Cameron Heyward

Steelers star has the least surprising take on Tom Brady's free agency

Steelers star has the least surprising take on Tom Brady's free agency

Ask anyone associated with the New England Patriots, and they'll tell you Tom Brady should stay put.

Ask any Patriots opponent, and they'll tell you Brady should leave -- and never come back.

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward joined 98.5 The Sports Hub's "Zolak & Bertrand" from Radio Row in Miami on Wednesday and was asked where he thinks Brady may sign in free agency this offseason.

His answer shouldn't surprise you.

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"I hope not with New England anymore," Heyward said. " ... Let the NFC deal with him for a while. That'd be nice. He's terrorized the AFC enough."

Heyward would know. Brady's Patriots trounced his Steelers 33-3 in Week 1 of the 2019 season and have beaten Pittsburgh in six of their last seven meetings, including playoffs.

New England also has reached the Super Bowl in four of the previous six seasons and made the AFC Championship Game in eight of the last nine seasons, annually crushing the postseason dreams of AFC rivals like the Steelers, who won 10 or more games in four straight seasons from 2014 to 2017 but never reached the Super Bowl in that span.

So, you can see why Heyward (and Kansas City Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu) would appreciate Brady getting out of his hair.

Unfortunately for the AFC, that doesn't look likely: The Patriots are the odds-on favorite to re-sign the 42-year-old QB in free agency, followed by three AFC teams: the Los Angeles Chargers, Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans.

But Heyward still appreciates Brady's greatness, even if the 20-year veteran doesn't grant his wish.

"I think he understands the game at a different level," Heyward said of Brady. He knows when to hit you with pace. He knows when to make you feel uncomfortable, and he's gonna exploit you."

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Diamond in the Steel City: How Pittsburgh will try to pressure Brady

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USA Today Photo

Diamond in the Steel City: How Pittsburgh will try to pressure Brady

FOXBORO -- The Steelers have done what they've done for a long time now. They're Blitzburgh. They're the team that helped popularize zone pressure schemes under Dick LeBeau.

The Patriots know that, and they know they'll have to be ready for different defenders rushing Tom Brady from different angles.

"The first thing is you gotta start with your communication," Patriots center David Andrews said. "That's the biggest thing. When we do that, we're pretty good. When we don't, we have breakdowns. That's the biggest thing. Then you gotta know your rules. And you actually have to block the guys, which is the biggest challenge.

"But with teams like this, it's great communication. Especially on the road. It's always a challenge. They're a great team. They always have a great game plan, and it'll be a great challenge."

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The Steelers lead the league in sacks (45), and they're fourth in pressure percentage this year. While they still bring blitzers from all levels -- dropping linemen out into coverage while mixing up who's rushing and who's not -- it's been interesting to note how exactly the Steelers have generated pressure lately.

    In their last four games, they've recorded a whopping 14 sacks. On eight of those, they've turned to a variation of Houston's "diamond" package that we've discussed in this space before.

    A DIAMOND REFRESHER 
    The Texans diamond front gave Brady and the Patriots fits in the Divisional Round in 2016. They ran a typical third-down four-man defensive line, with two wide defensive ends and two three-techniques on the interior. But then they placed a fifth defender right over the center. It was often athletic pass-rusher Whitney Mercilus.

    The result was one-on-one matchups across the board for the Patriots offensive line. Each blocker in a five-man protection setup had one pass-rusher to account for. Not easy. Especially against a group as talented as Houston's.

    The Texans could rush all five or drop one (or two), occupying a blocker (or blockers) briefly while the remaining pass-rushers worked their mano a mano matchups elsewhere. 

    HOW THE STEELERS USE IT

    On four of the six sacks the Steelers racked up against the Jaguars, Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Keith Butler used his own version of the diamond front to get to Blake Bortles.

    Instead of placing an athletic rusher in a two-point stance over the center, Pittsburgh typically likes to use its big bodies -- Cam Heyward, Javon Hargrave or Stephon Tuitt -- on the nose. Then one of the two three-techniques would be a linebacker, often Vince Williams or L.J. Fort (No. 54).

    The idea is similar. Get one-on-ones for five of your rushers and trust that they can beat the blockers lined up in front of them. 

    How those rushers go about beating their blockers can happen in any number of ways. 

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    On the play pictured above, Hargrave and Heyward ran a little exchange and both ended up in the backfield for the sack. The three-techniques can also run stunts with the ends to cause confusion up front. 

    Or they can choose to play it straight. All three of Pittsburgh's interior linemen are strong enough and quick enough to win straight up on centers and guards. T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree are very good athletes who can bend around the edge with speed.  

    The Steelers will also occasionally blitz from the second level out of diamond, dropping a lineman into coverage to give their five-man rush a little different look.

    OTHER METHODS 

    It's not all about the diamond front with the Steelers, even if that's something they've relied upon heavily in recent weeks.

    Last week against the Raiders, they got a sack from slot corner Mike Hilton on second-and-long when Hilton blitzed off the edge -- almost hiding behind a defensive end until he burst into the backfield. 

    The Steelers sacked Derek Carr later in the same game by running a stunt with their end and tackle out of a four-man front on third-and-long. 

      They'll also blitz two linebackers to bring six on any given snap. Even if those two don't get into the backfield, it may help free things up for Hargrave, Watt, Heyward, Tuitt or Dupree. Against the Chargers two weeks ago, the Steelers rushed six and Hargrave worked through the trash at the line of scrimmage to sack Philip Rivers. 

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      Pittsburgh safety Terrell Edmunds got Rivers earlier in the same game when he was in coverage on the Chargers running back. When the back stayed in to protect, that gave Edmunds the green light for the "green dog" blitz. 

      It's a lot to process for an offensive line. It's been that way for a long time against the Steelers. It was certainly that way for the Patriots in their December game in Pittsburgh last year.

      The Steelers sacked Brady twice that day, hit him four more times and pressured him on 15 snaps in total. Brady finished the game with 298 yards passing, one touchdown and a third-quarter interception. His rating under pressure was 48.9. 

      This time around, the Steelers pass-rush -- with the help of their dangerous five-man front -- is arguably the best in the league. 

      "It's going to be a big challenge," Andrews said. "Lead the league in sacks. They do a lot of things to disrupt offenses with their stunts and blitzes so we're going to have to do a good job of that. First thing is study and be prepared for it. Then we gotta go out there and execute."

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