PITTSBURGH — The answer to getting to Tom Brady is right there in vivid high definition.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have watched it on video repeatedly over the past 11 months since Brady and the New England Patriots turned the AFC championship game into a glorified 7-on-7 drill.
Four quarters. Three Brady touchdown passes, two to former lacrosse player Chris Hogan.
One very painful lesson the Steelers hope to show they’ve learned when they host the defending Super Bowl champions on Sunday.
“It’s best to play man against Tom Brady,” Pittsburgh cornerback Artie Burns said.
The proof came to alarming life in snowy Foxborough in January. Pittsburgh opted to sit back and stay primarily in a zone.
When the defensive front four failed to generate any sustained pressure, Brady stood back and fired away. Three hours and 384 yards later, Brady was one step closer to a fifth title while Steelers slouched back home wondering what it was going to take to stop being little more than a speed bump in New England’s pursuit of another championship.
So coach Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Keith Butler decided it was time for something beyond a tweak here or there.
Pittsburgh’s secondary needed to get tougher. More aggressive. It needed to stop hiding in a zone all the time and start embracing one-on-one matchups.
“That’s something we put emphasis on this year, definitely going into this game especially,” Burns said. “We knew at some moment in the season, to get through this championship round you’ve got to play physical ball, hands on ball, man-to-man. That’s some things we’ve got to get accomplished to win this game.”
Having more players capable of handling the responsibility helped. The Steelers signed two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden in late August, drafted versatile Cam Sutton in the third round and promoted fearless 5-foot-9 Mike Hilton off the practice squad as a nickel back who’s as comfortable coming off the edge on a blitz as he is dropping into coverage.
While the Steelers (11-2) still mix-and-match frequently, they are playing more man than they were a year ago, with promising results.
The team that finished 16th against the pass last season is fourth as Christmas nears. The arrival of rookie linebacker T.J. Watt and the return of defensive end Cam Heyward from a torn pectoral muscle helped rejuvenate a pass rush currently second in sacks.
Still, issues linger. Haden hasn’t played in a month while recovering from a fractured left leg, though there’s a chance he could be back in the lineup on Sunday.
Linebacker Ryan Shazier, whose versatility gave Butler flexibility to take chances, remains in the hospital recovering from a spinal injury that ended his season and left his future in doubt.
The Steelers have also been susceptible to the kind of “splash plays” that leave Tomlin fuming. Pittsburgh has given up 10 pass plays of at 40 yards.
Only three teams have given up more.
Oh, and the Steelers didn’t exactly look like a “group on the rise” (to borrow a Tomlin-ism) last Sunday night while escaping the Ravens in a 39-38 victory in which Joe Flacco threw for 269 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Oh, and Pittsburgh hasn’t caught one of Brady’s passes in more than a decade and seems at times incapable of slowing down tight end Rob Gronkowski, who has eight touchdowns in five games against the Steelers.
“He’s like a big forward that bodies people up and down at the low post and all that stuff,” Butler said. “He’s a big man.
“So you got to, we got a plan to try to defend him as much as we can. We’re not going to tell him what that plan is right now though.”
Butler is doing his best to be realistic about the challenge ahead. He isn’t focused on trying to shut out the Patriots so much as simply slow them down.
“They’re still going to get some points on us I think,” Butler said. “You look at the last 10 times we’ve played them, we’ve only won twice. We’re all aware of that.”
They’re also aware of what Miami did on Monday night, when it picked off Brady twice and kept the Gronkowski-less New England offense in check for large swaths of a 27-20 upset . The Dolphins defensive backs didn’t shy away from contact against the Patriots (10-3).
Asked if his secondary is more capable going one-on-one than it was a year ago, Butler shrugged his shoulders and offered only “we’ll see.”
“We’ve got to play that mind game,” said Sutton, who has played capably since coming off injured reserve last month.
“We can never let the receiver get comfortable out there on the field seeing a DB just line up in front of him, playing the same technique, the same defense each and every play out there. You’ve got to work the mental game as well. … Keeping the guys, keeping the receivers lined up in front of you, off their rhythm.”
If the Steelers want to all but lock up home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs and serve notice they’re no longer the seemingly overmatched group it was last January, they don’t really have a choice.
TE Vance McDonald (shoulder) and CB Coty Sensabaugh (shoulder) did not practice Thursday. … Haden, LB Tyler Matakevich (shoulder), WR JuJu Smith-Schuster (hamstring) and C Maurkice Pouncey (hip) were limited.