Monday, November 25, 2013

Patriots Epic Comeback Ends With O.T. Win, 34-31

Man, oh man, was *that* cold! For the first time in franchise history, the Patriots overcame a 24-point halftime deficit to win, in a pulse-pounding 34-31 overtime victory over the Broncos. The win puts them at 8-3, with a full three-game lead over division rivals Miami and New York, with just five games left in the season.  So another AFC East title is in sight, and with a win over the Broncos, a first-round playoff bye is possible. Next week they travel to Houston to take on the disintegrating Texans.

Last night's game looked to be over before it ever got started, reminding me of the Patriots three-turnover first quarter against the Ravens in the 2009 playoffs. Everything went against the Pats, with fumbles by Stevan Ridley, Tom Brady, and LeGarrette Blount -- all leading to points and eventually that 24-0 halftime score.

It also reminded me of the Miami game in October this year. Just as in that game, the Patriots didn't make a lot of adjustments at the half, they just came out and executed their offense much better. And in both cases, they overcame big deficits, were patient while the turnovers went back their way, and rode some big plays on special teams to a win.

The Patriots defensive game plan was to allow the Broncos all the yards they wanted on the ground. They played mostly nickel and dime, rarely committed extra defenders to stop the run, and counted on the Broncos either making mistakes or trying to pass against a pass-heavy defense. Mostly it worked; they gave up 280 rushing yards and 5.8 yards per carry, but held Peyton Manning to 150 yards passing and a 70.4 QB rating.

The defensive line got gashed over and over on inside hand-offs. The outside linemen stacked up 22 total tackles, although 19 of them were assists. In fact, Rob Ninkovich had 0 tackles and 13 assists, while Chandler Jones had 3 and 6, respectively. Ninkovich lost outside contain often, but Jones did not and he also got some pressure on Manning (1 sack, two QB hits). The inside rookies (Chris Jones and Joe Vellano) got pushed around, and the Broncos O-line got to the second level a lot. But again; this was part of the overall plan.

Jamie Collins (another rookie) led the linebackers with 10 tackles and he did a nice job in short pass coverage (sticking to receivers well, and knocking down a key pass to Wes Welker). The Patriots drafted him to cover passes from the 'backer position, and now that Jerod Mayo is out for the year they need Collins if they expect to make noise in the playoffs. The rest of the linebackers got beaten up by the Denver O-line, no two ways about it -- the defensive game plan left them hanging out to dry play after play, while the Broncos piled up yards on the ground.

The secondary played stunningly well. Starting safety Steve Gregory was out, and starting cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard played only part time, so they had to depend on rookies Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan. And even with the talent drain, and with all those players moving in and out of the game and shifting multiple times before the snap -- they did a great job keeping things in front of them, jamming receivers at the line, passing off receivers from zone to zone, and even forcing receivers into each other when they tried pick plays.

Harmon led the secondary in tackles (11), and that allowed Devin McCourty to stay back and take away the deep ball. Ryan and Talib has passes defended, Ryan got his second interception of the season, and Talib almost had his fifth & sixth (neither came to fruition). Kyle Arrington stayed on the slot receivers, and helped hold Wes Welker to 4 catches for 31 yards.

It wasn't perfect; certainly too many yards given up on the ground, and the entire team fell asleep on a 30-yard screen pass. But mostly the plan worked; a brilliant use of weather, suspected arm-strength problems for Manning, and forcing the Broncos to beat you how they didn't want to -- on the ground. Looked ugly early on, but in the end they made enough key stops when it counted.

On offense, two running backs were bad and two were terrific. Ridley's latest fumble might have relegated him to mop-up duty for a few weeks, and it would not surprise me if he was a healthy scratch on Sunday. And his replacement, Blount, was also benched after his second fumble of the season. However, Brandon Boldin made the most of his opportunity, with 13 carries for 58 yards and 1 touchdown. And hybrid back Shane Vereen carried 10 times for 31 yards and caught 8 passes for 60 yards. If he hadn't dropped two passes, he might have been the leading receiver in the entire game.

Julian Edelman led all receivers with 9 catches for 110 yards and 2 touchdowns -- both of which were beautiful grabs. Rob Gronkowski was his old, rumblin' bumblin' self, blowing through three tacklers on his touchdown and adding a 33-yarder and a total of 90 yards through the air. He wasn't his usual brutal self on run blocking, but he was a beast catching. And the update wouldn't be complete without a mention of the return of Kenbrell Thompkins, who didn't have a great game, but his 6 catches (56 yards) all seemed to be key ones.

