Steelers defense not yet over the hill

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Steelers defense not yet over the hill

FOXBORO Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor is 31 years old. At linebacker, you have James Harrison who is 33 and counting. Then there's linebacker James Farrior, who will be 37 years old if the Steelers managed to get to the Super Bowl this season.

This Pittsburgh defense may be low on young bodies, but it's loaded with experience.

That lack of youth was thought to be why the Steelers got off to a pedestrian 2-2 start.

Three weeks -- and three consecutive wins -- later, the Steelers look like a different team than the one on the field during the first month of the season.

All that talk about this once-dominant defense being past their prime? It's a thing of the past now.

"We don't pay attention to the elevator music; we really don't," said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, in a not-so-veiled reference to the up-and-down perception of his team in the media. "That's stuff that they say. We stay focused on what it is, we're doing. And that's how we prepare, and hopefully that's how we play. We understand that we're going to be judged in forms and fashions based on our performance. But just that, it's based on our performance. We stay focused on our performance."

And lately, that form has been impressive with each of their last three wins coming by an average of 12.3 points per game.

In addition, Pittsburgh (5-2) comes into Sunday's game against New England with the NFL's No. 3 defense.

Although Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has a 6-1 record against Pittsburgh (4-1 in the regular season, 2-0 in the playoffs), he recognizes as much as anyone how good this team is defensively.

"They're very physical, they cover well, and they have continuity in their defense," Brady said. "They get after the quarterback, they really do. That's the hallmark of this defense - they rush the passer, they stop the run, they're a big physical defense that plays very hard and is very well coached. They don't make very many mental errors at all."

Of course, it also helps to have a versatile playmaker like strong safety Troy Polamalu who is third on the team in tackles (43) this season.

"He's very dangerous," said Pats coach Bill Belichick. "He's an impact player, very disruptive player. Defensively he fouls up a lot of things - blitzing, pass coverage, tackling, he's a hard hitter, knocks balls loose but he's around the ball a lot. He can get there in a hurry and when he gets there he can do a lot of damage. You have to be aware of him on every snap."

He's not alone, of course. Pittsburgh is giving up just 279 yards per game, and an NFL-low 171.9 through the air. Not bad for a bunch of old men, huh?

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger chuckles at the thought of his defense being over the hill.

"Just stay the course," he said. "We're too old -- quote, unquote old -- to really let that bother us or get to us. Most of us have been around and kind of understand what goes with the territory of this league and a team and we just kind of . . . stay the course."

Flashback: Belichick breaks down lasting impact of Buddy Ryan's '46' defense

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Flashback: Belichick breaks down lasting impact of Buddy Ryan's '46' defense

When news broke on Tuesday of Buddy Ryan's passing, it wasn't very long before the NFL community at large paid tribute to one of the most well-respected defensive minds in the history of the league. 

Ryan, a longtime coordinator and head coach, leaves a legacy that includes two sons -- Rex and Rob -- who have carved out length careers spent on NFL sidelines. His legacy also includes a defensive scheme that confounded offenses, particularly in 1985, when the Bears '46' defense dominated all comers. With eight men in the box and just three defensive backs, Ryan's defense could be as confusing for quarterbacks as it was intimidating.

On the day of Ryan's passing, we can add to the list of Ryan rememberances a long quote from a Bill Belichick press conference back in 2012. The Patriots were getting ready to play Rex Ryan's Jets, but as the topic of conversation shifted away from the game itself and toward football philosophies, Belichick explained how Ryan's '46' defense changed the game, and where it can still be seen today. 

(To see the video of the press conference, you can head here. It's a bit slow for the first six or seven minutes, but when Belichick is asked about the idea behind being a "game-plan offense" and which coaches inspired him to take that mindset into his own career, things start rolling. Belichick rattles off the names of those who influenced him, including Annapolis High coach Al Laramore, Phillips Andover's Steve Sorota, Navy coach Wayne Hardin, Baltimore Colts coach Ted Marchibroda and several others. He calls the list of coaches who educated him -- including his father, of course -- a "menagerie." If you're into those types of Belichick responses about football philosophy and his own personal football upbringing, it's a video that's worth your time.)

Here is Belichick's response to a question from Sports Illustrated's Greg Bedard, then of the Boston Globe, concerning Ryan and his '46' scheme. A tip of the hat to Chris B. Brown of Smart Football for pointing out the quote on Twitter early Tuesday. 

Q: You mentioned Buddy Ryan earlier. How come we don’t see more 46 defense? I’m not talking about for a full season – not everybody is the ’85 Bears, but in a one-game situation. Is it because of the quarterbacks and the shotgun?

