Nov 3, 2013; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) makes a call at the line of scrimmage during the second quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
PITTSBURGH – Bud Dupree’s NFL debut was a baptism by fireworks and, as they usually end for the Steelers in Foxborough, ultimate frustration.
On a rainy Thursday night last September, the Steelers’ 2015 first-round pick best remembers the din of the 66,829 that packed Gillette Stadium as the New England Patriots celebrated their fourth Super Bowl championship during an elaborate pregame ceremony.
“Loud, man. It was loud,” Dupree said. “It was my first NFL game, period. So I was in shock just being there.”
The Steelers’ 2015 first-round pick was elated, obviously, after recording a sack of Tom Brady on his first pro snap … but then things pretty much went downhill.
Punter Jordan Berry’s sensory reflexes recall something a little different. It was a foul, but universal, odor emanating from the bathrooms in the visitor’s locker room at Gillette.
“I just remember that they used swamp water from outside the stadium in the toilet for the sewage stuff,” said Berry, who also making his NFL debut. “It just reeked in the locker room.”
It was not the only thing that stunk about that game – and others -- for the Steelers in the Boston suburb.
Besides a 29-21 loss, which wasn’t even that close, Mike Tomlin claimed his headset mysteriously gave out for the majority of the first half. Instead of hearing his coaches from the press box, he was reduced to listening to the Patriots’ radio broadcast. “That’s always the case (in Gillette),” Tomlin fumed later.
And that wasn’t even the most bizarre incident that night.
Though he was later cleared of any wrongdoing, James Daniel, the Steelers’ 63-year-old tight ends coach, was investigated by police for allegedly kicking an overzealous Patriots fan as he tried to make his way into a press box elevator.
All in all, it was just another game at Gillette.
“You are going up to the lion’s den, the dragon’s lair,” quarterback Ben Roetlisberger said. “They are the dragon.”
With that backdrop, the Steelers return to Gillette on Sunday night with a trip to Super Bowl 51 at stake. It’s a venue where Roethlisberger has won just once, and it was eight years ago in a game in which Brady didn’t even play. Since its opening in 2000, the Steelers are 1-4 while being outscored by an average of 31.4-22.4 at Gillette.
It will be New England’s first time hosting an AFC championship game since Jan. 18, 2015, against the Indianapolis Colts. Of course, that game is better known for Deflategate, a scandal in which the Patriots were accused of tampering game balls by leaking air pressure from them. That controversy cost Brady a four-game suspension to start this season.
It will be the first time the Steelers have faced New England in the postseason since the 2004 AFC Championship at Heinz Field. Before Antonio Brown’s ill-conceived Facebook Live video, Spygate had been the most infamous case of a Steelers locker room’s sanctity being compromised. Those who played in those days, such as linebacker James Harrison, maintain that the Patriots were tipped off to their play sheets, an allegation not completely unfounded. In 2008, Spygate cost the Patriots a quarter million dollars and a first-round pick.
“They came here and hit us on 90-92 percent of our blitzes,” Harrison said last September. “They only missed one or two, that’s impossible. That’s like going to Vegas and rolling the dice 20-30 times and you only lose twice. Come on.”
That might help explain why, in Brown’s candid locker room video, that Tomlin referred to the Patriots and their coach, Bill Belichick, in a, let’s say, less-than-flattering term. The Steelers would be far from alone in their disdain for the Patriots. Outside of the six New England states, the Patriots have replaced the New York Yankees as sports’ Evil Empire. But like any good put-down, there is an element of truth -- and of admiration.
If it weren’t for New England, its four Lombardi Trophies and 11 AFC title game appearances, including six straight, perhaps the Steelers would be considered the dominant franchise of the new century. It should be worth noting that in each of Pittsburgh’s last three Super Bowl runs, it hasn’t had to go through the Patriots in any.
“Professional respect, competitive animosity,” said Tomlin, on the record, of his thoughts on this week’s opponent. “They haven’t had to go through us, either, since I’ve been here. So, stay tuned.”
Embroiled in their own controversies between Brown’s video and Joey Porter’s arrest, the Steelers have steered clear this week of any talk of potential trickery from the Patriots.
When asked if he had concerns about the sideline communications on Sunday, Tomlin said: “No, I’m not anticipating that at all.”
When asked if there would be adequate security for his staff, Tomlin said: “I’m going to proceed with the assumption that’s the case.”
But it’s also worth noting that here has been increased security at the Steelers practice facility this week. Are the Patriots or the mystique of Brady and Belichick in the Steelers’ heads?
“If you’re mentally weak enough to buy into it and feel like that’s a deciding factor, then you shouldn’t be playing the sport,” said veteran guard Ramon Foster. “Definitely shouldn’t be playing for our team.”
Whether it’s malfunctioning headsets, a smelly locker room or toying with the eligible receiver rules (they did that to the Baltimore Ravens the week before Deflategate), the Steelers insist they’re not expecting the unexpected Sunday in New England. They haven’t deviated their preparation or their game plan. And if something does happen again Sunday in Foxborough, the Steelers have contingency plans in place.
“That’s why we have hand signals, we have wristbands and we’re ready to move on with whatever we need to do,” said Roethlisberger.