The offensive line had some problems, for sure; Nate Solder gave up the strip-sack of Tom Brady, and there were some free blitzers due to miscommunication on the right side. But Logan Mankins was much improved, and they did a great job in the second half keeping Brady upright (three sacks in the first half, none in the second half). And they've started to trick teams with pulling guards on *pass* plays -- and there is an amazing amount of coordination needed to pull that off without giving up a single sack on that kind of play.

As for Brady, he was simply amazing in the second half, given the situation and the weather conditions he faced. After halftime, he went 24 of 33 (73%), 263 yards, 3 touchdowns (all into the wind), 0 sacks, and a QB rating of 126.2. Trust me, the wind was howling and it was incredibly cold, and in those conditions, Brady's performance was legend-making. The only sacks were in the first half, and the way he sliced up the Denver defense was masterful. As stated before, the team made some adjustments, but mostly it was just better execution that did it.

Special teams contributed with a big punt return by Edelman, 4-for-4 field goals by Stephen Gostkowski (along with excellent kickoffs), and solid coverage. Nate Ebner got the last turnover -- on a mishandled punt in overtime, and he is threatening to beat out long-time coverage ace Matthew Slater for top honors this year.

The coaching was outstanding. It took a lot of guts to let the Broncos gain almost 6 yards a rush and not change up on defense, but Belichick and company were obviously confident that if Manning didn't beat them they would not lose. It also ran against convention to take the wind in overtime, but the Hooded One went for that, too. He also did a great job holding the team together when it would have been easy to pack it in after a 24-0 half in the freezing cold.

Also, the design on some of those pass plays -- with the fake run-looks along the O-line -- those were drawn up by Josh McDaniels. And they were very effective at bring in the defense so they could be attacked in the deep middle. My only concern is that McDaniels still goes for long passes on third-and-short. In overtime, the team faced third-and-four, and play was a 40-yard bomb that fell incomplete on a very windy night -- and led to a punt. The Broncos faced third-and-four on their next drive, and they threw a six-yard dump-off (with six more after the catch) to move the chains and keep the ball. McDaniels needs to learn that lesson.

So where does that leave us? 8-3 is right where I thought they'd be, and next week's opponent is a lot worse than anyone thought they'd be this year. So the Patriots should be 9-3 after next Sunday, and could be on the verge of clinching the division crown at that point. Enjoy the holiday, and have fun watching on Sunday!

Statistical Oddity of the Week: On Sunday, Manning had fewer yards passing (150) than his teammate Knowshon Moreno had rushing (224). It's been eight years since that happened to Manning. (Trivia question: can you name the running back who did it last time-- answer below.)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Anyone still arguing that Manning is a better quarterback has an axe to grind. There just isn't any question now -- Brady is head-and-shoulders above Manning."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  8-3!

PPS. Trivia Answer:
On September 18, 2005, Edgerrin James had 128 yards rushing to Manning's 122 yards passing.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Patriots Lose Heart-breaker to Panthers, 24-20

The Patriots hung tough, but it wasn't enough, as the Panthers came out on top 24-20.  The loss puts the Patriots at 7-3, but with the Jets loss yesterday, they are still two games up in the division. Up next are the offensive juggnernaut Broncos, coming to Foxboro for yet another showdown between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.

Let's start at the end, with the controversial final play of the game. Patriots at the Carolina 18 yard-line, needing a touchdown to win, and Brady threw into the end zone toward Rob Gronkowski, who was clearly interfered with. The flag came flying, and it looked like the Patriots will get another shot from the 1 yard-line. But wait; the referees conferred and decided to pick up the flag, essentially ending the game with a Carolina win.

Then a disembodied voice came on the television, it was former official Gerry Austin saying that the contact was in the back of the end zone and the pass was intercepted near the front, so it wasn't interference. However, the replays clearly showed that Gronkowski was illegally contacted five-yards into the end zone, and the interception happened -- you guessed it -- five yards into the end zone. The referees should have stuck with their original call and given the Patriots one more play for the win.

But that isn't why they lost.

On the previous drive, the Patriots led 20-17, but they were down to backup-backup-backup cornerbacks. Kyle Arrington was covering the fastest receiver on the field, Ted Ginn, Jr. on the outside. This was a mismatch given that Arrington is better against smaller, inside receivers, but Ginn had mostly been shut out and it appeared that rookie safety Duron Harmon was shading some help to Arrington's side.

