In the 10 years in which he has tortured the Steelers, Tom Brady has always remained the same. It doesn't seem to matter if his receivers were Troy Brown, Randy Moss or Wes Welker, if his tight ends were Christian Fauria or Rob Gronkowski or if his running backs were Corey Dillon, Kevin Faulk or BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
Regardless of all the different options he has been provided the past decade, no quarterback has created more problems and caused more heartache for the Steelers than Brady -- the only active quarterback with more Super Bowl titles than Ben Roethlisberger.
He owns a 6-1 record against them, has helped lead the Patriots to two AFC championship game victories at Heinz Field and has really made the Steelers pay since his only loss to them in the 2004 regular season.
"The one thing I'll always respect about Tom Brady is that it seems like every year his receivers come and go and he's never really had the same group of people, but he keeps winning," said former Steelers coach Bill Cowher, who lost the AFC title games at home to Brady in 2001 and 2004.
In seven career games against the Steelers, Brady's numbers are downright remarkable: 173 completions in 255 attempts (67.8 percent) for 2,006 yards, 14 touchdowns and only three interceptions. His passer rating for those games is 104.8.
In the past three outings alone, the numbers soar to another dimension: 93 of 130 (71.5 percent) for 1,121 yards, seven touchdowns and one interception for a passer rating of 112.4.
"You got to keep him in the ballpark," said Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, the man entrusted with formulating a game plan that will try to slow Brady when the New England Patriots (5-1) play the Steelers (5-2) at 4:15 p.m. today at Heinz Field.
"You can't let him hit the big ones. You got to make him go the hard way. We've played them when they [scored] in the low 20s and we played them when they got up in those 30s. We've done a whole lot better when they're in the 20s."
Since he became a starter in 2001, Brady has averaged 30.1 points against the Steelers, an astonishing number given that the Steelers led the NFL in scoring defense in three of those seasons and finished among the top three in three others.
To better appreciate his career totals against the Steelers, consider this of Brady: In the Steelers' second Super Bowl season of 1975, Terry Bradshaw had eight fewer completions, four more touchdowns and only 49 more passing yards in 14 games than Brady has lifetime against them.
"That's what gives him so much success against Pittsburgh," said NBC Sunday Night Football analyst Tony Dungy, who didn't have a lot of success against Brady, either, when he coached the Indianapolis Colts. Dungy was 3-4 against Brady, including 1-2 in the postseason. "They confuse a lot of people. It's a lot for a quarterback to digest. But he understands and knows where to go with the football and the pressure doesn't get to him. It's that mental toughness more than anything."
So, how do the Steelers stop Brady?
According to several former coaches and players who have studied the three-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback or competed against him, here are the five steps necessary to do so.
The Steelers have had modest success getting to Brady, sacking him 13 times in seven games -- four of which came in their 34-20 victory against the Patriots on Halloween night in 2004.
And, in the past three games, outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley has 51/2 sacks and forced an intentional grounding penalty in the end zone for a safety. But outside pressure doesn't seem to bother Brady because all he will do is step up in the pocket.
The pressure has to come from the inside, either with blitzes or from the defensive linemen.
"You got to find ways to get pressure on him over the centers and guards," said ESPN's Merrill Hoge, a former Steelers running back. "That's where you can create matchups and win because he gets rid of the ball so quick.
"That's what the Giants did to them in the Super Bowl [in 2008], they created mismatches in the trenches with Jason Tuck. The Cleveland Browns did it when they crushed him last year with a standing 3-4 approach. You got to win over their guards and center. If you do, you got yourself a shot."
Said injured Pro Bowl linebacker James Harrison, who will miss his fourth consecutive game: "Just from looking at it, up-the-gut pressure frustrates him more than outside pressure. If you don't give him the opportunity to step up, it's harder for him."
Added Cowher: "He has great pocket presence. I've never seen anyone feel the rush around him while still looking down the field."
In concert with inside pressure, former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison also thinks that teams need to play man-to-man coverage against Brady to disrupt the timing of his passing game.
That is something the Steelers do a lot with their cornerbacks. However, on all three of Brady's touchdown passes to tight end Rob Gronkowski in last year's 39-26 victory at Heinz Field, the Steelers were in man coverage with cornerback William Gay matched against Gronkowski. Brady repeatedly exploited the mismatch.
"Rodney believes it's all timing with Brady," Dungy said of Rodney Harrison, his studio partner on Sunday Night Football. "In zones, you wait for the receiver to come open and just throw it. Brady is too accurate and too smart for that. You have to disrupt his timing."
LeBeau, who has watched Brady throw for at least 350 yards in each of the past three meetings, doesn't think the type of coverage really matters. He said Brady is so accurate and so good at gathering pre-snap information that it doesn't matter if a defense tries to disguise its coverage.
"I've seen him make throws where you would tell your quarterback don't throw that ball, yet the ball goes zipping in there for 35 yards," LeBeau said. "I don't see him having a problem with any throw in any coverage. That's why his numbers are what they are."
Trying to jam Wes Welker, Brady's favorite receiver, at the line of scrimmage is like trying to swat a mosquito with a rocking chair.
It's one of the reasons Welker, who is 5-foot-9, 185 pounds, leads the NFL in catches (51) and receiving yards (785) and is on pace to break Jerry Rice's record for receiving yards in a season (1,848).
But Hoge thinks that's what the Steelers need to do -- play man coverage, but play it inside, where the Patriots like to do their dirty work. And be as physical as the NFL rules allow in the 5 yards off the line of scrimmage.
"That's where it has to happen," Hoge said. "You have to win where [Brady] wants to go with the ball early, and that's close-in routes to Welker and Gronkowski. You got to beat those guys up there. I always thought defenses should take advantage of that 5-yard rule.
"There's all kind of pass interference called, I get that. However, that 5-yard rule, if you can get physical in that 5-yard rule where they get rid of the football, that helps."
In last year's victory at Heinz Field, Brady looked in complete control against the Steelers, dictating the pace with his passes and never falling behind. And yet, the Steelers only trailed, 10-3, early in the third quarter, mainly because their offense sputtered with a missed 26-yard field goal by Jeff Reed and an interception return for touchdown against Ben Roethlisberger.
Dungy said the Steelers' offense has to be able to match Brady's production to keep him from feeling comfortable and dictating the pace.
He pointed out that when the Colts beat the Patriots, it was because his quarterback, Peyton Manning, was able to keep up with Brady and force him to play out of his comfort zone. In two of the three victories during Dungy's tenure, the Colts scored 40 and 38 points against the Patriots.
"The times we had success was when we scored a lot of points and he felt he had to put up a lot of points, too," Dungy said. "When he's very comfortable with what he's doing, he's very tough to handle."
Giving Patriots coach Bill Belichick an extra week to prepare for an opponent is like giving Usain Bolt a 10-yard head start in the 100-meter dash.
The Patriots are coming off a bye week, not that Belichick ever needed extra time to detect an opponent's weakness and create mismatches to exploit it.
Finding the weakness is the hard part. Getting Brady to exploit it is the easy part.
"Nobody works the inside of the field better than this guy," Cowher said of Brady. "He's amazing from numbers to numbers. I've never seen anyone stand so erect in the pocket and with so much confidence in the pocket. He's a guy who's very, very hard to rattle."
The Steelers would know.
Gerry Dulac: firstname.lastname@example.org ; twitter: @gerrydulac. First Published October 30, 2011 4:00 AM