“Many of our guys were not a part of this history when it started, because you are talking about 2001 and 2004. So, it’s not similar in that way.” – Mike Tomlin, prior to the Patriots game
Mike Tomlin majored in history at William and Mary. The day he was hired the claimed the credential of being a “football historian.”
Mike Tomlin’s study of the history of football has served him well but, ironically, the most important lesson he has learned is that sometimes it pays to forget the past.
If the New England Patriots deserve the title of the NFL’s most important team in the last decade, and they do, then it is a fair statement that the Steelers have been their whipping boy.
You know the drill, the Steelers are 6-1 vs. the Tom Brady led Patriots. The NFL keeps no style points, but the Patriots have stung the Steelers on special teams, sizzled their secondary, and pushed them around physically on both sides of scrimmage.
Mike Tomlin and his staff devised a game plan par excellence, but his biggest coup was getting his players to exorcise the demons from their Patriot’s past before taking the field.
Roethlisberger, Young Money Take Flight
Steelers Nation knew this could be special. Thus far in 2011, fans have seen flashes, steps forward and sputters back ward, glorious long TD’s couple with frustrating downfield misfires.
- Against the New England Patriots the Pittsburgh Steelers offense made a major statement.
Ben Roethlisberger and Young Money can play with anyone.
Yes, Baltimore and Cincinnati and perhaps 12 other AFC teams have better pass defenses. But 7 games into the NFL season the New England Patriots have been the class of the AFC.
All of those bombs to Mike Wallace and clutch catches by Antonio Brown count for nothing if the Steelers offense fails to deliver against New England.
New England won the toss and elected to defer.
- Think Bill Belinick might wish he had that one back?
In one drive Ben Roethlisberger threw 8 passes, connecting on 6 as the Steelers scored a touchdown on their opening drive. But they did more than simply take the lead, the Steelers offense established control of the game in a way that they have probably not done since the 2005 divisional playoff against the Colts.
Ben Roethlisberger has always played second fiddle Manning-Brady-Rodgers-Brees-Rivers et. al. But at Heinz Field vs. the Patriots, Ben Roethlisberger was the best quarterback on the field.
Ben hit every receiver he could have hit with the exception of Weselye Saunders. Roethlisberger kept the Patriots off balance mixing short passes with long ones, but most importantly he delivered on target.
More importantly, he receivers came up with play after play keeping the chains moving, and keeping the ball out of Tom Brady’s hands.
As Ben Roethlisberger himself said after the game, the Steelers offense was not perfect. There were some mistakes and ugly miscommunications.
- Translation: This unit can and will get better. Let the rest of the NFL take note.
Steelers Secondary Shifts into Primary Focus
The word from the press was that the Steelers defensive coaches had more or less resigned themselves to Brady’s excellence. Brady was going to do his damage the word was, the key was simply to limit that damage.
Fortunately, Carnell Lake declined to fill his defensive backs in on that part of the plan.
Following Super Bowl XLV any Steelers fan who could register a pulse knew that the team’s strength lay in its front seven and that, barring an upgrade at corner, the Steelers would win in 2011 in spite of its secondary and certainly not because of it.
Then a funny thing happened. Seven games into the season, the Steelers were leading the NFL in pass defense.
- “Oh, but just wait until they get challenged by a real quarterback,” the retort rang.
Sunday brought the NFL’s very best quarterback and arguably its best receiver in the form of Tom Brady and Wes Welker.
At the end of the day the Steelers secondary was the unit left standing. It is hard to say enough good things about the performance put in by the Pittsburgh’s defensive backfield.
These players confronted the AFC’s if not the NFL’s most potent passing attack and refused to flinch. If you’re looking for a telling statistic, look no further than the fact the Steelers held both Welker and Deon Branch under 40 yards.
Everyone expected the Steelers offense to put points on the board, and the did that. NO ONE expected the Steelers defense to hold Brady and company to just 17 points and only 3 out of 13 third down conversions.
Timely Plays in a Timely Fashion
All of the accolades on defense however do not go the secondary.
The Patriots rushing attack was a non-factor all game – credit the defensive line and linebackers. New England’s famous tight ends led the team in receiving, but they were no where near the dominating force that they had been in spanking Pittsburgh suffered one year ago – credit the Steelers linebackers in large part.
All of that was necessary for the Steelers to win but, in itself, not sufficient.
The key to stopping Tom Brady is to get in his face. LaMarr Woodley help derail two New England drives with sacks on third downs, and Brett Kiesel’s strip-sack snuffed out any chance that Brady would do what he does best – transform defeat into victory.
In Position to Turn a Page?
The Steelers defeated New England because they refused to let the ghosts of Patriot’s past haunt them. In doing the evolution of their offense took a major step forward, and they played some of the best pass defense Pittsburgh has seen since the days of Lake, Woodson, and Perry.
But just as sins committed in past defeats do not bind Pittsburgh in the present, the real significance of the victory over the Patriots will be told in the Steelers ability to consolidate it next week against the Ravens.