Brady will get his, but getting to Roethlisberger is key for Pats this week
Any fan that has followed the Patriots or Steelers knows about Tom Brady’s uncanny ability to make Pittsburgh’s usually outstanding defense look pedestrian.
Since taking over as Patriots’ starter in 2001, Brady has gone 6-1 against the Steelers, including two AFC Title game victories in Pittsburgh. Last season Brady dominated a mid-November Sunday night game in the Steel City, throwing for 350 yards and three touchdowns as the Patriots handled the Steelers 39-26 in a game that was not as close as the score indicated. Brady has averaged 335 yards, 2.4 touchdowns and less than one interception in his seven career games against Pittsburgh, all while completing 68% of his passes.
Now, throw that all out the window, because this is a different Steelers team.
This year’s Steelers have remarkable big-play ability, and the only way to prevent Pittsburgh’s two fine deep threats from hurting New England’s secondary will be to get to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger before he can get them the ball. It is no secret to Patriots fans that the New England defense has failed to generate much of a pass-rush, accumulating only 10 sacks on the year, which has made life more difficult for an already struggling secondary. Now, take into account that only three of New England’s sacks are what can be called “quick sacks,” or sacks that came 2.5 seconds or less after the ball was snapped, and we see that there is very little pressure coming from the New England front.
Of those three “quick sacks,” two of them came on blitzes that were not picked up, and this lack of consistent pressure spells big trouble for a New England defense that will be dealing with escape-artist quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers’ awkwardly effective signal-caller is at his best when the play breaks down and he is able to improvise and find receivers running wild in the secondary. After a sluggish start to the season, Roethlisberger has been very good that past three weeks, throwing for nine touchdowns and only one interception. Aiding Roethlisberger are two of the best young deep threats in the league. Second-year man Antonio Brown is enjoying a break-out season while third-year receiver Mike Wallace is establishing himself as one of the best wide-outs in the game.
Wallace sits at third in the league with 730 yards receiving, but what makes him so scary is his average of over 20 yards a catch. The former Ole Miss standout is one of the league’s fastest players, and showed what he could do in space Sunday when he flew past two Cardinal defenders en route to a 95-yard touchdown reception. On the other side, Brown has settled in as a solid No. 2 option, amassing 364 yards through the air while also averaging nearly 15 yards a catch. He has also become Roethlisberger’s favorite target on third down. If the Patriots defense is unable to get to Roethlisberger early, look for these two, along with wide-out Emmanuel Sanders and tight end Heath Miller, to find plenty of room to work in the New England secondary.
While much will be made of the immense success Brady has had against the Steelers defense, this Sunday’s matchup could be a field-day for Roethlisberger if he is given time to scramble and allow Wallace and Brown to get deep. Thus far, New England’s best pass-rusher has been Mark Anderson, with 3.5 sacks. However, 2.5 of those sacks have been “long sacks,” or one coming three seconds or longer after the snap. It will be up to coach Bill Belichick and his staff to take advantage of the injury-ravaged Steelers offensive line and create some more early pressure. Pittsburgh has given up 20 sacks this year, but the majority of them have come in three games, their losses to Baltimore and Houston, along with their escape win against Indianapolis.Last week Roethlisberger was sacked only twice, with one coming on a broken play, and he was able to throw for 361 yards and three touchdowns with no picks.
The point is, even if Brady continues his trend of slicing apart the Steelers defense, New England may still lose if they fail to get to Roethlisberger and give up big plays. Roethlisberger is very sack prone, but when teams cannot get to him, or bring him down if they get to him, the Steelers offense becomes far more dangerous. So, while it certainly cannot be said that Brady’s play is not important, getting to Roethlisberger and bringing him down will be the biggest key for New England this Sunday when they face the Steelers. If New England can replicate its five first-half sacks of Roethlisberger from a year ago, there is a good chance Pats fans could be talking Super Bowl this time next week.