Tom Brady must be licking his chops in anticipation of playing against the Steelers Sunday.
It’s not because the Steelers will be missing Cam Heyward, their best defensive player and top pass rusher. It’s not because the Steelers are 31st in the league in pass defense and give up almost 300 yards per game through the air, although that’s certainly a tantalizing thought for the 16-year veteran.
No, the reason Brady loves to play the Steelers is simple. He plays better against them than any other team in the NFL with the exception of one.
Brady’s career quarterback rating against the Steelers is 113.4. The only team he does better against is Atlanta (115.7), and he has only played the Falcons four times. He has played the Steelers eight times in the regular season, 10 including the two meetings in the AFC championship games after the 2001 and 2004 seasons. He won eight of those and only lost two.
Even when the Steelers had the best defense in the NFL, or close to it, Brady would tear through it like they were the 1976 expansion Buccaneers. He has thrown 24 touchdowns to just three interceptions in those 10 games. He averages a whopping 325 passing yards per game.
“I think that’s a product of a lot of things,” Brady said Wednesday afternoon during a teleconference. “There’s nothing you can do as a quarterback if the guys around you aren’t being productive. And I think the guys around me have been so productive for a long time.
“The Steelers are a lot to prepare for. They provide a lot of challenges. We’ve won our fair share, and we’ve lost some big ones. It’s going to be a big one for us, and we’re going to need to go play really well to beat them.”
Humiliation in 2013: The Patriots played really well against the Steelers three years ago. Brady was at the controls when the Steelers suffered perhaps their most humiliating defeat in franchise history.
On Nov. 3, 2013, Brady set the record for most yards and most points against the Steelers in a 55-31 victory in New England. The Patriots rolled up 610 yards, 432 of which came off the right arm of Brady, who tossed four touchdowns that day.
“We have to get lined up and be on the details,” safety Robert Golden said. “It’s all about executing our defense and executing our game plan and not about what they’re doing. If we do what we do, we’ll be able to come out with a victory.”
Last year's loss: Ah yes, the details. Last season the Steelers played the Patriots in the opener at Gillette Stadium and lost, 28-21. Brady threw for 288 yards and four touchdowns, and the Steelers famously decided to leave All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski uncovered on more than one occasion by not getting in the proper defensive alignment.
Two of the starting four in the defensive backfield that faced the Patriots in Week 1 last season are no longer with the team. Will Allen has been replaced by Golden and Ross Cockrell has replaced Antwon Blake.
“The most important thing we can do is disrupt timing,” Cockrell said. “Tom Brady is a really good quarterback. He’s been around for a long time. We just have to knock him off his timing a little bit and knock him off his rhythm, and I think we’ll make some plays.
“On the back end, we have to jam up the receivers as much as we can. The defensive line will probably have to change up some things and work on different things to get to him quicker because the release is quick.”
No signs of slowing: Brady, who turned 39 in August, missed the first month of the season when he served a four-game suspension for his failure to cooperate with the NFL’s investigation into the deflated football controversy.
But there are no signs of him slowing down. In the two games he has played he has thrown six touchdowns and no interceptions against the Browns and Bengals. He has more touchdown passes in two games than four other quarterbacks that have started every game.
The only times the Steelers have beaten Brady there’s been one constant: pressure. When the Steelers beat the Patriots, 34-20, in 2004 they sacked Brady four times and intercepted two passes. When they beat the Patriots, 25-17, in 2011 they sacked him five times.
These Steelers know the formula, too. But getting pressure this season has been problematic. They have just eight sacks in six games and Heyward has three of them.
“We’re going to play mano a mano football and play for 60 minutes,” defensive end Stephon Tuitt said. “We have to rush the way we rush. We have to be physical, take advantage of their guards, get around the edge with our ends and play technique and disrupt his rhythm.”