BB: "A lot of the success that Buddy had with the 46 defense came in the ‘80s when there was a lot of two-back offense. It was one of the things that probably drove the two-back offense out. If you remember back in the ‘80s when Buddy was in Philadelphia, he had a lot of trouble with the Redskins and their one-back offense, a lot of trouble. There were a lot of mismatches of Art Monk and Gary Clark on the middle linebacker and stuff like that.

"I think the 46 was really originally built for two-back offenses, whether it be the red, brown, blue and the flat-back type offenses and eventually even the I-formation. I think it still has a lot of good application; a lot of teams use it in goal-line situations. They either use a version of it like a 5-3 or cover the guards and the center and however you want to quite fit the rest of it, but that principle you see a lot in goal-line, short yardage situations. You see it and some teams have it as part of their two-back defensive package.

"As it has gone to one-back and it’s gotten more spread out, if you’re playing that, it kind of forces you defensively to be in a one-linebacker set. You lose that second linebacker and depending on where the back lines up and what coverage you’re playing, then there’s some issues with that. If you’re in a one linebacker defense and you move the back over and the linebacker moves over then you’re kind of out-leveraged to the back side. If you don’t move him over, then you’re kind of out-leveraged when the back releases and that kind of thing.

"There are some issues there that, I’m not saying you can’t do it, but you have to work them out. In a two-back set, I’d say it was probably a lot cleaner and it always gave you an extra blitzer that was hard for the offense. Even if they seven-man protected on play-action, there was always an eighth guy there somewhere. You didn’t have to bring all eight; if you just brought the right one and they didn’t have him or somebody would have to have two guys and that creates some problems.

"I think that’s what Buddy, really, where the genius of that was. He had by formation a different combination and group of blitzes so depending on what formation you were in, then he ran a blitz that would attack that formation and then when you changed formations, then he would change blitzes. Now, plus the fact [he] had Dan Hampton, Richard Dent, Mike Singletary, [Otis] Wilson, [Wilbur] Marshall, that was a pretty good group there. You could have probably played a lot of things and that defense would have looked pretty good, especially when they put Hampton on the nose. That was pretty unblockable."

Amendola forced Brady to break a ping pong paddle in first week with Patriots

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Amendola forced Brady to break a ping pong paddle in first week with Patriots

Tom Brady has never been one to hide his emotions when he's on the field, and it sounds like he's not much different at the ping pong table.

When asked about Brady during an interview on ESPN's NFL Insiders show, Patriots receiver Danny Amendola recalled one story from his first few days at Gillette Stadium back in 2013.

"He's the best teammate," Amendola said. "He's so competitive . . . I remember one story, it was my first week in the building and he wanted to play some ping pong. I didn't know how to go about it. I knew I was better than him, [but] I didn't want to beat him too bad because I wanted him to throw me the ball.

"I knew I was better. Needless to say, his competitive nature unleashed a broken paddle by the end of it. It's the reason we love him, and the reason why he's the best quarterback."

That first encounter at the ping pong table didn't seem to hinder Amendola's relationship with Brady in the least. In their first game together, Amendola fought a groin injury and still ended up with 10 catches for 104 yards in a win over the Bills. Since then, when healthy -- and particularly since New England's most recent run to a Super Bowl title -- Amendola has established himself as one of Brady's most trusted targets.

Amendola and the rest of the Patriots are facing a start to the regular season without their No. 1 quarterback as Brady awaits a decision from the Second Circuit on whether or not it will rehear his case against the NFL. Should backup Jimmy Garoppolo take the reins in Brady's place, however, Amendola said he'll be confident. 

"He's a great player," Amendola explained. "He's been in the system a couple of years now and he's learned a lot. He's picked up everything that Tom has taught him and then also what coach [Bill] Belichick has to offer him. So we're all excited to see where he goes and see what the future holds for him."

Amendola says he feels 'really good' following offseason surgeries

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Amendola says he feels 'really good' following offseason surgeries

Danny Amendola did not participate in OTA or minicamp practices that were open to reporters, but that doesn't mean he's ailing. 

"I feel really good," Amendola said while paying ESPN's NFL Insiders show a visit. "I had a couple minor procedures done after the season. Everybody knows how long the season can be. I wanted to go into next season feeling as fresh and ready as I can."

Amendola joined a relatively long list of Patriots regulars -- including LeGarrette Blount, Julian Edelman, Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon -- who were not spotted during spring workouts. There exists, however, some optimism that he'll be ready to participate in training camp.

Though Amendola has battled nagging injuries in three seasons with the Patriots, he's often played through them rather than miss time. The 30-year-old wideout has played in all but six regular-season games since 2013.

Amendola is coming off of his best year in a Patriots uniform, finishing 2015 with 65 catches for 648 yards and three scores. He now helps make up a receiving corps that will include Edelman, newly-acquired wideouts Chris Hogan and Nate Washington, Aaron Dobson, DeAndre Carter, Chris Harper and rookies Malcolm Mitchell and Devin Lucien.