Monday, November 15, 2010

Patriots 39, Steelers 26

Pittsburgh fans must hate Tom Brady the way I hated John Elway -- no matter how things looked beforehand or where the game was played, they just can't beat the guy.  Same story yesterday; a 39-26 victory that wasn't nearly as close as the score indicated.  The victory helped the 7-2 Pats keep pace with the Jets, who won earlier in the day, as the teams remain tied for first place in the AFC East.  And the victory came not a moment too soon, with the Colts coming to town next week and a short turn-around for a Turkey Day contest in Detroit.

Last night's game was the one Rob Gronkowski was supposed to have against Cleveland.  The Patriots continue to target the rookie tight end, and he bounced back from his worst game to dominate this one -- three touchdowns on five catches and superb blocking in both the running and passing games.  The 6' 7" Gronk is a beast to cover, and his production, coupled with a great game by Wes Welker (8 catches for 89 yards) should open things up for other receivers.  And aside from a few dropped passes (Welker, Aaron Hernandez, and Brandon Tate), it was a flawless offensive performance.

Of course, none of that firepower would have been possible without stellar play from the O-line.  With Stephen Neal injured and out of the game, and the vaunted Steelers defense ready to bully and blitz the Pats to death, it was surprising that the Pats outgained them on the ground (103 to 76) and gave up zero sacks and only three QB hits.  Give credit to, Mr. Versatile, Dan Connolly, who stepped in for the injured Neal and didn't miss a beat, much like when he replaced holdout Logan Mankins the first seven games.

And speaking of Mankins, he came back at just the right time, playing the entire game and doing a great job run blocking and following through play-action fakes with pulls around end where he still managed to get good blocks in pass protection.  That is no easy task, and he was more than up to it.  Even oft-maligned Matt Light had a very good game; and perhaps deserves more praise, especially given that he goes up against the best pass rusher every week.  Tell you what, if he plays well next week against Indy, he'll get his own paragraph.

And as you might have guessed, with a decent running game (thank you BenJarvus Green-Ellis -- 18 carries for 87 yards) and facing very little pressure, Dr. Tom Brady carved up the suspect Steelers defensive backfield.  The Steelers hadn't let up a first quarter touchdown all year, but Brady marched the team to an 8-play, 70 yard touchdown drive to open the game.  The drive included his best throw, a laser to Gronkowski through a ridiculously small opening.  Brady now holds the best current career passer rating against Pittsburgh, and is only the second quarterback in NFL history with three consecutive 300-yard passing days against them.  Must be something about those black-and-gold uniforms that brings out the best in #12.  Maybe the Patriots should see if they can play the Bruins in up-coming years.

The young defense performed admirably.  Edge rushing by Jermaine Cunningham and Tully Banta-Cain pushed Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger up in the pocket, and Mike Wright did an outstanding job at nose tackle, pushing the line back into Roethlisberger.  Banta-Cain and Wright notched 1.5 sacks each, and had the Pittsburgh QB under constant pressure.  And for the most the pass rush kept him in the -- though Rob Ninkovich has some 'splaining to do about his whiff in the first half.

Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, and Pat Chung handled the run a lot more easily than I thought they would.  The Patriots rarely stunt or twist along the defensive line, but they did a lot of that last night, and it seemed to catch the Steelers off-guard.  Pittsburgh had a decent run or two, but for the most part their ground game was out of sync, and the Patriots are the first team to control that running attack all year.

Pat Chung makes a significant difference on this defense, bringing a hard-hitting attitude and making big plays the way Brandon Meriweather is supposed to.  And rookie corner Devin McCourty continues to impress, both with improved pass coverage and exceptional support against the run.  He is a sure tackler on edge running plays, he doesn't get beaten deep when his safety blitzes, and he has long arms and great technique.  That wooshing sound you hear is all the post-draft McCourty doubters doing an abrupt about-face.

In all candor, the defensive performance was just a little bit smoke and mirrors.  Remember that Pittsburgh dropped three touchdown passes during the game and lost their best wideout early on.  They even threw in some ill-timed penalties on a few drives, and the Patriots soft zone in the fourth quarter didn't work very well; even though the offense (and at one point, the defense) continued to put up points to keep the Steelers at bay.  But give the Pats defense credit; they hit harder than the Steelers, and the scheme was well conceived and brilliantly executed.

And after a week of worrying that special teams would suffer without Stephen Gostkowski... well, there appears to be something to worry about.  Shane Graham missed an extra point, and his kickoffs will not be the same weapon that Gostkowski's were.  But new long snapper Matt Katula acquitted himself well, and if they can get that extra point thing straightened out it'll be all good.  Kudos to the special teams coaches and players for pulling it together with less than a week to prepare with two new guys in critical positions.

And more kudos to the Patriots coaching staff.  The offense was imaginative and the mix of run/pass was the best of the year.  They didn't play into the strengths of their opponent -- throwing 65% of the time rather than foolishly "establishing the run" against the best run defense in the NFL -- and they made very good offensive adjustments at the half, witness touchdown drives of 78 and 80 yards in the third quarter.  And on defense, the coaches had them in the right position often enough and the blitzing and stunting confused Pittsburgh enough to slow them down.  Three points allowed in the first half are all you need to know about the defensive game-plan... but my advice is to rework that soft zone -- it looked really bad and didn't really take enough time off the clock.

So where does that leave us?  7-2 isn't a bad record at all, and the game next Sunday against the Colts is their next big test.  Indy leads the AFC South division, but that won't make them any less hungry to beat the Patriots.  They *always* play the Pats tough, so expect a dog fight.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Patriots and Steelers each had exactly 15:00 of possession time in the first half.  And trust me, I've looked at enough box scores to know it's been a long time since that happened.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Gronkowski and McCourty have to be the Patriots offensive and defensive rookies of the year.  They are playing like five-year veterans."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  7-2!

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