PITTSBURGH — The Steelers finally found a way to mix it up with quarterback Tom Brady, and the Patriots will have to correct the flaws they showed Sunday because future opponents will be taking notice.
Pittsburgh, which was tremendously undermanned due to injuries, disguised its pass rush, manhandled New England's receivers at the line of scrimmage and continuously forced the Patriots out of their comfort zone. As a result, the Steelers pulled out a 25-17 victory and held the Pats to their lowest point total since their Week 9 loss to the Browns in 2010.
Brady put it best after the game, saying, "We never really played the game on our terms."
The reigning MVP has had a tremendous amount of success against the Steelers because he knew how to handle them. But Sunday, the Steelers made some key adjustments to stay ahead of what Brady and the offense tried to accomplish.
For starters, cornerback Ike Taylor tried to beat up wide receiver Wes Welker (six receptions, 39 yards) at the line of scrimmage, and the rest of the Steelers did the same to wide receiver Deion Branch, tight end Rob Gronkowski and tight end Aaron Hernandez.
There was also a lot of man coverage — much more than the Patriots were used to seeing, and more than the Steelers had played at any point this season, according to players on their team. Brady had dominated the Steelers in the past because he understood where to beat Pittsburgh's zone coverage, typically finding open space behind the inside linebackers and in the seams inside the cornerbacks.
Those spaces weren't as available Sunday due to the man coverage. For instance, when the Steelers' pass rush got to Brady in the past, it was almost too elementary for him to throw the ball to a spot on the zone and know someone would be there to catch it. On Sunday, he couldn't get rid of the ball as quickly because his receivers were getting jammed at the line and then covered admirably by Pittsburgh.
"I just don't think we did a good job handling it, or adjusting to it or playing against it," Brady said. "I thought they were very physical, and we didn't really match their physical style."
Credit the Steelers. They were playing without linebackers James Harrison, James Farrior and Jason Worilds, and Lawrence Timmons was out of position to cover up the loss of Harrison.
Even without two of their starters and one of their primary backups, the Steelers were able to execute their game plan by disguising the pressure in the box. So often, they lined up in a front that just looked chaotic, and it was tough to read.
They sacked Brady three times and hit him four times, and the pressure was nearly continuous. There were even times when Brady had some space in the pocket, but he got rid of the ball a little too quickly and missed some throws that he typically hits with ease.
"I think the score speaks for itself," running back Kevin Faulk said. "We didn't adjust to it, and there they go."
Chalk this one up to the Steelers. They beat the Patriots and never allowed Brady to stay in rhythm, and similar tactics will be emulated by New England's future opponents, who might not have the same amount of talent as Pittsburgh, but they can at least form a jumping-off point with a strategy to topple one of the game's historically great offenses.
There's no doubt that the Patriots' next opponent, the Giants, will have that game plan at the front of their minds, and it's going to be a major point of emphasis for the Patriots to figure out a way to adjust to defenses that can play as physically as the Steelers did Sunday.
"Offensively, we've got to fix a lot of things," Welker said. "So I think it's all the way around. Everybody take a look in the mirror and really kind of see what we can get better at individually."