High Marks All Around In Destruction of the Steelers
The Patriots are going back to the Super Bowl after a 36-17 dismantling of the Steelers. After beating the Steelers by 10 without Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh earlier this season, the conventional wisdom was that this one would be a lot closer, with many media folks picking the Steelers in this matchup.
But New England put together a dominant effort in all three phases of the game and held the potent Steelers offense to just nine points until a garbage time touchdown with three minutes to go. So much for not facing and beating an elite QB.
With the victory, the Patriots (16-2) will continue to Houston to face the Atlanta Falcons (13-5), in the Super Bowl for the ninth time, the most in NFL history. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick go for the 7th time in 16 years, which is a crazy fact in the age of parity and the salary cap in today’s NFL.
So, we’ll start with the offense and the players can come forward to pick up their grade sheets.
Tom Brady was masterful and in control all game long. After having an off-day against the Texans the week prior, Brady was focused, sharp and picked the Steelers defense apart. He completed 32-42 for 384 yards and 3 TDs for a passer rating of 127.5
In his last six games against the Steelers, Brady has thrown 22 touchdowns and zero interceptions. He picked apart the Steelers zone coverage and constantly found the open man. When they changed things at the line, Brady would audible at the pre-snap and kept Pittsburgh’s defense on their heels.
When the Steelers closed to 10-6 in the second quarter, Brady engineered a magnificent nine-play 82-yard drive for a touchdown that put the Patriots in the driver’s seat for good. Completing key third down passes to Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan, the Patriots put the dagger in with a perfectly executed 34-yard flea flicker to Hogan for the score.
Running Backs: C+
LeGarrette Blount was held easily in check in this one until his 18-yard burst thru the line where he ended up carrying over half the Pittsburgh defenders with him to the one-yard line. He followed that up with a touchdown on his next carry. His 2.9-yard average wasn’t what the team was looking for but running the ball wasn’t in the gameplan this time.
Blount had 47 yards on 16 carries, Dion Lewis wasn’t as effective as we thought he’d be as the interior of the Pittsburgh defensive line did a very good job of stuffing the run. He ended up with just 11 yards on six carries.
Wide Receivers: A
Unlike the first Pittsburgh game where the WRs were an afterthought to the running game, this time the Patriots came out fast and throwing the ball. Brady spread the ball around to nine receivers on the day and Pittsburgh had no answer.
Chris Hogan gets the game ball with a new Patriots postseason receiving record of nine catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns. The amazing thing was he could have had more. He dropped a bubble screen with plenty of blocking ahead of him and let another go off his fingertips in the end zone. But it was a fantastic day for the former Buffalo Bill.
The best line of the game went to the Boston Herald’s Ron Borges who said about the free agent the Patriots signed in March, “Ten months later, the Steelers showed as much interest in Hogan as the Bills had. The Bills didn’t covet him and the Steelers didn’t cover him.” Brilliant and summed up perfectly.
Julian Edelman had another fantastic performance with 8 catches for 118 yards and a score. The Steelers had no one that could cover him and he found the open areas of the zone coverage time and again.
Tight Ends: B
The Patriots used their “12” Personnel package in the first meeting quite a bit with 1 RB, 2 TEs and 2 WRs with both Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett in the lineup. This time around they went with their “10” package with 1 RB and 4 WRs for nearly 20 snaps. So, the tight ends weren’t big targets in the passing game.
Bennett however, did catch five passes for 32 yards and provided some solid blocking in the running game.
Offensive Line: B
The offensive line did a great job of pass protection this week, after a game against Houston where Brady was under pressure for most of the game. This time, they clogged the middle when the Steelers tried to bring pressure up the A-gaps and their edge rushers James Harrison and Dud Dupree were rendered practically invisible with strong performances by Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon.
The run blocking was another story as the Pittsburgh interior DL stood up strong all game long in run support. Joe Thuney was tossed aside by Jason Hargraves like a sack of mail on one sequence.
But the game plan this week was to throw and Brady’s protection was very, very good for the majority of this one. He frequently had so much time he stood flat-footed waiting for someone to get open.
Defensive Line: B+
The Patriots defensive line had a tremendous day of stuffing the run. Alan Branch, Malcom Brown and Vincent Valentine were tremendous inside. Pittsburgh’s running game got just 54 yards on 20 carries. After Le’Veon Bell went down with an injury, they brought in D’Angelo Williams who carried 14 times for just 34 yards.
Valentine had a huge stuff of Williams on a 2nd and goal run that pushed them back to the five-yard line. That sequence resulted in a field goal after the Steelers had 1st and goal from the one-foot line.
The defensive line had another stop on the Steelers later in the game. Branch stuffed a run on first down. He and Valentine set up another stop by Hightower and Pittsburgh came away with no points.
Dont’a Hightower and Elandon Roberts were going to be the main players in the game, but once Bell went down, they went more with Kyle Van Noy and Shea McClellin. Van Noy forced a fumble from Eli Rogers and Rob Ninkovich flew up from the line to recover it. No surprise there, whenever there is a big play in a big game, Ninkovich is always there.
The Patriots tried some A-gap blitzes with Hightower and Roberts but the Steelers OL did a good job of picking them up. McClellin did get some pressure on a few plays from the edge.
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.
Malcolm Butler was matched up with Brown with a safety over the top. They took away his ability to use the middle of the field nearly perfectly, where he always seems to get a ton of yards after the catch.
After Bell went down, the secondary switched from more man coverage to zone. Roethlisberger did very well against that, completing 16-17 passes, but the majority were of the check down variety and they took away the deep part of the field.
Both Butler and Logan Ryan had strong games in the secondary as the latter continues his very good season. He was taken out on a nicely designed pick play by the Steelers where Jesse James got a 16-yard gain. Eric Rowe was the fortunate one on Sunday night. He was beaten a few times and was the gift recipient of a couple of drops and then was beaten for the late touchdown when a communication breakdown allowed Cobi Hamilton to be all alone for a 30-yard touchdown.
But overall, it was a fantastic effort for the secondary and the defense as a whole. We heard ad nauseam how the Patriots hadn’t faced an elite QB all season. Well, they did on Sunday and held them to essentially nine points until the garbage time score late.
Special Teams: B
Stephen Gostkowski missed an extra point, although this time in the conference championship game it didn’t come back to haunt him. He was perfect on three field goals, however.
Ryan Allen didn’t have to punt much but was effective with a 43.5 net average. The coverage units were solid and Jonathan Jones gets high marks for a couple of bone-jarring hits.
The return game was disappointing after a big night against Houston. Dion Lewis had a single return for just 18-yards and Edelman didn’t have any punt returns.
Bill Belichick had the team ready to go and put together an outstanding game plan for this one. After leaning on Blount and the running game in Pittsburgh, the Patriots planned to start fast and do it with the passing game.
Josh McDaniels called a fantastic game and the decision to go with the up-tempo was brilliant. The Steelers had no answer for either Hogan or Edelman and Brady, as he’s been so often against Pittsburgh, picked them apart.
In our keys to the game, our take was that the Patriots should force the Steelers linebackers to play in space and they showed that their coverage was an Achilles heel. He caught them time and again in the times the Steelers attempted to blitz Brady and the play call for the flea flicker touchdown to Hogan was a beauty.
Matt Patricia and Belichick had the game plan to take away Bell and Brown and force Roethlisberger to beat them with Rogers, Coates, and James. It worked to perfection. Roethlisberger even hinted after the game in a not-so-subtle jab that perhaps the moment was too big for the young receivers.