Beast of Burden
There's actually a pretty simple formula to beating the Patriots...
Football, like any sport really, is a relatively simple game. Even in 2011, the games on Sundays are mainly decided by three important factors: individual matchups, overall execution, and the turnover battle. Win in those areas, and you will always win the game. For years, Steeler fans have attempted to dissect the root cause of why their team has consistently been outplayed by the Patriots in recent history, often losing in embarrassing fashion. Specifically, most have tried to figure out what the missing key is to stopping, or at least slowing down, Tom Brady. Is it Lebeau's stubbornness? Our overall scheme? Is it just a bad matchup? Is it James Farrior or William Gay? Did Arians start coaching the D?
Overlooked in this discussion of scheme and personnel is the simple fact that the Patriots have consistently dominated in those three crucial areas in recent matchups against the Steelers. They've been better prepared, played faster and with more confidence, have executed at a significantly higher level in all three phases of the game, and have not only protected the rock but taken advantage of carelessness on the Steelers part as well. Given that, it's not that complicated to figure out why Pittsburgh seemingly continues to come up so short against them.
The other factor at play here is something we often overlook or try to brush to the side as something less important than it really is: Tom Brady is one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. Not only is he hugely skilled and talented at a level few ever reach, but he's got a killer instinct that most other quarterbacks simply don't have as well, which in part explains why he's been the winningest quarterback of the modern era. Unfortunately for the Steelers this week, outside of another Halloween weekend game in 2004, he's always brought his absolute A game against Pittsburgh. Take for instance last year's matchup, which I consider the most impressive regular season game of Tom Brady's career in terms of reading the field and accurately placing the ball downfield. For all the talk of schematic issues, when an all-time great is playing at that high a level, and raising the performance of all the players around him, there's not much you can do but hope to keep up.
However, there is another truth of NFL life that should be noted here: teams and players are constantly changing and evolving. Perceptions can change on the fly, and trends are bound to end or turn around at some point. Most of the perception of Patriot dominance over the Steelers is based on Brady's play against the rookie-led or pre-Roethlisberger era Steelers. In fact, over the last five years Brady and Roethlisberger have only met twice, with the Steelers losing to Patriots teams in those years that finished a combined 30-2. Relatively speaking, there's not much for Pittsburgh to hang their heads about.
As Steeler fans can certainly attest to in post-Super Bowl seasons, every year in the NFL is a completely different animal. Teams change personalities season to season, or even month to month in many instances. Previous Brady-led Patriots dominance over the Steelers has absolutely no bearing on what will take place on Heinz Field for sixty minutes this coming Sunday evening.
The answer to taking down the Patriots isn't some complicated formula of schematic guesswork and critical play calls. The real key is protecting the ball, executing your game plan (whatever it may specifically be that day), and being prepared, ready, motivated, and confident to beat the man in front of you. There's no doubt in my mind that if the Steelers come ready to play, protect their QB while protecting the ball, and execute at the level their capable of, that they can certainly compete with and beat any team in the NFL, the Patriots included.
Make no mistake though: football is as much a psychological game as it is physical. Beating the Patriots on Sunday would not only remove the proverbial monkey off the Steelers' back when it comes to this particular matchup, but it could ultimately serve as the starting point for the Steelers to play their best ball in the second half of the season while putting themselves in the best position to get back to the Super Bowl and secure a seventh Lombardi. Although something tells me that's not going to happen until they can finally step up and prove their capable of slaying the beast of Boston.