November 15, 2010
Patriots Show Strength Of Steel
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
PITTSBURGH -- While the Cleveland Browns gagged up an overtime home loss to the Jets, the Patriots reasserted themselves as an elite NFL team, and all is once again well with the world.
Coming off a beating last week at Cleveland, the Patriots took it to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night at Heinz Field. In their last 25 games coming off a loss, the Patriots improved to 23-2 with a 39-26 win over the Steelers. The Patriots hit the Steelers hard all night long, proving to themselves that last week's loss at Cleveland was merely a bump in the schedule and a typical trap game.
It wasn't just hardnosed football. Tom Brady shook off last week's stinker with a Hall of Fame performance. Brady hit on 30 of 43 passes for 350 yards and three touchdowns, all of them to rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski. He was masterful in his carving up the Steeler defense, which is number one in the league against the run but susceptible to the pass. Brady is now 6-1 against the Steelers in his career, and the Steelers continue to match up poorly with Brady and his craftsmanship style.
The symbol of this game was a play near the end of the first quarter. Hines Ward caught what looked like a seven-yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger. But Ward was clobbered by James Sanders, and the ball fell out before he hit the ground. The play was ruled a catch, but overturned on replay and an extra down had to be played in the first quarter. Ward, who is known as the best blocking receiver in the league, had to be assisted off the field and almost keeled over on two occasions. He never returned to the game after suffering what was called a neck injury.
With Ward out of the game, the Steeler offense went basically into hypersleep until the Patriots played more of a soft zone in the fourth quarter with a comfortable lead. Given how tough a player Ward is, the hit on Ward sent a chilling message to the rest of the Steelers, and they never wielded their usual swagger. The Patriots were able to withstand a fourth quarter shootout, but in the end they were clearly in control of this game, largely thanks to the knockout hit Sanders delivered on Ward.
If there was a secondary key to the win, it was the Patriot pass rush being able to get to Roethlisberger. Big Ben is one of the toughest quarterbacks in the league to sack, but the Patriots were able to sack Roethlisberger five times. Mike Wright and Tully Banta-Cain had 1.5 sacks each, while Gary Guyton had one sack and Gerard Warren and Shawn Crable had a half-sack each.
Their handling of Roethlisberger was indicative of the third key to the win, that being the Patriots tacking incredibly well all game long. The Patriots were able to wrap up ball carriers with terrific efficiency and make instant stops without any second effort yards. The Patriots were very careful in their tacking of Roethlisberger, wrapping him up and dropping him instead of going for strip sacks.
With the Steeler offense in shackles, Brady and the Patriots were more comfortable and able to do their thing. Brady hit nine different receivers, with Wes Welker turning in his best post-Moss performance with 8 catches for 89 yards. Gronkowski shook off his horrid game last week in Cleveland with a touchdown hat trick, catching scoring tosses for 19, 9 and 25 yards. Pittsburgh looked like they had no answer for Gronkowski, as no one could cover him with any level of efficiency.
As for Pittsburgh being the best run defense in the NFL, BenJarvus Green-Ellis toughed out 87 rushing yards on 18 carries. The Patriots as a team averaged 4.3 yards per rush. Brady himself scored on a rushing touchdown, on a surprising four-yard keeper in the third quarter. Danny Woodhead was only a spare part on this evening, but this was a night where this didn't matter.
Roethlisberger finished with 30 of 49 passing for 387 yards, most of this hay coming in the fourth quarter when the Patriots backed off and went into basically a prevent for the entire quarter. Big Ben threw for three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, two to Mike Wallace and one to Emmanuel Sanders. He also threw a fourth touchdown to Sanders, except that it was James Sanders and he plays for the other guys. The Patriot strong safety managed to snatch a deflection off of Antwaan Randle-El and return the pick 32 yards for a touchdown.
The fourth quarter skews what a great job the Patriots did defensively all evening long. Roethlisberger was only 9 of 26 passing for 81 yards going into the fourth quarter. In the fourth quarter, defensive backs gave bigger cushions and receivers were catching balls left and right. But in the end, the Patriots managed the game correctly and held on for the win.
This was a rare Sunday night win for the Patriots. It represents the only time the Patriots have won on NBC other than in 2007. The Patriots had been 0-5 on NBC since 2006 in all games not played in the 16-0 season. Their last appearance on NBC was last year's "fourth and two" debacle in Indianapolis, the next opponent of the Patriots.
But it wasn't a rare win at Heinz Field. The Patriots are now 4-1 in the new Steeler palace, including the postseason. The only loss was on Halloween in 2004 when the Steelers broke the Patriots' 21-game regular season win streak. The Patriots continue to handle Roethlisberger and the Steelers well on their turf, as Bill Belichick continues to outcoach whomever is on the other side, whether he is Bill Cowher or Mike Tomlin.
This defensive effort for the Patriots, as long as they don't replicate the fourth quarter, should serve them well next week when the Colts come to town for the first time since 2006. The Colts are in a little bit of a down trend though still as dangerous as ever at 6-3. The Patriots will need the same defensive intensity next week, and then some.
But give the Patriots credit Sunday night for bringing their best to the Steelers when they really needed to. They had to get last week out of their system, and they greatly succeeded. Whatever intensity was absent last week in Cleveland, it was definitely there on Sunday night in Pittsburgh. It is a shame that Cleveland didn't play the Jets as tough and smart as they did the Patriots last week, but that is why Cleveland is 3-6 and the Patriots are four games better.
It's also nice to know that if these teams meet again this year, it will most likely be in Gillette Stadium.
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