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.

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