Steelers come to Tom Brady chess match with versatile pieces

PITTSBURGH -- New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick has observed this year's Steelers defense only from a distance, but he sees what Pittsburgh fans observed all training camp:

More linebacker speed with Devin Bush and Mark Barron. An improving Terrell Edmunds in his second year. Ample pass-rushers.

And that's on top of what it could do last year.

"We couldn’t score on them last year, so obviously it’s a big challenge for us," said Belichick about the Patriots' 17-10 loss at Pittsburgh in Week 15 last season.

Steelers defenders feel there's something different about this group, which has an infusion of speed and hybrid options to match wits with Tom Brady and Belichick in Gillette Stadium. Brady never has lost to the Steelers at home.

The Steelers might finally have the defensive depth to change that trend.

"We’ve got to be the most physical team, the most dominant team when we step on the field," Pittsburgh defensive end Cameron Heyward said.

That means combating Brady when he tries to dominate before the snap.

Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin can downplay the chess match with Brady, who motions running backs like a fire drill at the line of scrimmage, rarely gets tricked and isolates matchups for star playmakers and role players alike. This early in the season, Tomlin is more concerned with refining the basics -- fundamentals, communication, eye positioning. "If we don’t, he will exploit it," Tomlin said of Brady.

But Steelers defensive backs are ready for Brady to change his playcalls at the line, and they'll have a subsequent call ready.

Versatility shouldn't be an issue for the Steelers, who have three safeties who can play linebacker and corners who can play safety -- and none of them has to guard perpetual Steeler killer Rob Gronkowski, who retired in March.

Even so, having options is crucial against New England, Pittsburgh corner Joe Haden said.

"Their running backs, they can move them around and match you up with a linebacker who’s not used to being outside the numbers," Haden said. "So it's just about being able to have pieces in position to go against mismatches."

The Steelers' success will hinge on QB turnovers. The 2018 Steelers tied for the league lead with 52 sacks but ranked 28th in turnover margin at minus-7. All during camp, assistant coaches were quick to point out that pass deflections aren't good enough; they need picks.

But the Steelers figure the more bodies flying to the ball, the more chances at taking it. Defensive tackle Javon Hargrave said that adding a "stud linebacker" in Bush helps the Steelers' chances. Heyward cites cornerback depth, with free-agent addition Steven Nelson having a productive preseason and Artie Burns bolstering depth.

"I look for us to be a more complete defense," Heyward said.

Some veteran Steelers are quick to point out that playing in New England is the proverbial "just another game."

Hargrave isn't so sure. Maybe it's because his defense has something to prove.

"It’s a big game. All eyes on us," Hargrave said. "All eyes on Sunday. We’ve got a chance to show the world."