PITTSBURGH -- Tom Brady doesn't defeat the Steelers with his arm.
After five meetings with the Patriots quarterback, defensive end Cam Heyward knows that Brady wins plays as he stands over center.
"He breaks you down before the play’s even snapped," Heyward said.
Brady has had a special kind of success against Pittsburgh. His passer rating of 114.2 against the Steelers is his highest among NFL opponents he has played more than five times. In his past seven games against Pittsburgh, Brady has 22 touchdowns, zero interceptions and six wins.
A catalyst for that success is Brady's ability to play the chess game at the line of scrimmage, placing the onus on Mike Tomlin, the Steelers defensive staff and the team's veteran players to set their best game plan of the season.
Traditionally, Brady has been ready for most anything Pittsburgh throws his way. Pittsburgh caused Brady problems in a 2011 win with a variation of man coverage, which the Steelers say they are equipped to run in 2017.
But generally, Brady knows that he can find completions based on the defense's look, and he can step through the pass rush, Heyward said. He makes the appropriate checks at the line of scrimmage and knows what plays work well against Pittsburgh.
The Steelers' ability to adapt, both in game prep and in real time, could decide which team gets home-field advantage for the playoffs.
"You have to be willing to play the game with him, have some checks for him," Heyward said. "But at the same time, you want to be able to not be dictated to but dictate to him."
Mike Tomlin has delivered that message to his defense, which believes it has emerged from last year's AFC title game loss to New England bigger -- and stronger. Pittsburgh ranks in the NFL's top six in scoring defense, passing defense and sacks. The loss of Ryan Shazier to a spinal injury has left Pittsburgh scrambling for help at inside linebacker, but the potential return of corner Joe Haden would bolster the secondary.
To validate that newfound strength, the Steelers must combat Brady's ability to change the pace of the offense. Tomlin considers that an "awesome" part of Brady's game, especially when fully stocked with an arsenal of running backs who can take handoffs or line up wide.
The Steelers struggled with Brady's no-huddle offense last year in Foxboro, something defensive end Tyson Alualu, a former Jacksonville Jaguar, understands. The first-year Steeler remembers Brady once breaking off a frenzied, 14-play scoring drive against Jacksonville that left him uneasy.
Alualu knows the best way to combat such an attack is to follow the Miami Dolphins' blueprint from Monday's 27-20 win: Hit him and hit him often.
“You want to affect him, whether that’s getting quarterback sacks so that he can’t just sit there and make the throw and make it easy for him," Alualu said. "Especially for Brady, that’s even more of an emphasis.”
When Brady has a clean pocket, he likes to capitalize with quick starts. Cornerback Artie Burns learned that last year in Foxboro by glancing at the scoreboard and seeing a 10-0 deficit in the first quarter. The Steelers set out to eliminate big plays and control the pace with Le'Veon Bell, but they did neither after Bell got injured.
"Once you get behind Tom, most times guys don’t ever come back from that," Burns said. "You have to make an effort to start early on him, settle down on him early."
The Steelers praise Brady without hesitation. Heyward called him "the benchmark of what we go off of ... the guy every QB measures themselves [against]." Safety Mike Mitchell called him "the GOAT."
Tomlin gets all that, but he doesn't sound eager to feed into the storyline. He'd rather limit his team's mistakes than worry about Brady's greatness.
“They are really good. They’ve got great continuity. Tom Brady’s Tom Brady. You can talk all day about that,” Tomlin said. “What are we going to do at the line of scrimmage prior to the ball snapping. What are we going to do to improve our overall readiness and detail in our play? I think therein lies the discussion. You can waste a lot of man hours and not getting a lot accomplished worried about what he’s going to do prior to the snap.”