FOXBORO – Someone on the TV wondered this week if the Patriots would be taking the Steelers lightly giving Pittsburgh’s 2-5 record and the fact New England has a bye next week. The Patriots – despite their record – are not in position to take anyone lightly. The Patriots have had good results. They’ve had gritty performances. They are a tough-minded team. But they have played three “good” games so far – Tampa Bay, Atlanta and maybe New Orleans. But it’s coming along and this week gives the best chance in the last month for New England to look good.
Everything is temporary. The good – which Sunday was – and the bad (the past few weeks). But the Patriots played with some offensive decisiveness and – with Tom Brady afforded time and finding receivers with a little separation – he carved up the Steelers in historic fashion.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
The once-feared Steelers pass rush has been punchless this season. That’s sweet music to the Patriots as they’ve gone against a fleet of solid pass rush groups and had their issues. The strength of the Steelers defense is now in the secondary with Ike Taylor, Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark prowling. Tom Brady knows what it takes to undress the Pittsburgh defense – he’s done it enough in the past – but getting his running mates to be in concert with him is vital. Stevan Ridley, whose ball-carrying talent has been inexplicably on ice the past two weeks, will have room to run against Pittsburgh which is allowing 4.0 yards per carry. The best Steelers defender currently is Lawrence Timmons. The linebacker will be in matchups with Marcus Cannon on Sunday. With the slot position having been quiet the past two weeks, don’t be surprised if it re-emerges on Sunday.
That “strength in the secondary” thing? Not so much anymore. Tom Brady toyed with Polamalu like he was fake-throwing a tennis ball to his overeager golden retriever. Gronkowski got the early numbers but the most impressive performance was turned in by Dobson who had five catches for 130 yards and two touchdowns and made his plays on a variety of routes. His development is encouraging. So too is the continued revival of Danny Amendola who had four catches for 122 yards and a touchdown. He still isn’t all the way back but he’s a weapon even at less than 100 percent. The Patriots’ running game was at its most effective, averaging 5.6 yards per carry on a passive Steelers front-seven.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Pittsburgh is just awful offensively right now. Punt, punt, punt, field goal, punt, punt, missed field goal, missed field goal, punt, interception, touchdown, punt, interception, touchdown. They are every bit as ugly as the Patriots with only fleeting attempts being made at running the ball and Ben Roethlisberger taking sacks at the same clip he often does – frequent (26 through seven games). Le’Veon Bell carried 13 times for 24 yards last week. That’s not enough touches and one would expect Pittsburgh to be a bit more stubborn with the run this week against a Patriots defense that’s been permissive recently but is reshaping itself. Antonio Brown is the focal point of the Steelers passing game – 56 catches for 630 yards in just seven games – those are outstanding numbers. But the player who’s killed New England in the past has been tight end Heath Miller. The Patriots linebackers – Brandon Spikes and Donta Hightower in particular – need to play better this week. Jerod Mayo’s gone and he ain’t coming back this year. Time to raise the game.
And this week’s Steelers start? Fumble, punt, interception, turned over on downs. They’ll certainly feel better about their 31-point output and the fact that they were able to get some receivers open downfield on the Patriots secondary but the five sacks taken and the two picks were mostly on Roethlisberger (if not, entirely). The Patriots secondary had issues dealing with the speed of Antonio Brown (five catches, 71 yards) and Emmanuel Sanders (six catches, 98 yards). Tough days for Kyle Arrington, Alfonzo Dennard and Logan Ryan on separate plays but the Patriots pass rush was outstanding. Dane Fletcher, Chris Jones and Isaac Sopoaga, at first blush, made impacts in pass coverage and in the running game. The Steelers ran it at a good clip – 108 on 20 carries – but 55 of those came on two carries. They weren’t able to get much by just lining it up and running on first and second down at the Patriots. Good games for the entire defense in terms of swarming the ball.
THE KICKING GAME
The Steelers released former Pats punter Zoltan Mesko this week. Veteran Mat McBriar takes over there. Kicker Shaun Suisham is having a solid season but missed a pair of kicks last week. The Steelers coverage team is outstanding on kickoffs. Antonio Brown is an explosive punt returner because of his speed so expect the Patriots and rookie Ryan Allen to be careful with him. Steve Gostkowski keeps making big kicks every week.
Gostkowski remains locked in with field goals of 20 and 32 yards. Julian Edelman had a big 43-yard return when the Patriots really needed it late in the third. His return set up the TD that made it 34-24. The Patriots coverage teams were challenged by returns on punts (Antonio Brown had a 24-yarder) and kickoffs (Felix Jones had a 40-yarder). LeGarrette Blount averaged 24 yards on his three kickoff returns.
