Facing Tom Brady is akin to playing Garry Kasparov in chess.
He can be beaten. But you're going to have to be on your A game because the master has seen every move or counter move that's ever been made.
Brady, who leads the Tampa Bay Buccaneers into Acrisure Stadium Sunday to face the Steelers, has started 321 games in a career that spans more than two decades. At 45, he might not have the mobility he once had – not that it was ever great – but he can still make all of the throws and is the quickest processor in the NFL as evidenced by his 2.4-second average time to throw.
Brady sees things at the line of scrimmage, reads the defense and gets rid of the football. He's thrown for 1,409 yards with seven touchdowns and one interception in five games this season.
Slowing the six-time Super Bowl champion quarterback and the Buccaneers (3-2) will be a tall task for the Steelers (1-4) this weekend, perhaps especially with a banged-up secondary.
"The thing with him, obviously he has seen everything. But the other thing, more than him seeing everything, he does a great job of getting rid of the ball fast," Steelers defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said Thursday at the UPMC-Rooney Sports Complex. "He doesn't sit there and hold it, sit there and pat and look around and take time to find guys. He knows where he wants to go with the ball and he gets it out of his hands.
"It's going to be challenge to get after him. But we have to make sure we're doing the right things and doing the right things with our rush plan. Some of it might just be batted balls. Sometimes, batted balls are as good as a sack. Get him into third-and-long. We're not going to fool him. We know that. So, we've got to try to generate the rush the best way we can. Sometimes, you take chances. Sometimes you don't."
The Steelers were without starting strong safety Terrell Edmunds and cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon in their 38-3 loss to the Buffalo Bills last week because of injury. And then cornerbacks Cameron Sutton and Levi Wallace also left the game with injuries, while safety Minkah Fitzpatrick gutted things out with a knee issue that's bothered him the past two weeks.
The results weren't pretty, as Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen threw for more than 300 yards and four touchdowns – in the first half.
But the defense also got very little pressure on Allen, who averaged over 20 yards per completion in the game, hitting him just once and failing to sack him.
The Steelers have produced just three sacks in the four games they've played without 2021 NFL Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt, with outside linebacker Alex Highsmith providing 2 ½ of those.
To Austin's point, if they're not going to get to Brady – he's been sacked just seven times on just over 200 pass attempts this season – they've got to affect his passes by getting their hands in the air.
"Not everybody is getting a lot of shots on him," Steelers defensive lineman Cam Heyward said. "You've got to understand that the offense calls for quick passing and when you get your chances when they're going downfield, you've got to hit home. In our league, quick passing, bubble screens, things to the outside, takes away from the pass rush. You've got to stop the run early.
"Those batted balls do play a part, because if you get those batted balls, then you get to second-and-10, third-and-10. We have to make sure we rush with our heads up and keep throwing darts."
Brady has been throwing darts in the NFL for a long time. So long, in fact, Austin could go all the way back to 1999 when he was an assistant coach at Michigan and Brady a senior quarterback to recall the first time they met.
Austin was an assistant at Syracuse the previous season when the Orange traveled to Ann Arbor, Mich., and beat Brady and the Wolverines, 38-28, behind Donovan McNabb.
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"We go there and we beat them pretty handily," Austin recalled. "The next year, I get a job at Michigan. I get there and go in the building, one of the first times I came across Tom, it might have been before spring practice. The first thing he came up and asked me, 'Hey, what did you see against us that made you play us that way?'
"That's kind of the thing I remember about him. He always wanted to know the whys and why people were doing things. That's probably why he is where he is. That never left him. He studies the game. He knows why people are trying to do things against him and what they can do to beat those things."
Brady has had a lot of success over the years against the Steelers, going 12-3 against them, including the postseason, in 15 career starts – all with the Patriots.
But the Steelers did beat him here in Pittsburgh in 2018, and also should have had a win against the Patriots at Acrisure Stadium in 2017 in the infamous Jesse James catch-non-catch game.
No matter what, Heyward knows it will take a big effort to beat Brady and the Buccaneers in what is likely their longtime nemesis' final game here.
"You need playmaking," Heyward said. "You need to win in the run game. It's a four-quarter battle. He's a great quarterback. They have a great team around him. It's always a team effort when you play him."