However, at the snap, Harmon (along with a linebacker) covered the tight end over the middle, which left Arrington all alone. If you watched, you know that Ginn took a quick hitch, juked past Arrington, and scored a touchdown for the lead, instead of the Panthers having to kick a game-tying field goal. It was his only catch of the day.

But that isn't why they lost, either.

On the drive prior to that, the Pats had a third-and-one at the Carolina eight yard-line. The Patriots had averaged 4.3 yards a rush, but they went play-action to fool the Panthers. Unfortunately they were ready for it, and they covered the short-left route, leaving Brady to throw it out of the end zone. The Patriots kicked a field goal, and left 6:36 on the clock, leading to the Panthers winning drive.

If the Patriots picked up that first down, they would run another two minutes off the clock, and maybe get a seven-point lead instead of a three-point lead. They would also put pressure on Carolina to score a touchdown to tie (or win with a two-point conversion), and with two fewer minutes on the clock. But the play-call was wrong for the defense in place; and they should have called a time out or audibled into a more favorable play.

But even that isn't why the lost. Here is why they lost:

  1. Two stupid personal-foul penalties (Aqib Talib and Logan Mankins)
  2. A Stevan Ridley fumble in the red zone (where have I read that before?)
  3. No containment on the Panthers QB (who torched them for important first downs)
  4. Yet another lack-luster first half after a bye week (averaging 4.6 points per first quarter after a bye under Bill Belichick*)
  5. No forced turnovers

That is why they lost the game.

(Note: even with yesterday's minus-2 turnover ratio, the Patriots are second in the AFC with +7 on the year. Can you name the #1 team in the AFC in this category? Answer below.)

As for the ups and downs of the game, there are plenty. The Patriots ran the ball well, but running back LeGarrette Blount proved more productive (10 carries for 49 yards) and trustworthy (0 fumbles) than starter Ridley (10 carries for 48 yards, and 1 critical fumble). Ridley ran hard, especially after he got back into the game; but if he doesn't learn to protect the ball he'll be on a train out of town before he realizes it.

Quarterback Brady was sharper than sharp: 29 of 40 (73%), 296 yards, 2 sacks for 13 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 desperation interception, and a 91.2 QB rating. He was also well in command; changing plays to take advantage of defensive alignments, and shredding the defense on two consecutive drives to start the second half (9 for 9, 105 yards, 1 touchdown).

You'd think with decent running stats and a great performance by the quarterback, the offensive line would get some praise. Well, they'll get some, but they have to play smarter. Mankins' penalty was idiotic and cost the Patriots a chance at points. Marcus Cannon tripped a guy after he got beaten, Ryan Wendell missed assignments that allowed direct pressure on Brady, and Nate Solder gave an outside rusher a free shot at Brady because he was trying to block an inside blitz that never materialized. So a decent day, but still too many mental mistakes for this group.

As for the receivers, they mostly did a very good job. Even though he's a running back, Shane Vereen did a lot more damage in the passing game (8 catches for 65 yards) than the running game (1 rush for 7 yards). And in fact, he, Danny Amendola (6 for 75), and Gronkowski (5 for 59, 1 touchdown) had some crucial third-down conversions to keep the chains moving. The Pats converted 50% of their third-downs, which is good at home against a Panthers defense only giving up 35%. Also, it was nice to see Kenbrell Thompkins back on the field -- just 2 catches, but for 60 big yards.

The defensive line was the trick-or-treat unit of the day. They came up with 3 sacks, but also let Newton loose for 62 yards and three absolute *killer* first down conversions. Rob Ninkovich led the team with 9 tackles, and had 2 of those sacks, too (he also did a great job holding the edge and pushing the pocket).

The team moved Chandler Jones all over the field, some on the left, some on the right, and some plays at linebacker in pass coverage. He ended up with 5 tackles, 1 sack, and a QB hit. However, tight end Richie Brockel ate Jones' *lunch* on the pass rush, and Jones let Newton get outside of containment on his biggest third-down conversion of the day. It is interesting to watch how the team uses Jones; he's the first player since Tedy Bruschi or Willie McGinest to rush the passer, play inside against the run, blitz from the second level, and drop into pass coverage as a linebacker.

