I'm gonna be upfront - I had little faith that the Steelers could knock off the Patriots. Recent history has given little indication that Dick LeBeau had been willing to abandon the zone-heavy strategies that resulted in a host of humiliating Steelers losses to New England. Even in the best of seasons for the Pittsburgh defense, Brady had been able to make them look wanting. How could they, minus James Farrior and James Harrison, with William Gay starting, hope for a different outcome this time around?
Now, of course, we have our answer. LeBeau proved willing to radically change the approach of his defense and the payoff was monumental. By all accounts, the Steelers played more man and press coverage than they had at probably any point in LeBeau's tenure. It makes sense that that would lead to more pressure on Brady. Give receivers free release and Brady is going to find someone to check it off to before the rush gets there. Obviously the danger is that a big play can occur if a corner gets beat badly off the press. The problem for the Patriots is now that they lack a Randy Moss type that can beat any DB in single coverage. Think Deion Branch or Chad Ochocinco can dominate an aggressive corner? Not likely.
Of course, when LaMarr Woodley left the game with a hamstring injury, this strategy started to wane in effectiveness. Down their two best outside pass rushers, Brady had tons of time to throw. There was more than a few dropbacks where Brady had five seconds and still couldn't find a target. So today was a huge win for a secondary that is mostly maligned aside from Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor.
It wasn't only the defense that stymied Brady. A Pittsburgh attack that was able to consistently put together long drives - only one punt all game - kept the Patriots with limited opportunities to score. At the same time, the Steelers allowed New England to hang around closer than the stats would show. For starters, the Patriots got the one turnover which led directly to points. The Steelers offense also couldn't apply the kill shot when given multiple chances in the second half. The Cowboys saw what happens when you toy with New England and give them chances to close the gap late. This almost caught up with the Steelers as well, but thankfully the Pats fell short enough that they were never realistically in position to grab the win.
A lot of things have come together since the dreadful start to the season. Ben Roethlisberger has resolved most of the accuracy issues (the bad INT today not withstanding), the Max Starks signing amazingly stabilized a horrid offensive line and the run defense is, if not as dominating as last season, certainly not a liability. This win was key for the Steelers season in innumerable ways. Maybe even more so than if the Steelers had only beaten the Ravens over this two-game stretch. Because the Patriots have always been the litmus test that showed the Steelers were just short of the class of the league. I don't mean to say that this win alone elevates Pittsburgh to the definitive top of the conference, even if it did in the de jure standings. It simply means that there is no longer a challenge that we know that the Steelers absolutely cannot overcome. Maybe there wasn't one before, but the Pats sure seemed like one.
There were a few bad calls that went the Steelers way in this game. As is typically the case, this has brought out only the saddest of the officiating conspiracy trolls. Rob Gronkowski's catch should have been a touchdown, but what stopped the Patriots from challenging the ruling? Nothing. Belichick had ample time to make a call for the officials to look it over. As for the Polamalu punch that led to a safety, it's almost certainly meaningless. Troy gets flagged and the Pats get the ball back at about the 20 with 10 seconds left and no timeouts. With the Pats inability to get ANYTHING completed deep during this game, we're to suppose New England can cover 80 yards and score a TD in 10 seconds, when on the previous play Brady was sacked and stripped?
There's no reason to remind anyone of the enormity of next week's game. I've seen a few wishful (deluded?) Ravens fans on Twitter already saying they love the position that their team is in - that the Steelers will be overhyped and overconfident. I'm sure there isn't a Steelers player (maybe save Max Starks, who didn't play) for whom the memory of the Week 1 blowout isn't fresh in their mind. The Ravens haven't looked great the past two weeks, but they rallied when they had to late to beat Arizona and that should give the team reasonable momentum coming into Pittsburgh.
Still, if the Steelers were able to show new wrinkles to a more sophisticated and superior Patriots offense, one would imagine that they can do the same to the Ravens. Baltimore caught the Steelers at a good time in Week 1 - what with the team not knowing that Aaron Smith had little left to cover, with LaMarr Woodley yet to be turned loose in the pass rush. If anything, the play of the Ravens O-line and their quarterback has regressed significantly since that time.
I'm excited to see what will come. I'm certain that the gravity of the rivalry and the significance of the next game, I would expect nothing similar to the one-sided contest that we saw in Week 1. The Steelers are riding high but have a good deal of payback to issue to their main rival. The Ravens also know that losing in Pittsburgh might mean having to kiss the division goodbye yet again, given the schedule remaining.
It's almost seven years to the day that the Steelers last beat Tom Brady, so today is certainly something to savor. Nevertheless, just as big a hurdle awaits in seven days. The Steelers in Week 1 let the Ravens jump out to an early lead, only to see their own sloppiness bury them beneath a huge deficit. I can't see the team that played today put forth that kind of effort. And if LeBeau can kind a solution for a Patriots attack that bedeviled him for so long, the Ravens flurry of chop blocks can't be all that intimidating.