By Dejan Kovacevic, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Friday, October 28, 2011
Owen Daniels(notes) #81 of the Houston Texans is tackled by linebacker Larry Foote(notes) #50 and linebacker LaMarr Woodley(notes) #56 of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first quarter at Reliant Stadium on October 2, 2011 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
All kinds of Xs and Os will be dissected leading up to the Steelers' self-styled "five-star matchup" with the New England Patriots. To me, this is all as simple as Bill Belichick's wardrobe: Get to Tom Brady.
Get to him physically, get to him mentally, but get to him.
Yeah, I know, it's infinitely easier said than done. There's a reason the Patriots are 5-1 and have scored 30 or more points in five of those games. As defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau laid bare after practice Thursday on the South Side, "Ain't anybody figured that out too well." There's also a reason Brady owns the Steelers to such an extent that he might as well be a Rooney, with a 6-1 career record, 2,008 yards and 14 touchdowns.
But stopping Brady has been done, and it can be done again.
I'll put the unsolicited onus on these three Steelers to see it through:
His performance has risen from suspect to sensational over the past three games, in which he has 5 1/2 sacks, an interception and a forced safety. That's why the Steelers invested that $61.5 million. He's an impact player making impact plays.
There's no reason that shouldn't continue Sunday.
It's rare to get close enough to Brady to jab him with a stick, never mind wrapping him up. He's been sacked just 11 times in 237 passing plays, mostly because of that lightning-bolt release. As Woodley told me, "When somebody's getting rid of the ball like that, I don't care what you do, you're not getting back there in half a second."
He's right, of course. But the Steelers don't have another option with James Harrison out and Lawrence Timmons likely focused on covering New England's twin-tower tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Woodley must at least get his quarterback hurries, let Brady know he's there -- Woodley has nine official hurries this season -- and he'll have to be sound when dropping into coverage.
The man has complained -- rightly, to an extent -- that people "expect me to be a superhero after that contract and have sacks every game." This is a golden chance to prove he can be a force with or without sacks.
It can be done.
If you think Taylor had a lousy game last week against Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald, you'd better bolster your argument with more than his three penalties and a couple missed tackles. Taylor was targeted nine times -- more than anyone in the Steelers' secondary -- and allowed just three catches and 15 total yards after those catches.
That's not bad, especially considering the competition.
His challenge this week will be far different but no less formidable in Wes Welker, who leads the NFL with 51 catches, plus 392 yards after the catch. On top of that, Welker lines up in the slot, so Taylor would have to move inside with him. Taylor did some of that last week against Fitzgerald but not exclusively.
"I'll play whatever, inside, outside, I don't care," Taylor said with a shrug. "New week, new challenge."
Taylor is eager to keep showing he is among the NFL's best cover corners and, even though he's still without an interception, he has allowed just two catches per game while stalking some top talent.
If he limits Welker like that, it will be because he pounds him early and often.
It can be done.
The defensive back who is struggling the most in coverage is the one least often cited for criticism. Troy Polamalu has been targeted 22 times this season, and 12 of those passes were completed. He has no interceptions, one sack and six official passes defensed.
If that's Superman, he'd better check his cape for Kryptonite.
Polamalu remains effective in stunts, but New England won't allow much of that, given the need to track Gronkowski and Hernandez.
"I think everyone knows what we're facing: a very high-potent offense," Polamalu said.
Polamalu vs. any tight end would figure to be a mismatch. But he was beaten by Baltimore's Ed Dickson for a touchdown in the season opener, and he was beaten even worse by Arizona's Rob Housler last week. Only Kevin Kolb's abysmally off-line throw kept the play from going for six.
But again, it can be done: When Buffalo picked off Brady four times Sept. 25, in New England's lone loss, two were by safeties George Wilson and Bryan Scott while covering the Patriots' tight ends. Wilson and Scott were otherwise highly effective in coverage.
Polamalu doesn't have to be Superman this weekend. Just be like Ike.