First impressions: Patriots smother Steelers offense, punch Super Bowl ticket

First impressions: Patriots smother Steelers offense, punch Super Bowl ticket

FOXBORO -- Here are a few quick-hitting impressions from Sunday's AFC title game, which resulted in the Patriots making their seventh Super Bowl under head coach Bill Belichick . . . 

PATRIOTS 36, STEELERS 17

​* The Patriots defense has heard "yeah, but" all season. They finished the season as the top scoring defense in the league, but because they've faced a spate of mediocre (or worse) quarterbacks since a Week 10 loss to the Seahawks, there have been some reservations about crowning them as a championship-caliber. Those reservations evaporated as Ben Roethlisberger was held to 239 yards on 24-of-38 passing (6.3 yards per attempt), no touchdowns and one interception before Roethlisberger picked up some easy yards late in the fourth quarter with the Patriots defense hanging back. Roethlisberger did hit Cobi Hamilton for a 30-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter, adding a two-point conversion to make the score, 36-17.

* Matt Patricia's unit can hang its hat on one particularly impressive goal-line stand at the end of the second quarter, when the Steelers had a first-and-goal from the one-yard line. On that goal-line stand, the Patriots stuffed a DeAngelo Williams run with good penetration from Dont'a Hightower and Patrick Chung. On a second-down rush attempt, rookie defensive tackle Vincent Valentine powered through the line almost untouched and made a tackle for a three-yard loss. Roethlisberger took to the air on third down, missing Eli Rogers (with Eric Rowe in good position) to force a field goal. 

* The Patriots plan of attack seemed to be to rely on zone coverage for good chunks of the night, forcing Roethlisberger to string together a series of well-executed plays to drive the field. When the Steelers got deeper into Patriots territory, when the defense benefited from a more tightly-packed field -- situations where the Steelers offense has struggled this season, particularly on the road -- the Patriots were able to clamp down. Not only did they pick up their goal-line stop in the second quarter, they also forced a turnover on downs deep in their own territory in the fourth quarter when Logan Ryan broke up Roethlisberger's floater to the back corner of the end zone. 

* The Patriots wisely doubled Antonio Brown at different points, but particularly in the red zone. The goal seemed to be to very obviously take away the first-team All-Pro -- as they did in Week 7 when Landry Jones was at quarterback -- and force Roethlisberger to go elsewhere. Roethlisberger had some luck going to tight end Jesse James (five catches 48 yards) deep in Patriots territory, but not enough for the Patriots to change their plan. 

* Le'Veon Bell's groin injury in the first quarter took away what was arguably Pittsburgh's best weapon coming in. He was shaken up on the Steelers' third drive of the game, returned to take one hand-off, but looked slow to the line of scrimmage (which, granted, is kind of his running style even when he's healthy) and did not return. He finished with six carries for 20 yards (a 3.3 yards-per-carry average). Williams was Pittsburgh's leading rusher, taking 14 hand-offs for 34 yards (a 2.4 yards-per-carry average). Patriots defensive tackle Alan Branch had yet another strong outing, chipping in on at least three run-stuffs. Trey Flowers and Malcom Brown were in on at least two of their own as well.

* A pair of first-year Patriots played big roles in the defensive performance put together against Roethlisberger and Co. Linebacker Kyle Van Noy, acquired mid-season in a trade with the Lions, forced a fumble in the third quarter that was recovered by Rob Ninkovich. In the fourth, Eric Rowe easily picked off a Roethlisberger overthrow to stop another Steelers drive before it could start.

Report: Brady expected to play Saturday night vs. Texans, but not Gronk

patriots-tom-brady-050917x.jpg

Report: Brady expected to play Saturday night vs. Texans, but not Gronk

Tom Brady and other Patriots starters are expected to make their preseason debuts Saturday in the second preseason game vs. the Texans in Houston, but Rob Gronkowski won't play, Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald reports.

Gronkowski, recovering from back surgery performed late last season, hasn't played in a preseason game since 2012. 

