Monday, December 10, 2007

Patriots 34, Steelers 13 (12/9/2007)

Might want to schedule those post-holiday errands for January 5th or 6th, because the the Patriots pounded another pretender to the throne and "guaranteed" they won't be playing that weekend. The Pats soundly defeated the Steelers, 34-13, getting the coveted week of rest before the playoffs and putting a stranglehold on the #1 playoff spot in the AFC. One more win would clinch the #1 seed, and the 3-10 Jets are in town next ::muuhhhhaaahhahaahaaa::

As for yesterday's game, the Steelers defense just couldn't match up with the Patriots offense. Baltimore and Philly have the cornerbacks to challenge the Pats receivers. But the Steelers corners aren't as polished at coverage, so the short passing game beat them all day long. And when the Steelers defense crept toward the line to slow that down, the long pass was deadly effective. The Patriots first touchdown drive was 8 plays, all short passes and runs. Their next possession was 1 play, a 63-yard bomb to Randy Moss that was set up by an outstanding run-fake.

Tom Brady was very effective (32 of 46 for 399 yards, 4 touchdowns, 0 interceptions), and that's not easy when the team only runs 9 times for 22 yards. But they used the short passing game in place of the run to nickel-and-dime their way down the field. 42 of Brady's 46 attempts were for short yardage, and his main targets were Wes Welker (9 catches for 78 yards and 1 TD), Moss (7 for 135 and 2 TD), and Jabar Gaffney (7 for 122 and 1 TD). And with 50 drop-backs, there were zero quarterback sacks and Brady was hit in the pocket only 4 times on the day. That is a very impressive performance by the O-line, because the Patriots were often in five-wide formations with no tight end or running back to help in pass protection. Oh, and a round of applause for Kevin Faulk, please -- who twice picked up blitzes to give Brady time for a pass completion.

On defense, the Pats definitely addressed their problems stopping the run. The final numbers don't look good (32 rushes for 181 yards), but here's the bottom line: with the game in question, the Steelers ran 19 times for 105 yards (5.5 yards per carry), and couldn't score on fourth-and-goal at the Patriots 1 yard-line. It wasn't the kind of stellar defense we've seen for the past few years, but it was a lot better performance than they had against Baltimore last week.

Vince Wilfork was a madman on Sunday, with 7 tackles and 1 sack, numbers almost unheard of for a nose tackle in the 3-4. He even made a tackle near the sideline, which good nose tackles only do five or six times in a *career*. Rodney Harrison (11 tackles and 1 pass defensed) and Tedy Bruschi (8 tackles) came back from last week with strong performances, and James Sanders (8 tackles and a fumble recovery and only one missed coverage) continued his solid play opposite Rodney at free safety. Even Richard Seymour played well, although it's clearer every week that his knee injury has reduced his explosion off the ball. Might have to wait until next year for him to round back into form.

Lineman Jarvis Green and linebacker Adalius Thomas had a sack each, and Junior Seau chipped in 6 tackles and a pass defensed. And the secondary covered very well most of the time, enough to cause 3 sacks and 3 hits of Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger. There were some secondary breakdowns, with Ellis Hobbs (twice), Randall Gay, and Asante Samuel leaving receivers wide open for catches. But those four plays aside, their coverage was much tighter, and Randall Gay has improved almost every week. The defense didn't have a good two weeks against the Eagles and Ravens, but if it can make the proper adjustments and play well in the playoffs, things will be looking up for the the Patriots in January.

Special teams needs a bit of work. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed another make-able kick (42 yards), and those points will be more crucial in the playoffs, so he's got some work to do. He also missed a pop-up kickoff (needed to be higher and longer), giving the Steelers great field position. The team's kickoff coverage was hot-and-cold -- and overall, it needs some extra practice. The coaches took some of the pressure off Wes Welker and Kevin Faulk by having Chad Jackson return punts and kickoffs, and he did okay, with one nice kickoff return for 39 yards and no mistakes. The punt coverage team did get a fumble recovery, and the Pats committed no penalties on their own kicks, which is nice.

Finally, a word about the coaching. This was Steelers coach Mike Tomlin's first big game, and he was simply out-coached. The Steelers never made adjustments to combat the short passing game, and with 7:00 left in the game and down by 18 points, they inexplicably used running plays and short passes that didn't allow the receivers to get out of bounds. Needing three scores in that little time, they should have been passing either deep or to the outside and running to the edge. As for his counterpart, Bill Belichick, his plan to dink-and-dunk them to death worked perfectly. And whatever defensive adjustments he made at the half worked well enough to shut out the Steelers over the final 30:00.

So where does that leave us? As stated earlier, a win this coming weekend and the Patriots will be home as far as they can go in the AFC playoffs. The Jets come to town for the latest renewal of the border war between the two teams. I haven't see the Jets play lately; but they probably haven't closed the gap very much from their 38-14 loss earlier in the year, so it should be a game the Patriots can handle. But we'll see -- last year the Jets unexpectedly beat the Patriots at mid-season, so you just never know.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Not so much an oddity as an astonishing number, Tom Brady's touchdown-to-interception ratio is 9-to-1. It is reminiscent of Pedro Martinez' 9-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2000, and both are among the greatest performances in their respective sports.

One Possible Serving of Humble Pie (please read in a deadpan monotone): "Well, we had some drops and missed some tackles, and the kickoff coverage didn't go the way we drew it up, and there was that fumble on the gadget play with Moss and Brady... we need to get that straightened out. I was kinda hoping the fans would chant "Guar-an-tee" more toward the end of the game... might've started that a little early. And the rain showed up a half-hour early... so I probably need to coach that better."

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The Steelers just don't have the corners to play press coverage against the Pats. But the good news is that most of the teams in the playoff hunt don't have great corners, either. Only the Vikings, Tampa Bay, and maybe Green Bay have the talent to challenge our wideouts and keep their coverage for the play. Other teams will play tight coverage, but they can't sustain it if they don't get to the quarterback."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PPS. 13-0!

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