The Patriots are 6-1 and lead the AFC with the best record in the conference. They also opened a two-game lead in the division with the Bills’ loss in Miami. The 27-16 win on the road in Pittsburgh was a tough win that improved the team’s road record to 3-0.
It was at times a sloppy game, but the bottom line is this: Regardless of who the QB was, Pittsburgh is a very difficult place to play in and win. And the Patriots came out of there with an 11-point win on Sunday. Was it a “signature” victory? No, but it did what they needed it to do and they’re in control of the AFC.
This was one of those difficult, team-building wins where they feel they can win in any environment and fight thru adversity. They were pushed and tested but answered the bell and came out of a tough place to win with a double-digit victory.
So, we’ll start with the offense and the players can come forward to pick up their grade sheets.
Tom Brady had a very solid day, and continued his mastery over the Steelers, improving to 9-2 lifetime against Pittsburgh. He completed 19 of 26 for 222 yards, two touchdowns, and zero interceptions. Two of his incompletions were drops and two were thrown away so his day was impressive despite the lack of big yardage.
In his last six games against the Steelers, Brady has thrown 20 touchdowns and zero interceptions. He was content to use the power running game in this one as the Steelers went to a lighter nickel package and tried to flood the underneath passing routes across the middle.
When the Steelers closed to 14-13 in the second half, Brady engineered two back-to-back 75 yard drives that drove a stake into their hearts and erased any hopes of pulling this one off. His best throw of the day was a dime to Rob Gronkowski down the seam for a 36-yard touchdown.
Running Backs: A
LeGarrette Blount was easily the MVP of this one and gets our game ball for his efforts. Blount carried the ball 24 times for 127 yards and two touchdowns averaging 5.3 yards per carry.
Pittsburgh went with an extra defensive back, trying to slow down Brady in this one, basically daring the Patriots to run. And Blount made them pay on Sunday. The big 250-pound battering ram was very impressive, keeping his patience and finding the holes that the offensive line opened for him.
James White surprisingly got zero carries in the running game and only caught two passes in five targets from Brady. But one of them was huge, a 19-yard screen that went for a touchdown that gave the Patriots a 7-0 lead in the first quarter.
Brandon Bolden had a bad drop on a third down where he was wide open. His miscue and the subsequent shanked punt gave the Steelers momentum. D.J. Foster was inactive Sunday.
Wide Receivers: B-
Julian Edelman looks like he’s rounding into form as he appeared to be much closer to his normal quick self on Sunday. The Patriots used in many times in the short crossing routes underneath with a linebacker in coverage. Edelman responded with 9 catches for 60 yards on 10 targets and kept the chains moving. The only miss on the day was a drop that would have gone for a big gain.
Chris Hogan had just two catches for 25 yards and was only targeted twice. He also fumbled on the Patriots first snap after catching a 12-yard pass from Brady.
Danny Amendola and Malcolm Mitchell didn’t make any catches on Sunday. Mitchell ran one deep route that was well covered and Brady threw the ball away.
While the WRs didn’t have a big statistical day, their blocking in the running game was excellent again. It is a big part of their game and one which both the players and coaches take seriously.
Tight Ends: A-
The Steelers made it their purpose not to let Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett beat them on Sunday. They rotated their coverages to ensure that, basically daring the Patriots to run. So, the Pats obliged by using the tight ends in the running game unleashing Blount with a game-high 127 yards. But in the end, they were still burned.
Gronkowski caught four passes for 93 yards including a 36-yard touchdown down the seam where he split the safeties and added a 37-yarder on the next possession to set up the Patriots final touchdown. In the three games since Brady’s return, Gronk has 365 yards receiving and three touchdowns.
Bennett had just one catch for five yards on two targets. He wasn’t a big part of the game plan this week. That will change from week to week depending on the opponent.
Offensive Line: B-
The offensive line did a great job of run blocking this week; with the Steelers in nickel, they made a concerted effort to run the ball with Blount and they were very successful in doing so.
The big difference with having Dante Scarnecchia back this season is that the Patriots can run the football this season, even when the opponent knows they are going to run. This is essentially the same group from a year ago apart from Joe Thuney so why can they do it effectively this year? Don’t discount the influence Coach Scar has had up to this point.
The pass protection was okay other than one nightmarish series for Nate Solder where Jarvis Jones got a near sack then drew two holding penalties on the Pats LT. While Pittsburgh did get pressure from time to time, for the most part, Brady could slide or move in the pocket and still look downfield.