And speaking of linebackers, the loss of Jerod Mayo is really starting to show. Brandon Spikes (7 tackles) still guesses correctly often enough, but he came up short on a few plays that allowed the Panthers to keep the ball. And Dont'a Hightower (4 tackles) was too tentative or a step slow with Newton and the backs. All you need to know about the teams' linebackers is that not one other made the defensive stat sheet (Ninkovich plays defensive end mostly) -- it was all Spikes and Hightower -- and that isn't good enough.

The secondary fought valiantly, but in the end, the injuries were too much to overcome. Aqib Talib, for all his swagger, should have intercepted a first-quarter pass, though he had tight coverage most of the time (and 5 tackles and 2 passes defended). Unfortunately, he went down in the second half, so it was Kyle Arrington -- although he did a nice job in run support and was decent aside from the blown play on Ginn (he had 2 tackles, 1 for a loss, and 1 pass defended). The safeties played well, until they had to make up for having subpar corners, and that is when all hell broke loose.

On special teams, Tavon Wilson had a great day, with two big tackles on return-man Ginn. He and Nate Ebner are competing to dethrone Matthew Slater as best coverage man this year. Also, punter Ryan Allen did a nice job on one bad snap, and regrouped quickly on his own miscue to get it down for Stephen Gostkowski's last field goal (to take the lead). There wasn't much punting, so not much else to judge him on. And Gostkowski's kickoffs had great hang time, which helped keep Ginn's return ability in check.

The coaching staff needs to figure out why their offense stinks in the first quarter after every bye week. Their self-scouting has failed them here. And I wrote it last entry; Josh McDaniels needs to be better aware of game-situations -- they went for a pass on third-and-one, but he needed to have a decent run to audible to at that point in the game. Also, the defensive coaches probably stressed all week to keep Newton in the pocket, but the guys on the field did not execute that at all.

One last note, about the injuries. I wrote it to start the season and again in my last update: there is no depth on the defensive line or secondary. If Talib and Dennard stay on the shelf, the Patriots will be fortunate to win the division, but any first-round bye will be out of the question. And on the D-line, maybe they'll figure out how to integrate Andre Carter, but for the time being, it's two rookies and a lot of finger-crossing.

So where does that leave us? 7-3 dropped the Patriots into a three-way battle for the second playoff bye, with Cincinnati and Indianapolis. Both of those teams hold tie-breakers over the Patriots; so unless they stumble, the Pats are probably looking at a division crown and a first-round playoff game. But before that, they have a date with Peyton Manning again, next Sunday -- and if the Pats secondary isn't healthy, it could be a loooong night.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Patriots failed to record a turnover for the first time in 36 games, which ended the longest current streak in the NFL.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "It would be nice to have a defensive line that can rush the passer without turning him into Barry Sanders when he takes off?"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  7-3!

PPS. Trivia answer: The Kansas City Chiefs have a +15 turnover ratio this season.

*Pats first-quarter scoring after a bye: 0, 10, 0, 0, 3, 7, 0, 10, 0, 0, 0, 14, 7, 0, 7, 7, 7, 3, 0, 14, 0, 14, 7, 0 (that is a lot of zeros, folks)

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Patriots Mid-Season Report 2013

A very interesting first half put the Patriots exactly where I thought they’d be: 7-2 and in control of the division.  They won some they shouldn’t have won, lost one they shouldn’t have lost, and overall have a two-game lead with seven games to go.  Just about where they are every year at this time.

It’s a little past halfway, but here is the state of the Patriots after their ninth game.


If quarterback Tom Brady continues at this pace, he’ll end the season with career worsts in completion percentage (currently at 57.1%, career low 60.2%), touchdown percentage (3.8% vs. 4.4%), QB Rating (82.7 vs. 85.7), and sacks (46 vs. 41). It’s partially due to the lack of weapons, but his throws haven’t been as accurate as in recent years.

To be fair, a lot of the early incompletions were missed routes or dropped passes by new receivers. And his connection with the receivers is better, especially now that tight end Rob Gronkowski is rounding into form and Danny Amendola is healthy again.

Additionally, the high number of sacks is more on the offensive line than on Brady. Left guard Logan Mankins and left tackle Nate Solder have been confused on protection far too often this year. And physical defensive lines on Cincinnati, New Orleans, and the New York Jets accounted for over half the year’s sacks in three consecutive games.

The running game hasn’t been a problem, with an improvement from 4.2 yards per carry last year to 4.4 this year, and more explosive plays. So the O-line hasn’t been all bad, and it should improve further given that Gronkowski is one of the best blocking tight ends in football. But even with help from the tight ends, it will be on the starting five to step up their play, especially against larger, more physical defensive lines.

