PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers will face Tom Brady for the 17th and most likely final time in his career, as the 45-year-old future Hall of Fame visits Acrisure Stadium with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
That’s the 17th time the Steelers franchise will face Brady, but of course the ageless quarterback precedes nearly every member of the Steelers organization, so very few of them have faced him all 16 times previously.
When Brady first faced Pittsburgh on Jan. 27, 2002 in the AFC Championship Game, Mike Tomlin was a defensive backs coach for Tampa Bay. Steelers president Art Rooney II didn’t gain his current position until 2003. Long-toothed defensive lineman Cam Heyward was in middle school. Steelers starting quarterback Kenny Pickett was three.
There are a few members of the organization that have been here longer than Brady has been playing. Assistant head coach John Mitchell has been with the Steelers since 1994, though he was just a defensive line coach when he first faced Brady. That 2001 season was Omar Khan’s first with the Steelers, as a football administration coordinator. He’s now the general manager.
But for the vast majority of the players that will take the field at Acrisure Stadium on Sunday, it will be their first time facing Brady. Wait, there’s another thing Brady has out-lasted. That 2001 season was the first played at Heinz Field, but it now has a new name.
It’s been a little while since Brady and the Black and Gold met on the gridiron, with the last game coming on Sept. 8, 2019 — a mostly forgotten New England thrashing of Pittsburgh once week before Ben Roethlisberger’s elbow injury.
It’s easier to list the Steelers that were around for that one than it is the ones that weren’t: Heyward, Mason Rudolph, Benny Snell, Diontae Johnson, Zach Gentry, Chuks Okorafor, J.C. Hassenauer, Tyson Alualu, Marcus Allen, Robert Spillane, Devin Bush, Terrell Edmunds, Cam Sutton and Chris Boswell.
For all the rest, this is their first — and probably only — shot at taking on a legend.
“It’s definitely cool going against one of the greatest to ever play the game,” said Steelers linebacker Alex Highsmith, who would love to get extremely closely acquainted with Brady on Sunday. But he knows that won’t be easy, with Brady’s trademarked quick release having spent a full two decades frustrating pass rushers.
“You gotta bring your ‘A’ game,” Highsmith said. “I’m confident we can do it. We had a great day in practice out there (Wednesday). It’s just about the way we execute and the way we communicate.”
Cornerback James Pierre said he jumped on the Patriots and Brady bandwagon during their undefeated 2007 season (Pierre was nine at the time), but he seems unfazed by the prospect of having one of his childhood favorites slinging the ball his way this Sunday.
“It’s football at the end of the day,” Pierre said. “You know what to do. You just play your game.”
If Pierre was on the Patriots bandwagon, Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett was firmly in the opposite camp. Pickett grew up in New Jersey as a Philadelphia Eagles fan, and his favorite player was Donovan McNabb.
Brady’s Patriots spoiled McNabb’s only Super Bowl appearance, beating the Eagles, 24-21 after the 2004 season. Pickett was six.
“I was a huge Eagles fan,” Pickett said. “I’ve got pictures way back, some good memories with family. … [Brady] has been in the league for so long, and he’s an absolute legend. Nothing but respect for him.”
This group of Steelers will have to hope that their best shot against Brady will be better than their predecessors’ was. Brady is 9-2 in his career against the Steelers in the regular season and 3-0 in the playoffs.