PATRIOTS SICK BAY
OUT: Tommy Kelly. QUESTIONABLE: Kyle Arrington, Aqib Talib, Leon Washington. PROBABLE: Danny Amendola, Brandon Bolden, Marcus cannon, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, Tom Brady, Matthew Slater.
Talib and Washington didn’t play. Kenbrell Thompkins was a healthy scratch. The Patriots took some licks again with the most significant appearing to be Steve Gregory’s thumb. He left with a bulky cast. Austin Collie left with a knee injury and didn’t return. Rob Ninkovich had a left foot issue and didn’t return as well but was seen walking without a boot after the game.
STEELERS SICK BAY
OUT: Curtis Brown, CB; David DeCastro, G; Markus Wheaton, WR. PROBABLE: Ramon Foster, G; Steve McLendon, DT; Heath Miller, TE; Ben Roethlisberger, QB; Lawrence Timmons, LB; Guy Whimper, OL
GAME WITHIN THE GAME
The Steelers just don’t run the ball much. With 147 attempts in seven games, they have yet to give a back 20 carries in a game. The last two weeks, the Patriots saw the Jets and Dolphins attack the Patriots undermanned front-seven. Does Pittsburgh game plan differently for this one? How do the Patriots align defensively with Isaac Sopoaga plunked down in the middle of their defensive line? Last week, they eventually slid Chandler Jones to OLB to free him up while putting Andre Carter at the right defensive end in the 3-4.
Pittsburgh got in a position where they were in chase mode right out of the chutes. Down 14-0, 17-3, 24-10, they were only getting chunk yardage by running out of passing sets and taking advantage of the Patriots sub-defense. They ran 20 times for 108 yards. New England got some bump from Sopoaga and Andre Carter showed up both in the running game and particularly in the passing game. The Patriots mixed plenty of personnel and alignments. They may not be able to just line up and beat people anymore given their defensive losses so the mixes will come fast and furious now.
PATRIOTS GOTTA STOP …
LaMarr Woodley. He’s a really good linebacker and has five of the Steelers 10 sacks. Coming off the left side of the defense, he’ll be going against Marcus Cannon frequently. That’s a matchup to watch.
Lamar Woodley had eight tackles and didn't ruin anything per se. Marcus Cannon had a quietly capable game on the right side of the offensive line in place of Sebastian Vollmer.
STEELERS GOTTA STOP …
Tom Brady. Pittsburgh hasn’t gotten enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks – just 10 sacks all season – and the third game back from Gronkowski and Brady’s due for a day in which he gets his timing and decisiveness back.
It seems Tom Brady’s hand is OK. Amazing what an allegedly aging quarterback can do with a little time, some separation and some pieces he has confidence in.
DON'T BE SURPRISED IF …
The Patriots come alive this week. Pittsburgh’s on the back end of back-to-back road games, their fourth road game in five weeks. And one of those games was in London (a bye week followed). The Patriots have played consecutive poor games offensively and the offense is due to click. It defies logic to believe it can’t stay this ineffective.
Kinda had a feeling Pittsburgh would come out flat. They aren’t that great and the Patriots were bound to get some kind of bounce-back from their weeks of inconsistency.
THAT SUMS IT UP PATRIOTS STYLE
“You see guys hanging all over him, hanging on his legs, hanging on his waist and he stiff arms them and still throws the ball 40, 50 yards downfield. He can throw without his legs. You can be draped on his legs and he doesn’t need to step and throw. He has the arm strength to let it go more than half the length of the field. There have been a bunch of times where guys have gotten a clean shot on him and it’s almost like he looks out there and knows that they can’t bring him down or at least bring him down right away and he just stiff arms them or shrugs them off and stands out there and throws.” – Bill Belichick on Ben Roethlisberger
Roethlisberger’s numbers will excite his fantasy owners – 400 yards passing and four touchdowns – but the two nonsense interceptions and five sacks were the kinds of plays that gets a team beat.
THAT SUMS IT UP STEELERS STYLE
“He is a special player. He does a lot of things for them. The vertical stuff down the field obviously, the red zone talents are what they are. He is a big component of the passing game. He has been back for a couple of weeks and I think he has been targeted 23 times. So, obviously we need to allocate some work to try and minimize his role in the game.” – Mike Tomlin on dealing with Rob Gronkowski.
Easier said than done. Gronkowski caught nine of the 10 balls he saw and put up 143 yards receiving and a touchdown. The mismatch is back.
THE WINNER IS...
Patriots 27, Steelers 16
Patriots 55, Steelers 31