PITTSBURGH -- Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger probably woke up with a sore arm today after flinging the football 50 times. That's better than the bruised ego he left the Patriots with in a 25-17 victory.
For all the talk in the preseason about a defensive shift in philosophy and alignment, about the promise of a more aggressive, blitzing, formidable defense this season, we haven't seen it. What we have seen is a defense that is better at denying its own inefficacy than opponents.
It must pain coach Bill Belichick, the Da Vinci of defensive coaches, to watch his defense get dissected like a middle school biology lab, allowing 10 of 16 third-down conversions to Pittsburgh and forcing just one punt. It must rankle the man who slowed down the Buffalo Bills' famed K-Gun, the St. Louis Rams' "Greatest Show on Turf" and on more than one occasion Peyton Manning to see his team dead last in the NFL in pass defense, picked apart like a John W. Henry radio interview.
Credit Pittsburgh for having the courage and the quarterback to do what other teams would not -- throw the football and toss aside any fear of engaging Tom Brady in a shootout. On the eve of Halloween, the Steelers unmasked the Patriots' 32d-ranked defense yesterday and the notion that you can't beat Brady in a passing match.
The Steelers' plan from the beginning was to throw the ball at will and capitalize on the Patriots' porous pass defense. Roethlisberger, who was 36 of 50 for 365 yards with two touchdowns and an interception, said as much.
Pittsburgh took to the air so often that the Federal Aviation Administration should have assigned the Steelers offense a tail number. Factoring in the five times Roethlisberger was sacked, the Steelers called pass plays on 55 of their 78 offensive snaps; a staggering 70.5 percent of their play calls were passes.
It was only the second time in Roethlisberger's eight-year career that Pittsburgh attempted 50 or more passes in a game. The other one was Nov. 5, 2006, when Roethlisberger threw the ball 54 times in a 31-20 loss to the Denver Broncos. In that game he was also sacked four times, so the Steelers called 58 pass plays.
Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace didn't mince words when asked if Pittsburgh was confident they could rule the air against New England after watching tape.
"Yeah, those guys were ranked last in defense, in pass defense," said Wallace. "Even though the numbers were not always true because they win so many games by blowout and there are teams catching up they still were 32d, no matter how you put it. We felt like that was our advantage today, and we took advantage of it."
They certainly did. It would be a mistake to suddenly turn Leigh Bodden, mysteriously released on Friday, into the second coming of Mike Haynes, but it is safe to say he would not have mishandled a zone coverage as badly as his replacement, Antwaun Molden, did on Pittsburgh's second touchdown pass.
Pittsburgh left tackle Max Starks said the decision to release Bodden on Friday was another signal to the Steelers the Patriots were susceptible to a passing frenzy.
"Yeah, you look at just how they played throughout the year," said Starks. They've always been run dominant. This week they cut their corner, so we knew that before game time. We knew they had brought up some extra defensive linemen, so we knew that they wanted to play big against us. We knew the run was going to be in chucks and spurts. We just wanted to take advantage of the middle of the field and their secondary."
While the defense got passed on, the New England offense doesn't get a total pass. After 13 straight games of scoring 30-plus points, the Patriots have been held to 20 and 17 points, respectively. Brady being limited to fewer than 200 yards passing (24 of 35 for 198 yards) is an indication that there might be a small chink in the Under Armour of Brady and Co.
But in the long run the real concern on this team isn't on offense. It's always been defense. Seven games into the season, the Patriots are right back where they started -- with a suspect defense.
The good news is there are no flawless teams in the AFC.
The Steelers have a shaky offensive line and prior to beating the Patriots yesterday their signature win was against the Tennessee Titans.
The Ravens, who overcame a 24-3 deficit to down the Arizona Cardinals yesterday, don't know whether quarterback Joe Flacco is the answer or just a perpetual question mark. The San Diego Chargers could use a copy of "Situational Football for Dummies" to aid their cause. The Jets talk about winning with ground and pound, but they've been mostly complain and blame, with backbiting between players and coaches over an offense that lacks identity and consistency.
The Houston Texans have as much talent as any team in the AFC but have been derailed by injuries to outside linebacker Mario Williams, out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle, and wide receiver Andre Johnson, who has missed four games with a hamstring injury. Plus, a team that hasn't made the playoffs in any of its previous nine seasons of existence lacks the street cred to be considered an AFC frontrunner.
The Buffalo Bills, led by Harvard alumnus Ryan Fitzpatrick beat the Patriots and are currently the first place team in the AFC East. But most of the football world considers the Bills the NFL version of the Occupy Wall Street movement. They've generated a lot of buzz and have provided an interesting storyline. Yet, it's dubious whether they can really shake up the establishment.
The Patriots remain a favorite in the AFC, and there is the fact that the Brady-Belichick Patriots have never lost to the Steelers in the playoffs.
But the NFL is a copycat league, and if the Patriots can't stop the pass they're bound to fail when it really counts.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.