It's Blitzburg vs. the Brady Bunch
Irresistible force, meet the immovable object.
That's the matchup that will determine the outcome of the latest showdown for the ages when Pittsburgh pays a visit to Gillette Stadium to take on the 12-0 Pats this afternoon (Ch. 4, 4:15 p.m.).
"We're playing a team that presents a lot of challenges for us," said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. "We've got to play our own style of game, understanding what they really do well and understanding what we need to do well."
And that's the rub. What Pittsburgh does well is stopping exactly what New England has done better than anyone else.
Pittsburgh's new Steel Curtain is ranked first in the NFL in total defense, points allowed, total yards allowed, passing yards allowed and first downs allowed.
But they've yet to face an offense like the Patriots have assembled this year, which just happens to be first in the league in total offense, points scored, total yards, passing yards and first downs.
A little after 7 o'clock tonight, those rankings are likely to have changed for at least one of these teams.
Welcome to Blitzburg
The Steelers are under new management this year, with 35-year-old Mike Tomlin taking the reins as head coach after Bill Cowher stepped down following 15 years at the helm. Tomlin's leadership style may differ somewhat from Cowher's, but the results have been eerily similar. That's partially due to keeping defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau around to run the defense for a fourth straight season.
"I think they're basically running the same defense they ran previously when Bill was there and when LeBeau was the coordinator," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "They've carried it over to LeBeau as a coordinator and kept it pretty much intact from what it's been. I don't see a lot of difference from what they did last year, defensively."
As usual, the hallmark of the Pittsburgh defense is its ability to pressure the quarterback. After tallying 40-plus sacks in 10 of the 15 seasons under Cowher, the Steelers lead the AFC with 33 sacks already this season.
The bulk of that pressure comes not from the linemen up front, but from blitzing linebackers and defense backs. The top five sack producers on the team are all linebackers, led by James Harrison's 8.5 and James Farrior's 6.0.
"They blitz quite a bit," said Brady. "I think their style is pretty much the same (as past years).
"Same group of guys, same style," added Brady. "They blitz a lot and it's the same blitzes. It's the same style they've played in the past and they always seem to play it well. I think the players are very comfortable in their scheme and I think they have players that really fit their scheme very well."
The Patriots have faced pressure before, though the offensive line and backs have held up well, allowing just 16 sacks this season. But they haven't seen the kind of blitzes Pittsburgh will throw at them.
"They're a physical team," said running back Kevin Faulk. "They try to confuse you a little bit, but at the same time, when they bring those guys in, it's just man on man, you've got to stop them."
That's easier said than done, but the Patriots understand the cost of failure. "If we don't pick up the blitz, Tom's probably not going to get the ball off, so that's very important," said Faulk. "That's probably one of the most important things we do."
The Pats haven't done it quite as well the last two weeks though, as Philadelphia and Baltimore each got to Brady for three sacks. And the Steelers threaten to wreak even more havoc in the New England backfield.
"Never taking anything away from Baltimore, but (the Steelers) are a team," said fullback Heath Evans. "When you flip on the film and you see 11 guys that seem to be moving all in the same direction, always on the same page, that's when you know you're going to have your hands full.
"And that's what you see from them down in and down out. They're playing team defense, and that's what makes it tough on the offense."
The Brady Bunch
The Patriots have specialized in making things tough on defenses this year. They've scored 469 points so far, a pace already putting them within sight of the league record of 556 set by Minnesota in 1998.
Not coincidentally, that Vikings squad was led by a young wideout named Randy Moss. Now Moss is one of the key veterans added to New England's receiving corps, and he's on a record pace of his own with 75 catches for 1,129 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Fellow newcomers Wes Welker (84-896, 7 TDs) and Donte' Stallworth (40-631, 3 TDs) have also contributed to New England's dominant passing attack. There are still doubters though, like Pittsburgh safety Anthony Smith.
The second-year defensive back made a name for himself this week when he boldly guaranteed a Steelers win. That drew the attention of the entire Patriots team, but he had a more pointed statement directed specifically at the club's wideouts.
"I think we were facing great receivers last week too and we shut them down," said Smith, whose club held the Bengals' potent passing attack to just 175 yards. "I don't think it gets much better than Cincinnati's corps of receivers. We've already seen the best."
New England's numbers suggest otherwise, but those numbers have been in decline a bit in the past two weeks. Brady still threw for 380 yards against Philly, but managed just one TD after tossing at least three in each of the first 10 games. On Monday, he had his worst game of the year as a fierce wind and a fiercer Ravens defense held him to an 18-for-38 day for 257 yards.
He did manage a pair of TDs though, including the game-winner to Jabar Gaffney with just 44 seconds left. It was the 27th time he's led his club to victory when it was behind or tied in the fourth quarter. While Smith may disparage the Pats, that sort of track record has elicited plenty of respect from the rest of the Steelers.
"He's a winner," said Tomlin of Brady. "When the rubber meets the road, he delivers and I think that's what probably separates great players from good players. And he's a great player."
Steel Curtain revisited
The Steelers have pretty good players of their own. They include Harrison, who's having a breakthrough year this season.
Primarily a special teams performer since signing as an undrafted free agent out of Kent State in 2002, Harrison earned a starting role this year after Joey Porter signed with Miami, and he's made the most of his increased playing time.
"He's really impressive," said Belichick. "I'd say (he's) one of the most physical players in the league. He's a good pass-rusher, he's a good run-defender, he's good at the point of attack, he's good in pursuit, he's an explosive player. He's got some of the best hits we've seen all year in their games that we've broken down. He's an explosive, impact player.
"He's a good football player," added Belichick. "You have to know when he's on the field. He makes a lot of plays."
The Steelers also have another big-time playmaker in the secondary, but safety Troy Polamalu is listed as doubtful after missing practice Thursday and Friday with a knee injury that kept him out the last two weeks.
Polamalu's absence would be a serious blow for the Steelers.
"He really sets the tone for them," said Brady. "He makes a huge impact on the game. He's very aggressive and he's always focused on the ball. He can make a lot of plays. He's a really explosive athlete. We've got to account for him on every play. I don't think there's too many players better than Troy."
It's more than just the physical attributes Polamalu brings to the table. His absence also limits the schemes and defensive packages Pittsburgh can use.
"Last week they didn't play their dime defense I think probably because he wasn't in there, so they just used nickel," said Belichick. "They're really a dime team. He plays down around the line of scrimmage in their dime coverage package, so I'm sure that that would be a grouping with him in there that they probably would use more of. It's one of their core defensive packages."
Losing Polamalu would limit Pittsburgh's options, but Tomlin still plans to throw a variety of looks at the Patriots.
"There's always give and take, in terms of how we formulate plans," said Tomlin. "We want to be multiple. We want to be able to present a bunch of things to people."
The Patriots expect to see plenty this afternoon.
"They do a lot of great things," said Gaffney. "They've got great linebackers, they're good up front, got a nice secondary. And they throw a lot of different looks at you."
And regardless of the scheme, the Steelers have executed their defense better than anyone to this point of the season.
"What they're doing this year is working," said Evans. "And they're really good at it, so we've definitely got our hands full this week."
So will Pittsburgh with the Pats' high-powered offense. Consider this one an irresistible matchup, and every football fan should be an immovable object planted in front of the TV for it.
(Douglas Flynn covers the Patriots for the Daily News. He can be reached at 508-626-4405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)