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Steelers defense faces daunting task against Tom Brady

Jan. 20, 2017 Updated Fri., Jan. 20, 2017 at 5:07 p.m.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) prepares to face Pittsburgh in the AFC championship on Sunday. Brady has thrown 19 touchdowns and zero interceptions against the Steelers since 2005. (Steven Senne / Associated Press)
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) prepares to face Pittsburgh in the AFC championship on Sunday. Brady has thrown 19 touchdowns and zero interceptions against the Steelers since 2005. (Steven Senne / Associated Press)
By Kyle Hightower Associated Press

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Take it from Wade Phillips, slowing down Tom Brady is a goal often sought, but seldom achieved.

“Good luck,” the new defensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Rams said this week when asked about the difficulty of taking the Patriots quarterback out of his comfort zone. “He’s good no matter what.”

And that’s coming from a guy who’s had at least some recent success bothering Tom Terrific.

Brady enters Sunday’s matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers with a 6-4 record in AFC championship games, including 4-1 at home.

But the constant in each of his losses has been when he’s faced a defense that’s managed to apply pressure up front and forced him into quick decisions in the pocket.

The Broncos, with Phillips serving as defensive coordinator, did it during last season’s 20-18 AFC title game win in Denver. Led by Von Miller, they made Brady’s life miserable, sacking him four times and registering another 17 quarterback hits.

“Before we played them they said I couldn’t stop him,” Phillips said. “It’s a combination of things but you’ve just got to play great defense. Yeah, you’ve got to put pressure on him, but you’ve got to be able to cover. … The pressure you get you have to get it 1-on-1.

“You’re not going to fool him and get a free runner on him. You know, you don’t see anybody just come and hit him in the back. He sees everybody. He’s special that way, too.”

The Steelers will be the latest to try to test that blueprint, albeit with a defense has been more pedestrian than “the Steel Curtain” when it’s come to pressuring quarterbacks this season.

They also haven’t had much success against Brady. Pittsburgh’s sacked him just 21 times in 11 games. Brady hasn’t thrown an interception against the Steelers since 2005, while throwing 19 touchdown passes.

But Brady will face a much healthier Steelers pass rush than he did in Week 7’s 27-16 road win. Pittsburgh linebacker Ryan Shazier was returning from a knee injury; James Harrison played only 42 percent of the snaps and Bud Dupree was on injured reserve with a groin injury.

The improved health since then has been a boost to Pittsburgh in its nine-game win streak. The Steelers had 13 sacks over their first nine games, and have 31 during the streak.

“I think just getting after him in general is going to be big,” Shazier said. “Every team wants to get after the quarterback, when you get the quarterback rattled or just out of position, it definitely helps out the defense, helps out the team.

“If we can make him feel uncomfortable and make him play a game he’s not accustomed to, it’s going to help out our defense and play the way we want to.”

It may be good timing for Pittsburgh.

The Patriots did a much better job of protecting Brady during the regular season (17 sacks allowed in the 12 games he played after giving up 38 in 2015).

But New England’s offensive line showed some cracks in last week’s divisional-round win over the Texans, allowing Brady to be sacked twice and hit eight times. Houston also had two interceptions.

Brady said the change in the Steelers’ defense from Week 7 is stark.

“They’ve been dominant,” he said. “They’ve been great just rushing the quarterback, making plays for their team, strip sacks, forced interceptions, a lot of big plays. … It’s a big challenge for us.”

Left tackle Nate Solder said the fact that vulnerabilities that were exposed last week by the Texans isn’t always a bad thing. It certainly won’t rattle them, he said.

“The things that you didn’t do right sometimes can be a gift. If you can get them right it can help you for the next game,” Solder said. “One quarterback hit is too many. … (But) you can’t worry about every little thing that goes wrong.”

Dupree, who had his first career sack during the Steelers’ season-opening 28-21 loss to the Patriots in 2015, said he isn’t expecting Brady to stand around waiting to get hit this time around.

“Tom Brady is on a different level. He’s playing great,” Dupree said. “Even though he’s older he’s still doing a great job. We’ve got to continue to trust our game plan, trust our training and be the best team on the field.”

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