As for the receivers, two games ago rookie receiver Aaron Dobson and Brady finally connected on a back-shoulder pass -- the toughest pass to defend. And they followed that up with a back-shoulder TD last week. Dobson has all the physical skills, and with he and Brady getting into greater sync, he should be dangerous in the second half.

And if last week is any indication, Gronkowski, Dobson, and Danny Amendola will flood or split the field, spreading out defenses. It worked against Pittsburgh when the defense lost track of Amendola several times, for the easiest pass receptions, and one of the easiest touchdowns, of his career. And Gronkowski notched his first touchdown of 2013, and caught several easy pitch-and-catches down the seam.


The defensive line lost both of its interior players for the year, defensive captain Vince Wilfork and newcomer Tommy Kelly. They’ve been replaced by rookies, Joe Vellano (who is better against the run) and Chris Jones (who is second on the team with five sacks). But the team is getting beaten with inside runs, and when they overcommit to those, they’ve been beaten to the outside.

Chandler Jones does a nice job rushing the passer (8.5 sacks), but he’s no Rob Ninkovich when it comes to holding the edge against the run. And interestingly, the Patriots brought back one-time D-lineman Andre Carter -- and moved Jones to linebacker to help with pass coverage.  And that was necessary because…

Linebacker Jerod Mayo is also out of for the year, on injured reserve with a torn pectoral. Mayo’s taken his lumps from me over the years, mostly for his poor pass coverage. But he was much improved in that area, until the injury. So they need more speed and length in the linebacking corps, because Dont’a Hightower is almost D-lineman size and Brandon Spikes is vastly better against the run.

In the secondary, Aqib Talib is still the key. He’s been injured and missed a few games; and when he is out, the Patriots tend to move slot corner Kyle Arrington outside and backups Marquice Cole or Logan Ryan to the slot. They’d be better off keeping Arrington on the slot receivers and giving help to the side with Cole or Ryan. Arrington was repeatedly beaten in the second Jets game, and they eventually had to move him back inside -- and the Jets receivers aren’t even that good.

Safety Devin McCourty is having a spectacular season, and his counterpart, Steve Gregory is much better than last year. However, this is yet another area where the drop-off from starter to backup is significant, so the team has to hope both players can stay healthy.

Special Teams/Coaching

Stephen Gostkowski was already the most accurate kicker in Patriots history, and that was before he went 22 of 23 this year. His kickoffs have also been very good -- with plenty of touchbacks and hang time -- except for the Pittsburgh game, when they were a bit shorter than usual. Perhaps he was nursing an injury in that game, but if so, he’s had two weeks to rest and should be back to his normal, brilliant self.

Rookie punter Ryan Allen had a few early “yips” punts, but overall has done a very good job. He also does well holding on field goals (as evidenced by Gostkowski’s amazing percentage). And his coverage teams are very good; Nate Ebner is threatening to take away Matthew Slater’s title as all-around special teams ball hawk.

On kickoff returns, LeGarrette Blount shows surprisingly quick feet for such a big man. Not exactly a barn-burner, but better than Devin McCourty was last year. And Julian Edelman continues to take chances and make them payoff on punt returns; almost never fair-catching, and sometimes slipping through cracks so small you’d think a pee wee footballer wouldn’t fit through.

The defensive coaching has been mostly excellent. The only questionable decision was the aforementioned move of Arrington to the outside against the Jets. Aside from that, coordinator Matt Patricia has pulled the right strings all year.

On offense, Josh McDaniels needs to calm himself down sometimes. There is no need to go for a 40-yard bomb on third-and-two -- but somehow McDaniels still hasn’t learned that lesson. Oh, and Scott O’Brien continues to excel, year after year, coaching special teams.


With another division title in their sights, don’t expect the Patriots to lose focus. The Panthers are a sterner test than I gave them credit for in my Season Preview, but given Belichick’s record against young quarterbacks, and his dominance against the NFC, tomorrow’s tilt in Carolina should be a Patriots win.