If not for the penalties, which were bad and will no doubt he heard from by the coaches this week in the film sessions, it wasn’t a terrible week. But overall the unit had some sloppy moments mixed in with some good ones in the run game.
Defensive Line: B-
The Patriots defensive line had zero pressure on Landry Jones, much to the chagrin of Patriots fans if you were on social media during the game. A big part of it was by design, on many plays they rushed three and were dropping men into coverage to frustrate and force Jones into making mistakes.
Part of it was to keep eyes on La’Veon Bell and to stop him from hurting them on running plays and on screens. Bell is one of the best-running backs in the NFL, a true dual threat to either run or catch. He entered the game with a 5.5 yard per carry average. The Patriots held him to a 3.9-yard clip on Sunday.
Jamie Collins returned from his injury this week and played a very strong game, matched up a lot with Bell. He made eight tackles which were all solo tackles and drew a key holding call that negated a Steelers touchdown.
As we mentioned above, a key for this game was to limit the effectiveness of Bell from being a major factor. Bell averaged 8.8 yards per reception before Sunday. The Patriots held him to a 6.8-yard average. That is a win for the defense, specifically the linebackers.
Dont’a Hightower and Elandon Roberts played physical and tough although neither [by design] was the factor that they were a week ago. This was all about Bell on Sunday for this unit and they did a good job.
The defensive game plan was to limit the Steelers two best players, Bell and Antonio Brown on Sunday. Brown is one of the most dangerous players in the league and is a threat every time he touches the football.
Matching up with him this week was Malcolm Butler and he had a very strong game. Butler gave up the big 51-yarder early in the contest, which Brown torches every other team in the league on it seems weekly. But overall Butler did all that you would ask him for. He had an interception and three pass breakups.
On the night, the secondary had a total of eight passes defended, a fantastic amount and generally played tight coverage on the deepest, most talented WR core in the league.
Pat Chung with 11 tackles [seven solos] and Devin McCourty had strong games at safety providing help underneath and over the top. Chung made a nice breakup on a pass in the end zone. Eric Rowe got the start next to Butler and the team moved Logan Ryan to the troublesome nickel/slot corner. Rowe is a bigger corner and the team had him matched up with the bigger Darrius Heyward-Bey. It will be interesting to see if this continues as time marches on or was just a one-week, game-specific plan.
Special Teams: D-
Ugh, this was the ugliest performance by a Patriots special teams’ unit this season and the worst since the Eagles game from last season. U-G-L-Y.
Stephen Gostkowski missed another extra point and the murmurs and now reaching a very audible level on his struggles. Bill Belichick said, he’d work thru it but it has reached a point where, had Roethlisberger been in there, may have cost them the game.
Ryan Allen shanked a punt right after the Bolden dropped pass on third down that went for 25 yards….that’s it 25, yep ugly.
Bolden wasn’t thru with his gaffes for the day. He then on a punt by Allen thought he was out of bounds and didn’t down a punt inside the five-yard line. The ball found its way into the end zone and the Steelers took over at the 20-yard line. That nice punt by Allen saved the unit from an “F”.
Julian Edelman fumbled on a punt return that would have put the Patriots on their 42-yard line. And the coverage units for the first time were victimized by an opponent when the Patriots used the pooch kickoffs.
Bill Belichick had the team ready to go, knowing the Steelers are always tough at home. The team got off to a good start up 14-0 before the Steelers battled back. Offensively the team made some nice adjustments by OC Josh McDaniels, mixing things up and finding a way to isolate Rob Gronkowski in the second half. And he made the Steelers pay once he did.
Defensively, I get the game plan, but I still thought that DC Matt Patricia could have mixed in a bit of a wrinkle to get the pass rush going but they never did. They tried to frustrate Jones and force some mistakes. So, while the defensive performance wasn’t great, Pittsburgh scored one TD and only 16 points overall.
McDaniels recognized the Steelers were daring them to run and stuck with it and Blount and was rewarded with a very solid effort. The play call on the White TD was superb as that one caught the Steelers totally off guard.
Posted Under: Patriots Commentary
Tags: 2016 NFL Season 2016 Patriots season Antonio Brown Bill Belichick Jabaal Sheard Julian Edelman La'Veon Bell LaGarrette Blount Landry Jones Nate Solder New England Patriots Patriots Patriots edge rushers Pittsburgh Steelers predictions Rob Gronkowski Rob Ninkovich Tom Brady