Father Time might be undefeated. But thus far, Tom Brady isn't far behind.
The 42-year-old quarterback keeps on ticking as he'll open his 20th NFL season Sunday night when the Patriots host the Steelers at Gillette Stadium. And that's the thing that concerns the Steelers the most about this matchup.
Some of the names have changed for the Patriots from previous years. Tight end Rob Gronkowski and receiver Chris Hogan, for example, have moved on from the team the Steelers beat 17-10 last December.
But as long as Brady remains the guy under center for the defending Super Bowl champions, he'll be the Steelers’ main focus when they play New England.
"I don’t know what I can say about him that already hasn’t been said," Mike Tomlin said Tuesday at the Rooney Complex. "I’ve got a lot of respect for him as a competitor, as a tactician. His arm strength and accuracy is exceptional. His above-the-neck game probably exemplifies a guy that has been on the job for 20 years. He is very difficult to trick. And even if you do, it won’t happen over an extended period of time over the course of a football game. That’s life when you’re competing against a guy like him."
The Steelers' win over Brady last season was just the third in 11 tries against him, and the first since 2011. But all three of those wins have come in Pittsburgh. The Steelers are 0-5 against Brady on the road. And he's thrown 18 touchdown passes without an interception in those games.
In the win last season, the Steelers allowed Brady a 63-yard touchdown pass to Hogan on a broken play on New England's fourth play from scrimmage. But they then finished the game off in the fourth quarter, ending one drive on a leaping interception by Joe Haden deep in Pittsburgh territory, then stopping the Patriots on downs on four throws into the end zone late in the game.
The key in both of those situations was pressure. The Steelers only sacked Brady one time in that game, but hit him seven other times. In their three wins against Brady, they have sacked him eight times. In the eight losses, they've taken him down just 12 times.
"You put pressure in his face," defensive end Cam Heyward said. "He might not get hit a lot, but if he can’t follow through on his throws, it can affect him. And then sometimes, it’s just getting your hands up and understanding when he’s going across the middle looking for his crossing routes and his slants. We’ve just got to be aggressive when we get those opportunities."
But the Steelers, who have led the NFL in sacks the past two seasons, also know they don't come often. Brady was sacked just 21 times on 570 pass attempts last season. The Patriots do a good job of protecting their six-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback. But he also does a good job of getting rid of the ball before he can be hit.
"You’re not going to take Brady down a bunch," Tomlin admitted. "It’s the ability to rush him in those moments. He gets the ball out on rhythm and he changes the pace of play so much, nobody takes him down a bunch. The key is to be able to rush him significantly in the moments when you need to do it. That’s what we were able to do in the waning moments last time. But you’d better get him in those moments before those things can happen. Rushing him or applying pressure to him is a multi-layered discussion."
That's what the Steelers will be working on this week. One thing they do know is the Patriots will be breaking in new starters at both left tackle and center.
Isaiah Wynn, a first-round pick in 2018, will make his first career start at left tackle after missing all of last season with an Achilles' tendon injury. And at center, starter David Andrews was placed on injured reserve because of blood clots in his lungs, meaning Ted Karras or Russell Bodine will start there. Karras, a four-year veteran, has made five career starts, while Bodine, a former starter with the Bengals, was acquired via trade with the Bills late last week.
The issue at center, in particular, could bode well for the Steelers. The strength of their pass rush is in the interior, with Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave coming up the middle -- though outside linebacker T.J. Watt had the team's lone sack and recorded three hits on Brady last season.
And even though it will be the first game of the season, the Steelers know that 42-year-olds don't like to take a lot of hits.
"Man, I couldn’t even think about being a 42-year-old defensive lineman, to get hit like that," Heyward said. "Everybody is gunning for you. To have all of that success and win all of those Super Bowls, you take your hat off (to him). Doesn’t mean I don’t want to knock him out even more."
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