsburgh was down 23-3 going into the fourth quarter. Brady finished with three touchdown passes, all to tight end Rob Gronkowski(notes), and scrambled for another.
"What the Steelers have always done is try to make the quarterback think faster than he's used to and force a mistake," an NFC offensive assistant coach said. "It's really as simple as that. Now, the way they do it is complicated. They're erratic by intention. But if you have a quarterback who can think faster than they can, who can recognize the holes in the defense, you can get to them because they're not going to sit back in a bunch of umbrella zones and rush two people.
"It's just not who they are."
At least it hasn't been who the Steelers have been to this point. One might think that nine straight games of getting torched might cause the Steelers to rethink their approach at least slightly.
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Certainly, other teams have taken different approaches against Brady. Last year in the AFC playoffs, New York Jets coach Rex Ryan and his players baffled Brady by dropping into coverage much more than going after him. While the Jets eventually got five sacks and one interception, it was largely because Brady was forced to hesitate so much, not because the Jets got to him so quickly.
Over the past two games, Ryan and his brother Rob, who is the defensive coordinator with the Dallas Cowboys, have done that again. While both the Jets and the Cowboys lost, they sacked Brady a total of seven times, intercepted him three times and held the high-scoring Patriots to their two lowest-scoring games of the season. In fact, it took a last-minute drive by Brady to beat Dallas.
When you throw in the fact that both of the Ryans run primarily 3-4 defenses, you have to wonder if the Steelers might finally take a hint and do a little more coverage.
LeBeau just smiles at the thought.
"We've been pretty successful around here for a long time with the way we do it," LeBeau said.
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