By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — With quarterback Tom Brady and the New England Patriots coming to town this week, Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau was front and center after practice Thursday afternoon.
LeBeau was asked what was the best way to defend Brady, as if the coach would know since the quarterback was 6-1 against the Steelers in his career. So, Coach LeBeau, should the Steelers play a zone or man-to-man defense?
“With his accuracy, I don’t believe it matters to him,” LeBeau noted. “He makes throws that sometimes you tell your quarterback ‘donât throw that ball,’ and yet the balls go zipping in there for 35 yards. I don’t see him having a problem with any throw versus any coverage.”
So, how does an opposing team stop the Patriots’ high-powered offense?
“You’ve got to tackle the receivers after the catch,” LeBeau said. “These guys lead the league in yards after the catch. And, again, that’s mostly reflective of his accuracy. He hits them right in stride.
“They have some tremendously quick and gifted athletes who take the ball and run with it. How do you defend that? You don’t allow the catch to occur in the first place, and you tackle them when they catch it.”
Wes Welker is far and away the leading receiver for the Patriots with 51 catches and six touchdowns, and he is among the NFL leaders as well. However, tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are second and third, respectively. Gronkowski has 29 catches and five scores, while Hernandez has 27 receptions and three touchdowns.
Not only are the two tight ends difficult to match up against because of their pass-catching ability, but they are athletic despite being quite large. Gronkowski is 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds, while Hernandez is 6-1, 245.
“Well, they’re tough matchups because you end up with DBs on them a lot of the times, and they’re bigger and they catch everything,” LeBeau said. “(Brady) usually puts the balls where it’s catchable, and you usually don’t see their tight ends miss. I have a lot of respect for their tight ends, particularly with their ability to catch the football.”
LeBeau could dispatch linebacker Lawrence Timmons to handle one of those tight ends, while safety Troy Polamalu could get the other one.
“To be quite honest, they’re very talented, of course, but it’s all about the guy who feeds them the ball,” Polamalu said. “(Brady) has got great accuracy. He’s very comfortable back there, and he has a lot of guys who make plays for him.
“(But) they’re both very talented, big, strong and athletic. And they provide challenges to a defense in different ways. Hernandez is more of a pure receiver, while Gronkowski is big with great hands. And if the ball is just thrown near him he can pull it down.”
One way to limit Brady’s options is to pressure him into releasing the ball earlier than he wants. It should help the Steelers that Casey Hampton is expected to start for the first time in three weeks with Steve McLendon as the backup. Hampton commented on the Patriots overall success against the Steelers (7-2 mark overall with two wins in the AFC title game) and Brady’s tally (6-1).
“I don’t know, man, but if I knew why they beat us I wouldn’t let it happen anymore,” Hampton said. “They’d stop having that success against us. (But) they play good against us, and they’re the type of team that you really can’t make mistakes on because they really capitalize on them. So, we’ve got to minimize our mistakes and be physical and play our game.
“I think a lot of people get involved with trying to do too much against them, instead of just doing what you do. So, you have to do what you do and do it well. Like I’ve said, if I knew the reason why they’ve beaten us more than we’ve beaten them, we wouldn’t have that problem anymore. So, we’ve just got to go out there and do what we do … play our game and be physical.”
Hampton added that the best way to beat the Patriots, in his opinion, was to mix up their defenses and hit them at every turn.
Notes: WR Hines Ward (ankle) did not practice for the second straight day….LB James Farrior was listed as limited due to a sore calf. Farrior is expected to play.