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Steelers 17, Patriots 10: Recent Steelers draft picks rise to occasion

The Steelers finally have figured out the key to beating Tom Brady.

Wait seven years.

Sunday’s 17-10 win at Heinz Field was the Steelers’ first over a Brady-led Patriots team since they won 25-17 at Pittsburgh in 2011. The only other time the Steelers have beaten Brady was 2004, a 34-13 home win.

The Steelers won 33-10 at New England in 2008, but that came against Matt Cassel because Brady missed most of that year with a knee injury.

Spaced seven years apart, these Steelers’ wins over Brady are like some kind of celestial phenomenon. No, it’s not a 76-year wait like Halley’s Comet, although it’s seemed that way.

And speaking of Halley, or Haley, it’s not insignificant that entering Sunday’s game the last time the Steelers beat Brady was the year before Todd Haley was hired as offensive coordinator. Now, the Steelers have beaten Brady the year after firing Haley.

No, Haley wasn’t the reason the Steelers couldn’t stop Brady, but it could be he was part of a bigger problem that the Steelers finally might be solving. We’ll get back to that.

Catholic children born the first time the Steelers beat Brady in 2004 were likely having their First Communion right around the time the Steelers bested Brady in 2011 and are probably entering high school this year.

In much the same way, these victories seem to have come at significant turning points in Steelers history.

2004 was Ben Roethlisberger‘s rookie year. Even though the Patriots avenged that Halloween loss by beating the Steelers in the AFC championship game and went on to win their third Super Bowl in four years, the Steelers’ regular-season win over the Patriots that year signaled the start of the Roethlisberger Era, which would bring two championships and a conference title over the next six seasons.

In 2011, the Steelers improved to 6-2 when they beat the Patriots on Halloween Eve. But that was sort of a jump-the-shark moment for that window of championship contention.

LaMarr Woodley had two sacks in that game, giving him nine sacks in the first eight games of that season. But he injured his hamstring and was never the same. He had just nine more sacks in two more seasons with the Steelers.

The Steelers went 12-4 for the second straight year in 2011, but beating Tim Tebow proved harder than beating Brady, and they were infamously ousted in a wild-card playoff game at Denver.

In the aftermath of that loss, the Steelers made the mid-life crisis move of hiring the volatile Haley as offensive coordinator. Two straight 8-8 seasons followed, and even though the Steelers have made the playoffs four straight seasons since, these last seven years have been frustrating. The Steelers haven’t reached the Super Bowl since 2010 and they’ve been to only one AFC championship game during that time. That came in 2016 when they lost 36-17 at New England. There were no six-year gaps between conference title games when Bill Cowher was coach.

That said, the lunatic fringe that wants Mike Tomlin fired will be quiet for at least a week. But can that gallery be permanently silenced? If this theoretic historical pattern is followed, Sunday’s win over Brady and the Patriots is a breakthrough that will lead to more success in the near future than the Steelers have had over the last seven years, maybe even another championship before Roethlisberger retires.

But what evidence do we really have that the Steelers (8-5-1), who snapped a three-game losing streak, have turned a corner and are capable of getting back to the Super Bowl? The numerical symmetry that marks these victories over the Patriots isn’t enough to stop Drew Brees next week or Patrick Mahomes in January.

What could help, however, are some of the decisions the Steelers have made over the last couple of years. They reaped the benefits of those decisions Sunday.

For one thing, the Steelers scored touchdowns on two of their three red-zone trips and lead the league in that category this year with a 77.5 TD percentage inside the red zone, according to Team Rankings.

The Steelers’ best red-zone TD rate during the Haley Era was 57.1 percent in 2015, and that’s in line with the Steelers’ 10-for-19 red-zone tally in the five games they played against the Patriots when Haley was their offensive coordinator.

Replacing Haley with Randy Fichtner isn’t the only smart thing the Steelers have done recently that helped them beat the Patriots Sunday.

Several players added within the last three years fueled this victory.

Vance McDonald, a tight end acquired from the 49ers essentially for 20 spots in the 2018 draft, caught a 5-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to give the Steelers a 7-0 lead in the first quarter. One day shy of the first anniversary of the Jesse James Game, how fitting was it that the game’s first touchdown was scored by a Steelers’ tight end?

The stock of the Steelers’ 2018 draft spiked dramatically thanks largely to second-rounder James Washington and fifth-rounder Jaylen Samuels.