MORE PATRIOTS

Brady and new acquisitions Brandin Cooks at wide receiver and Mike Gillislee at running back, along with wide receiver Julian Edelman and other starters, did not play in the Patriots' preseason opener against the Jaguars last week in Foxboro. The Patriots and Texans have been conducting joint practices at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia and Howe reports the plan all week has been to have the starters participate in the game Saturday night.

Of course, Bill Belichick reserves the right to change those plans. 

The Pats will return to the site of their last victory, NRG Stadium in Houston, where New England won Super Bowl 51 over the Falcons in February, to play the Texans. 

Freeney among available options if Patriots looking for pass-rush help

eefreeney0731_1920x1080_1014169155611.jpg

Freeney among available options if Patriots looking for pass-rush help

For years, the Patriots have schemed to keep Dwight Freeney away from Tom Brady. Might they be interested in making him Brady's teammate?

With the news coming down on Friday that rookie third-round pick Derek Rivers may have suffered a season-ending knee injury, it was just the latest hit to an edge group that was already hurting for numbers.

MORE PATRIOTS

The Patriots lost Rob Ninkovich to retirement early in training camp. They lost rookie defensive end Deatrich Wise for a to-be-determined period of time to a head injury suffered during last week's preseason game with the Jaguars. They lost Shea McClellin to an apparent injury earlier this month that has kept him out for almost two weeks.

So what's next? Here are some of the options . . .

IMMEDIATE HELP FROM OUTSIDE THE ORGANIZATION

Bill Belichick and his staff could look outside the organization for help right away via free agency or trade. Freeney, who recorded seven quarterback hurries and a sack in Super Bowl LI, is available as a free agent. Former Dolphins, Bills and Texans defensive end Mario Williams -- who Belichick and director of player personnel Nick Caserio have happily referred to as "Big M" over the years -- is also without a team at the moment. Both of those players, 37 and 32 years old, respectively, could serve as stop-gap options. ESPN's Mike Reiss noted on Friday that perhaps Ninkovich could come out of retirement to help the club. 

Then there's the possibility of the trade. The Patriots are annually among the league's most aggressive teams in terms of looking for deals to help their roster, and this year figures to be no different. They have plenty in the way of draft capital if they decide to continue their recent trend of parting ways with picks for proven players in return. There are also valuable pieces on their roster who could end up elsewhere if the return is right. Of those, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and corner Malcolm Butler -- both in contract years -- would figure to be among their most valuable potential trade chips.

TAKE A WAIT-AND-SEE APPROACH

With only one cutdown deadline this year -- teams will have their rosters trimmed from 90 players to 53 following the last week of the preseason -- chaos figures to reign as teams scour the waiver wire for both active-roster and practice-squad help. Clubs could steadily make their releases in the days leading up to the deadline, but the expectation is that there will still be a tsunami of cuts that take place in a very short span. The Patriots are already preparing for the well over 1,000 players who will eventually become available, taking an all-hands-on-deck approach in the scouting and personnel departments. Perhaps as things get hectic right around the deadline, capable edge help will become available. If it does, don't be surprsied to see the Patriots pounce. 

GO WITH WHAT THEY HAVE

The Patriots could choose to simply roll with what's on the roster for 2017. Their front-seven is loaded with versatile defensive linemen and linebackers who can play a variety of positions. Linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Harvey Langi have seen time on the edge in recent practices. Trey Flowers should be a staple on the edge when he's not being used as an interior rusher. Lawrence Guy is more of an interior force and seems to be ideally used as a five-technique, but he played all along the defensive line in Baltimore and could have some positional versatility in New England. Kony Ealy has started to show some things as a pass-rusher of late. And undrafted rookie defensive lineman Adam Butler -- who saw time everywhere from nose tackle to stand-up edge-rusher during training camp -- is an intriguing young prospect. 

The Patriots situation on the edge is far from ideal at the moment, and they could try to remedy their issues quickly with some outside help. But if they choose to stand pat, they do have options.