The Patriots have suffered many injuries in past years, but never this many to key players. If they don’t stay healthy, they won’t pull out an undermanned Super Bowl victory, as they did in 2003. But they can compete for a championship with the injuries they’ve suffered so far; they just can’t afford any more.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: You should not concern yourself with Brady’s low completion percentage.  The lowest two seasons of his career are 2003 and 2004 (60.1% and 60.8%, respectively) -- and the Patriots won the Super Bowl both of those years.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: “Since 2001 Belichick is 16-5 after the bye, 15-5 on Monday night, and 42-9 against the NFC… so things could go well against the Panthers.”

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  7-2!

Monday, November 4, 2013

Patriots Paste Steelers, 55-31

Yesterday's game answered the age-old question: what would happen if they held an NFL game inside a pinball machine. The Steelers had 479 yards of offense, 24 first downs, averaged 5.4 yards per rush, 7.0 yards per pass, and got 153 yards on returns -- but the Patriots beat them by 24 points, 55-31. The win kept the Pats two games ahead of the victorious Jets, and with a bye week to get healthy, it'll be down to the home stretch starting two weeks from yesterday.

For the record, the Patriots had 610 yards of offense, 33 first downs, averaged 5.6 yards per rush, 11.5 yards per pass, and got 174 yards in returns -- including 42 yards on two interceptions. They also caused 3 turnovers to the Steelers 1, and had only 3 penalties (for 30 yards) to Pittsburgh's 8 (for 96). Aside from two drives in the third quarter, this was a steady, consistent pull-away for the Patriots, as their talent shone through while the Steelers' talent was only half-there.

The offensive output was... well, offensive to defensive purists. Quarterback Tom Brady ended up with the following numbers: 23 of 33 (70%), 432 yards, 4 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, and a QB rating of 151.8. Perhaps more importantly, he had a nearly full compliment of receivers for the first time this year, and Brady improved his timing and accuracy with all except one of them (more on that below). Brady's biggest mistake of the day -- throwing 30 yards down the field on a 3rd-and-2, especially when Steven Ridley was open for the first down right in front of him.

Brady's favorite receiver was Rob Gronkowski (9 catches for 143 yards and 1 touchdown). Rookie Aaron Dobson had a breakout game with 5 for 130 and 2 touchdowns. Dobson had several back-shoulder catches, which shows his improved sync up with Brady. And with him streaking down the sideline and Gronkowski clearing out space in the middle, Danny Amendola was wide open for 4 for 122 and 1 touchdown. That is how the offense was supposed to look about three weeks ago, but it obviously took them a bit longer to get Gronk back on the field.

Nearly absent from the passing stats was Julian Edelman, who had just 1 catch for 11 yards. This owes partially to less playing time when Amendola is on the field. But also, his on-field relationship with Brady appears to have regressed, with throws slightly too far out in front of him most of the game. It could be a one-game aberration, but something to keep an eye on. And Edelman contributes plenty in the punt-return game (more on that below).

Not to be outdone, the running backs gained nearly 200 yards on the ground, led by Ridley's 26 carries for 115 yards and 2 touchdowns. (Trivia Question: In how many NFL games has Ridley topped 100 yards rushing and scored at least 2 touchdowns? Answer below.) And even though he had an early fumble, the coaches kept him on the field, and they were rewarded for their faith. Also, LeGarrette Blount gained more yards in this game (47 versus 46) on fewer carries (5 versus 11) than he had in the last game. But most impressive is that the Steelers are usually tough to run on, and they are always able to take away either the run or pass. But not yesterday -- the Patriots had their way with them.

And none of that would have been possible without great play from the offensive line. It wasn't perfect; Pittsburgh still has plenty of defenders capable of making your O-line look foolish. And the Steelers did get 3 sacks and 6 QB hits. But the Patriots ran well inside the tackles, a credit to center Ryan Wendell and the crack-back blocks of both tight ends and running backs. The tackles also deserve special mention: Nate Solder on the left protected Brady's blind-side well, and backup Marcus Cannon filled in nicely for the injured Sebastian Vollmer.

The defense was alternately brilliant and terrible. They strip-sacked the Pittsburgh QB on the first drive of the game, likely saving a score. But later in the same quarter, they called a time out on 3rd-and-29 to get the right defense in place, and promptly gave up 28.5 yards on a screen pass (and the Steelers got the first down on the next play). They sacked Roethlisberger 5 times (for 29 yards), but lost outside containment on multiple runs to give up huge chunks of yards.

The defensive line got gashed on running plays, but fortunately the Steelers stopped running the ball in the third quarter. As mentioned, they got plenty of pressure in the QB, led by Chandler Jones (2 sacks), who also tied for the team lead in tackles (6) and QB hits (3). Rob Ninkovich got a sack, and as usual pitched in across the stat sheet -- 5 tackles (1 for a loss), and a forced fumble. He also did the best job holding the edge against the run; much better than the other side of the line.

