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Brady has found Steel Curtain to be no barrier

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By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / October 26, 2011

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The Rooneys aren’t the only Irishmen who own the Steelers.

Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr. apparently has a stake as well, because he has been at his best against one of the other AFC powers.

The Patriots quarterback is 6-1 in his career against the Steelers, including two victories in AFC Championship games.

In the 2004 loss at Pittsburgh, Brady completed just 58 percent of his passes and threw two interceptions.

In the other six games, he hasn’t completed less than 66.7 percent, and he has thrown 14 touchdowns against one interception.

Brady has been nearly unstoppable in the past four meetings, starting with the 2004 AFC Championship at Heinz Field. He has completed 70.9 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and one interception in those games.

Basically, Brady has made the Steelers’ pass defense look like the Patriots’ this year. In the past four matchups, Brady’s yards per attempt are 8.79. The Patriots are allowing 8.47 - the worst mark in the league and what would be the 10th-worst in history since 1970.

Bear in mind, Brady has done this while the Steelers have wreaked havoc against the rest of the league’s pass offenses.

In terms of yards per attempt, the Steelers defense ranked first in ’10 and ’07, fourth in ’05, and second in ’04 when they faced Brady. And yet he has thrown all over them each time.

The question remains: Why is Brady able to work so well against the 3-4 zone blitz defense of Hall of Fame defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau?

It’s for many of the same reasons Bill Belichick has gone away from the 3-4 defense with the Patriots: The 3-4 is better against the run than the pass. And it’s a passing league now.

The Steelers still fare very well against traditional passing offenses - those that use a lot of two-back sets and mostly two- and three-receiver sets.

Against those teams, the Steelers can stick with their base personnel most of the game, and that allows them to keep the unpredictability of where the four pass rushers will come from - a staple of a 3-4.

But when the Steelers go up against a team that features an elite quarterback, doesn’t run a lot, and uses a lot of multiple formations and the shotgun, they can be taken advantage of, because outside of safety Troy Polamalu, the Steelers don’t cover well.

Sound familiar, Patriots fans?

You could also see that type of attack being effective against the Steelers in the Super Bowl against the Packers, a team that is very similar to the Patriots offensively.

Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers was 24 of 39 for 304 yards and three touchdowns in the Packers’ 31-25 victory - a game in which they took a 21-3 lead.

The Packers spread the Steelers out and carved them up in the secondary.

The offensive game plan put in motion by Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien last year against the Steelers was one of his best of the season. And his unit didn’t execute well for a long stretch in the first half (you might remember the television shots of Brady getting after his teammates on the sideline).

The Patriots’ strategy had a few main components.

They wanted to spread the Steelers out. This allowed Brady to better decipher where the Steelers would be bringing pressure, and make vaunted outside linebackers James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley have to cover instead of rushing the passer.

Of Brady’s 37 pass attempts as the Patriots took a 23-3 lead, only eight (12.6 percent) came with one or two receivers lined up outside the tackles. On 19 dropbacks (51.4 percent), the Patriots lined up four or the maximum of five receivers outside the tackles.

Because of his coverage duties, Harrison rushed on just 53.2 percent of Brady’s 47 dropbacks in the game. Woodley rushed 61.7 percent.

The Steelers blitzed just seven times in the game, and generated an average amount of pressures with no sacks, eight hurries, and two knockdowns.

The Patriots also wanted to keep the linebackers honest by adding some runs, and then running plenty of play-action and/or screens. The Patriots used play-action on 54 percent of their passes as they took a 23-3 lead.

And O’Brien also wanted Brady to get rid of the ball quickly in a short passing game. Seventeen of Brady’s first 37 passes were released in under 2.25 seconds (the unofficial benchmark for not allowing pressure) and 12 were under 2 seconds. And 75.7 percent of Brady’s passes were thrown 10 yards or less from the line of scrimmage.

If LeBeau is going to try something different against Brady, it’s going to have to be more pressure with blitzes. LeBeau, likely knowing his secondary is weak, has preferred to sit back in zone and not give up the big play against Brady. If he dials up more pressure, the Steelers will have to play more man-to-man.

That is the approach Belichick took last year against quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers.

The Patriots blitzed Roethlisberger a season-high 23 times, with 21 coming before New England took a 29-10 lead midway through the fourth quarter on James Sanders’s 32-yard interception return for a touchdown.

New England hadn’t blitzed that many times in a game since it closed the 2006 season with a 40-23 victory against the Titans.

But the Patriots started early on Roethlisberger by blitzing on his first six passes, including twice when they sent six.

And Belichick kept his foot on the pedal nearly the entire game.

Taking away the five plays before halftime when they were playing prevent defense, the Patriots sent five or more rushers 21 times at Roethlisberger in 31 snaps (67.7 percent) before the rout ensued.

The Patriots sent a defensive back more than a quarter of the time - another departure from the norm.

It worked. The Patriots generated 19 total quarterback pressures - one less than their season high - with four sacks, 12 hurries, and three knockdowns.

It might be time for LeBeau to try that against Brady - if the Steelers want their ownership papers back.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.

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