PITTSBURGH - The Pittsburgh Steelers' defense knew it was getting to Houston Texans quarterback David Carr. After sacking him for the eighth time Sunday, they heard him yelling at his linemen as they returned to the huddle.
"Anybody in this league can be rattled," Steelers linebacker Joey Porter said.
Anybody? Even Tom Brady, the seemingly imperturbable quarterback whose playmaking and quick thinking at the line of scrimmage were greatly responsible for the Patriots' three Super Bowl championships?
"Yeah, he can definitely be rattled - we rattled him before," said Porter, whose team plays host to New England on Sunday. "When you get after a guy like that you want to get after him early, put him in the hole where he has to do something he really doesn't want to do.
"Nobody wants to have to pass the ball every play if the defense knows you're going to pass. So whatever we can do to put him in that situation, that's what we're going to try to do."
The Steelers did that a year ago in ending the Patriots' 21-game winning streak, surging to an early 24-3 lead by sacking Brady four times and pressuring him into throwing two interceptions and fumbling once. The Patriots were down by so much so early they ran the ball only six times, one of the lowest totals in league history, in losing 34-20 - one of their two losses last season.
Getting to Brady once is one thing. Getting to him a second time in the same season is much more difficult. In the AFC Championship game rematch 2 months later, the Steelers had no answer for Brady, who, despite having flu-like symptoms hours before the game, threw for 207 yards and two touchdowns and was sacked only twice in a 41-27 Patriots victory.
The lesson learned by the Steelers was this: Get to Brady, and beat the Patriots. Give him the pocket and room to operate, or a receiver with a step on a defender downfield, and he'll most likely find a way to beat you.
"Tom Brady, by far, is the best quarterback in the NFL," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "The things he does, the way he manages the game, manages the offense, it seems like he's got a force field around him all the time. He's Superman, and it is fun to watch him play."
That's why, at the line of scrimmage, a guessing game goes on nearly every play when Brady opposes the Steelers.
Pittsburgh's defense, the league's best a year ago, is constantly giving Brady different looks, moving strong safety Troy Polamalu from play to play to disguise its coverages and shield where the pass rush is coming from.
Brady, at the same time, can adjust the play call as quickly as the defense is changing, trying to match his personnel on the field against the formation he sees.
"He tries to make the defense declare itself before we want to," All-Pro linebacker James Farrior said. "We just have to do a good job of disguising, to try to confuse him a little bit, but it's going to be hard."
The Steelers also have to keep from confusing themselves. They've introduced so many new wrinkles in their 3-4 defense, mostly to keep offenses from easily locating Polamalu, they sometimes don't know exactly what each player is doing.
"Half the time we don't even know what he's doing, so I know any other team won't know what he's doing," Farrior said.
Brady is coming off a rare poor game, a 27-17 loss to Carolina in which New England committed three turnovers. The Steelers don't necessarily think that's a positive sign because Brady rarely plays poorly twice in a row for a team that hasn't lost successive games since December 2002.
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