Chris Jones was quiet after a stellar game last week. But with Tommy Kelly now out for the year, he and fellow rookie Joe Vellano have to shore up the middle, or it will not be a successful season in New England. Newly acquired Isaac Sopoaga could help there, but it will mostly be on the rookies, with Sopoaga providing depth.

The linebackers were interesting. Brandon Spikes continues to guess and run-blitz, and he was about 50-50 on making a big hit or hitting the wrong hole and blitzing himself out of the play. Also, when he made the big hit, he didn't always wrap up and take down the runner -- too many of those plays ended up bouncing outside for big yards. And I've seen enough of Chris White and Dane Fletcher to know that if you see them playing a lot it probably means the team is in trouble.

On the plus side, Dont'a Hightower was vastly improved in pass coverage. He didn't always make the knock-down, but he was right there, with very tight coverage, in almost every situation. Hightower was credited with one pass defended, but I think he caused at least two other incompletions when covering running backs. And in a surprise, Chandler Jones got some time at linebacker, too. He didn't end up in pass coverage much, but with is speed and wingspan, he could be a decent option on passing downs.

With all the long plays, you'd expect the secondary would get hammered in this space. However, only two plays of over-20 yards attacked the secondary; the others were all short passes that went for big yards after the catch, or they were running plays where the back got loose. Not that they'll get off without some scolding, but they weren't as bad as you might think with all those huge plays.

Devin McCourty continues his steady play (5 tackles, 1 pass defended, and 1 interception). And rookie Duron Harmon pitched in and mostly played well (4 tackles, 1 pass defended, and 1 interception). But with Aqib Talib out with injury, moving Kyle Arrington outside was a disaster. He couldn't get a decent jam at the line, and he isn't fast or quick enough to keep up with better receivers. He defended 1 pass, but must have given up at least 5 completions.

There is no easy answer without Talib. When the Pats rotated a safety Arrington's way, the Steelers attacked the other side for big yards. At least Alfonzo Dennard's numbers were a bit better -- he gave up perhaps two passes and knocked away one or two. But the lack of secondary depth has come home to roost, and with the trading deadline past, it's up to the coaching staff to get the best they can out of this group.

Special teams had a few special moments, for both teams! My friend Allan called out a "gap problem" on the first kickoff, and the Steelers summarily rushed through the empty space for 40 yards. The Pats also gave up a 23-yard punt return. And Gostkowski's kicks were inexplicably short; he got a touchback only 40% of the time, despite a lack of wind. Makes me wonder if he might be nursing an injury.

On the plus side, Julian Edelman had a 43-yard punt return (on a 41-yard punt), which led to a 5-play drive for a touchdown. And when the Patriots needed to change field position, they got good kickoff returns from Blount (though one was called back on a penalty).

The coaches' game plan was obviously excellent. Despite their many injuries, the Patriots dominated about 85% of the game. And the way they used the three main receivers to compliment each other's routes was terrific. Two quibbles with the coaching: (1) why did it take so long to give Kyle Arrington help with the faster receivers, and (2) a really bad job on that 3rd-and-29 play -- if you call a time out there, you must have the defense better prepared.

But that's sort of nit-picking. When your team has 610 yards of offense, the coaches obviously deserve a lot of credit.

So where does that leave us? 7-2 and heading into the bye week, that's exactly where I had them before the season started. The injuries continue to mount, almost as quickly as the wins. But somehow they keep finding ways to beat the teams in front of them. Enjoy your week off and look for my mid-season update sometime late this week or early the week after.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Patriots offense was almost twice as efficient as the Steelers offense.  The Pats scored 1.9 points for every minute of possession time, while the Steelers scored 1.0 points for every minute of possession time.

Bonus Statistical Oddity: If you thought it was a game of big plays, you are right. Including returns, the Patriots had 10 plays of 20+ yards, and the Steelers had 11.

Double-bonus Statistical Oddity: The 55 points represent the most the Steelers have given up in franchise history -- and they've been playing football for 80 years!

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Funny how no one is talking about Brady's body language or swollen hand now."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 7-2!

PPS. Ridley rushed for 106 yards and 2 touchdowns against the Bills on September 30, 2012 -- that was his only other such game in the NFL.