NFL

Struggling D lets down Patriots again

Bobby McCray dishes on the Steelers' 25-17 win.
Bobby McCray dishes on the Steelers' 25-17 win.
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Alex Marvez

Alex Marvez is a Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com. He has covered the NFL for the past 18 seasons as a beat writer and is the former president of the Pro Football Writers of America. He also is a frequent host on Sirius XM NFL Radio.

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PITTSBURGH

New England’s Tom Brady and Bill Belichick will set the record for wins by a quarterback-coach combination soon enough.

It’s just not going to come against an opponent in which the duo enjoyed some of its biggest success.

Pittsburgh didn’t just keep Brady in check for a change during Sunday’s 25-17 home upset. The Steelers also staged the kind of passing clinic the Patriots have previously conducted against them.

In the bigger picture, that should be far more disappointing to Brady and Belichick than failing to surpass the 116-victory mark set by Miami’s Dan Marino and Don Shula.

For 13 seasons, Marino and Shula fell short of winning a Super Bowl title largely because of porous Miami defenses. Unless a drastic turnaround is forthcoming, the 2011 Patriots are facing the same fate.

New England (5-2) entered having allowed five opposing quarterbacks to pass for more than 300 yards this season. Ben Roethlisberger became the sixth — and he only needed three quarters.

Roethlisberger opened the game by attacking the middle of New England’s defense with passes to tight end Heath Miller. Roethlisberger then began to incorporate three Steelers receivers who refer to themselves as the Bugatti Boyz — Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. With graybeard wideout Hines Ward (hip) out, the trio whose nickname is inspired by a Diddy/Rick Ross collaboration made their own beautiful music. Wallace, Brown and Sanders combined to catch 21 passes for 207 yards and one touchdown. Miller finished with seven catches for 85 yards.

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Roethlisberger connected with nine different targets overall in a 36-of-50, 365-yard effort. But his longest completion spanned only 26 yards, which Roethlisberger says stemmed from New England’s deep zone coverages.

“We came in planning to take some shots,” Roethlisberger said. “You would have thought the game plan was all dink-and-dunk. It’s just what they gave us. They took away the deep ball. That opened up the underneath stuff.

“For us, whenever you think about possessing the ball and controlling it, it’s running the ball. We’ve shown we can do it without always running the ball. We can take the short passes and the screens to a wide receiver and move the ball.”

Such words would once be considered blasphemous for a franchise with such a rich rushing history. But the strategy made perfect sense Sunday against the mess that New England’s pass defense has become.

With the exception of defensive end Andre Carter, nobody could apply even sporadic pressure on Roethlisberger as Pittsburgh opened a 13-point lead early in the fourth quarter. Two of New England’s five sacks came in the final two minutes when Roethlisberger decided he would rather get tackled than risk throwing an interception with the Steelers holding a six-point advantage.

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The problems are equally significant in New England’s secondary. The franchise cut both of last year’s starting safeties (James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather) in the preseason. Leading into the Steelers game, veteran cornerback Leigh Bodden was released, promising rookie cornerback Ras-I Dowling (hip) was placed on injured reserve and backup safety Josh Barrett (thumb) was declared out.

This has helped create a hodge-podge secondary that allowed Pittsburgh to convert on 10 of 16 third-down attempts and control the clock for 39:22, including all but roughly 90 seconds of the first quarter. New England’s only impact defensive play came when linebacker Gary Guyton intercepted a second-quarter pass that Roethlisberger threw directly at him, leading to a two-yard Brady touchdown toss to wide receiver Deion Branch.

“We gave up too many third-downs,” Belichick said. “That was the big problem. If we made some of those plays on third down, we wouldn’t be talking about some of the other plays.”

Asked whether New England has the defensive talent to affect the NFL’s elite quarterbacks, Belichick deadpanned, “We’ll find out every week.”

The Steelers (6-2) have that capability, which could give them an edge if they face New England again in the playoffs. Brady — whose gaudy passing numbers helped him enter Sunday’s game with a 6-1 career record against the Steelers — was admittedly surprised by the increased amount of man coverage Pittsburgh played. Brady posted a modest 198 yards on 24-of-35 passing with two touchdowns. He also lost a fumble that turned into the game-clinching Steelers safety with eight seconds remaining.

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“The way you beat man (coverage) is you make plays against it and get them out of it,” Brady said. “We didn’t do enough of that.”

But at least New England’s offense did something, even if it was in a losing effort. The defense can’t say the same.

“You can’t say it was the defensive backs. You can’t say it was the (defensive line),” Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said. “Collectively, we didn’t do a good job defensively when it comes down to it. We have to be able to fix it and move on.”

Otherwise, the Patriots may ultimately be moving out of the championship hunt.

Tagged: Falcons, Patriots, Steelers, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, James Sanders, Emmanuel Sanders

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