Samuels more than doubled the 59 rushing yards he had accumulated in his brief career with 142 yards on 19 carries, the most rushing yards by a Steelers rookie since Bam Morris had 146 in a 1994 win over the Giants. The Steelers’ championship hopes went bye-bye when Le’Veon Bell went down to injury in 2014 and 2016. In 2015, they lost both Bell and backup DeAngelo Williams during the regular season and fell a win short of an AFC title game in New England. Even making the playoffs was looking dicey this year in James Conner‘s absence. Now, the Steelers might finally have enough running back depth for a deep playoff run if they get there.

Washington, who has struggled so much in his rookie season that he’s been deactivated twice, led the Steelers with 65 receiving yards on three catches, both career highs.

Safety Terrell Edmunds, the Steelers’ first-round pick this year, was tied for third on the team with six tackles.

The Steelers’ leading tackler with 12 Sunday to go with two passes defended was Joe Haden, the two-time Pro Bowler who the Steelers scooped up after the Browns released him last August.

With the Steelers’ clinging to a 14-10 lead and Rob Gronkowski ominously waking from a three-quarter hibernation with two catches for 21 yards, Haden intercepted Brady at the Steelers’ 4-yard line with 7:43 left in the game (thanks, Browns). That led to a sigh-of-relief 48-yard field goal by Chris Boswell that increased the Steelers’ led to 17-10 with 5:13 left. That ended a streak of three missed field goals by Boswell.

Mike Hilton, an undrafted cornerback the Steelers signed to their practice squad in December of 2016, won a job last season and had four sacks and two interceptions in 2017. He was the Steelers’ second-leading tackler Sunday with seven.

Sean Davis, the Steelers’ second-round pick in 2016, was tied with Edmunds with six tackles and added a pass breakup.

The Steelers’ four leading tacklers were defensive backs and a major reason why those two catches for 21 yards was all that Gronkowski would get. Both are career lows for him against the Steelers.

T.J. Watt, the Steelers’ first-round draft pick last year, had his 11th sack of the season and his first since the Steelers’ Week 11 win at Jacksonville. The Steelers are 5-0-1 this season when Watt gets a sack, 3-5 when he doesn’t.

A roster move made just hours before the game also factored in this win. The Steelers activated Eli Rogers off the physically-unable-to-perform list Saturday and he caught four passes for 20 yards Sunday. All his receptions came on the Steelers’ two touchdown drives, the second of which was a 17-yard pass to Antonio Brown that gave the Steelers a 14-7 lead early in the second quarter.

Even Morgan Burnett, a disappointing free agent signing, proved he was worth a few bucks when he knocked down Brady’s fourth-down pass in the end zone with 14 seconds left to clinch the win.

Playoff picture

Now the Steelers still have some work to do to spin this milestone victory into something even greater. Their simplest path to the playoffs is winning the AFC North, and the Ravens (8-6) loom a half-game behind them.

Baltimore is at Los Angeles to play the Chargers (11-3) Saturday night. That’ll be a tough one for the Ravens, but if they win the Steelers will have to win at New Orleans (11-2) on Sunday to avoid scoreboard watching in Week 17. The Ravens finish the season at home against the Browns (6-7-1) and the Steelers host the Bengals (6-8). Depending on what happens Saturday night the Steelers will know how necessary it is to win in New Orleans on Sunday.

The Patriots (9-5), meanwhile, will finish with their worst record since they went 10-6 in 2009, the year before they drafted Gronkowski. They finished 3-5 on the road and their most impressive road win came at Chicago in Week 7. Their difficulty in beating decent teams on the road might not be a problem, however. They finish the regular season with home games against the Bills and Jets. They’re not losing either of those.

The Texans (10-4) currently sit in the No. 2 spot in the AFC, but they’re at Philadelphia next week and host Jacksonville in Week 17. Assuming the Patriots win out, the Texans will have to win both of those games to keep the second seed and the first-round bye because the Patriots beat them in Week 1 and own the tiebreaker.

Whether the Patriots get a first-round bye or not, they’re going to finish with a better record than the Steelers unless the Bills or Jets pull off a monumental upset.

That means that to get to the Super Bowl, the Steelers might have to get around that seven-year waiting period for beating Brady. And they’d have to do it at Gillette Stadium, something they’ve never done.

Before that, though, it would behoove the Steelers to beat Brees in New Orleans. Somehow that task doesn’t seem quite as daunting now as it did before Sunday.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

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