FOXBOROUGH — ESPN quarterbacks guru Ron Jaworski likes to say that the best signal-callers in the NFL can “manipulate” the defense before and during the play to move defenders out of position and maximize one-on-one matchups.
“In the NFL of 2013, quarterbacks must be able to control the game at the line of scrimmage,” Jaworski said this summer. “There are few better than Tom Brady.”
Brady had been inconsistent in the Patriots’ first eight games, throwing just nine touchdown passes against six interceptions. But Brady was a maestro in Sunday’s 55-31 win over Pittsburgh, using his eyes and his brain as much as his right arm to manipulate the chess pieces and gash the Steelers’ defense for 432 passing yards and four touchdowns, by far his best game of the season.
“He had it working today,” Steelers veteran safety Ryan Clark said. “He hit all the spots he was supposed to. If there was a weakness in the defense, Tom Brady found it.”
Brady finally had close to a full arsenal on Sunday, with Danny Amendola healthy and Rob Gronkowski back in the flow of things in his third game of the season. Whether it was coincidence, a good week of preparation, a shaky Steelers defense, or a combination of the three, Brady was more comfortable and decisive in the pocket than he has been all season. The Patriots’ 610 total yards were third most in team history, the 55 points were the most scored by an NFL team this season, and Brady’s 151.8 passer rating was the fourth highest of his career.
“When Tom’s on fire, it doesn’t really matter who’s out there,” Steelers safety Troy Polamalu said. “He did everything great quarterbacks do.”
Brady was the grand conductor, toying with the Steelers’ secondary and making veterans such as Clark, Polamalu, and Ike Taylor look silly.
For example, the first score of the game, a 34-yard pass to Danny Amendola in the first quarter. Brady took the snap, looked right, looked right, pump faked, then quickly turned left and fired a dart to a wide-open Amendola for the score. Polamalu, a seven-time Pro Bowl selection, read Brady’s eyes and was way out of position once Brady made the throw.
Brady hasn’t been the best at looking off receivers this year — he stared down Gronkowski two weeks ago against the Jets, and it cost him with a pick-six — but he’s been masterful at developing the skill over 14 NFL seasons. Devin McCourty, who switched from cornerback to safety last year, said he’s been embarrassed by Brady in practice more times than he can count.
“He’s made me a lot better in the middle of the field in going against him every day and understanding how you have to try to avoid getting embarrassed by getting looked off,” McCourty said. “There have been some games this year where I have to take the ‘Brady approach,’ like when we played Drew Brees. You’ve just got to play really honest.”
Patriots radio analyst Scott Zolak commented that Brady was “absolutely abusing” Polamalu by looking him off before his throws.
“He felt the game really well today,” Clark said of Brady. “Good quarterbacks know where everybody’s going to be on the field, and when you know that, you don’t have to watch a guy for five seconds to know that he’s going to be open.”
For example, Brady’s third touchdown pass, a 17-yarder to rookie Aaron Dobson. Brady noticed Dobson, a 6-foot-3-inch receiver, lined up one-on-one against 5-10 cornerback William Gay, with no safety help. Brady took two steps and fired a perfect back-shoulder pass for a touchdown, putting the Patriots ahead, 34-24, in the fourth quarter.
“He put the ball exactly where it needed to be, and he knew exactly who to throw it to,” Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel said. “He beat us all over the place today, and it is as simple as that.”
For example, his final touchdown pass, an 81-yard bomb to Dobson. Only 5:15 remained in the game, the Patriots led, 41-31, and the Steelers were expecting the Patriots to run the ball to grind out the clock.
Brady noticed Clark cheating up toward the line of scrimmage. Dobson noticed it, too, and the duo instinctively changed the play at the line of scrimmage. Dobson pulled a quick head fake, burned right past Clark and Taylor, and was wide open when he hauled in the big pass.
“Trying to stop the run when you’re supposed to be a pass defender,” Clark said. “And when you do that against a guy like Tom Brady, he’s going to find the open man.”
The Patriots had never had three 100-yard receivers in the same game until Gronkowski (143), Dobson (130), and Amendola (122) pulled off the feat Sunday. Brady only needed 23 completions to reach 432 yards, an average of 18.8 yards per completion after averaging just 10.7 over the first eight games. Amendola was so wide open on a 57-yard catch in the second quarter that there literally wasn’t a defender within 25 yards of him.
“Well, Tom is a good quarterback,” Bill Belichick said in his usual deadpan. “He’s made a lot of good plays. He had a lot of them today.”
And when the clock finally struck all zeros, Brady had thoroughly embarrassed the Steelers and orchestrated one of the most impressive performances of his stellar career.
“He’s the most accomplished quarterback of our era,” Clark said. “We just say, ‘It’s Tom Brady.’ He did nothing we haven’t seen him do, ever. He stood tall, stared down rushers, stared down blitzers, got the ball to the open man repeatedly, that’s what you expect from him.”
“He was special today. He was that guy that’s going to get that [Hall of Fame] jacket five years after he retires.”