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Patriots  Week 15  Report Card, Patriots Beat Steelers 27-24

Steve Balestrieri
December 19, 2017 at 9:00 am ET

Sometimes it doesn’t matter how you start but how you finish. Although the Steelers controlled the vast majority of this game with their offense dominating in terms of time of possession, it never really carried over to the scoreboard. Even when the Patriots were down by 8 points in the second half, you never had the feeling that they were out of this game and they were still only down by a single score.

The one thing we know about this team is that they are a resilient bunch and that if you’re going to beat them, you need to play a full 60 minutes. Pittsburgh controlled the majority of the game, but the last few minutes belonged to Tom Brady and company. Followed by a wild and wacky finish where there was a long pass play, a disallowed touchdown and an interception to seal the deal, it was a satisfying win that not only clinched the AFC East but put the Patriots back in control of the AFC with two games to play. Perfect? Far from it. Satisfying? You bet and the coaches will take it.

So we’ll go thru the positions after rewatching the tape and see what the grades say this week.

Quarterback: B

Tom Brady had a very good game considering the circumstances. His wide receiver corps was thinned even further with no Chris Hogan and then lost Rex Burkhead and James White during the game but he persevered.

Pittsburgh played much more man coverage in this game when they tried to sprinkle in some zone, Brady immediately hit Cooks with a 43-yard pass down the left side. They got good pressure on him all game long which made him uncomfortable in the pocket.

That pressure forced him into a bad interception in the third quarter with Vince Williams being the first Steeler to pick him in a dozen years. He nearly had another in the final two minutes on a tipped pass at the line.

But after that he was brilliant. Brady was 5-7 on throws of more than 20 yards in the air. So much for the dink-dunk myth or that his arm strength is failing. He realized that Pittsburgh still has no answer for Rob Gronkowski and they did what they always do to the Steeler secondary, they eviscerated it in the second half. On the key 4th and 1 play, Brady recognized the defense and signaled Gronkowski, who was one-on-one with Sean Davis. The result was an easy 10 yard gain, which led to a touchdown to Cooks.

Running Backs: C+

The Patriots didn’t run the ball very much in this one as they were mostly playing from behind this week. But when they did there was some hit and miss. Dion Lewis had 12 carries for 67 yards including the game-winning run from eight yards out that totally caught the Steelers off-guard after Gronk tortured them down the field. But he didn’t  seem to get enough work between the tackles.

Rex Burkhead went down with what looked like a serious knee injury but luckily that wasn’t the case. He had a nice touchdown run inside. James White went down during the game but was able to return.

What was surprising was how little production the backs had in the passing game. Lewis had one catch for 13 yards, White had two catches for eight although Brady overthrew him when he had a lot of open space and Burkhead had one catch for five. James Develin had an uncharacteristic drop but was mostly good in the running game opening up holes for the backs when they did run

Wide Receivers: C

The wide receivers weren’t a big factor in the game, part of that is on them, partly on the Pittsburgh secondary. Brandin Cooks had a 43-yard reception early and a nice touchdown in the back of the end zone but he ran a deep, double move pattern too close to the sideline. That allowed the defender to ride him out of bounds. That wiped out a huge gain on what was Brady’s best throw of the game.

Chris Hogan was out, Kenny Britt made an early contribution after just a few days on the team. He’ll be looked at more as the schedule plays out. Danny Amendola had just two catches on the day and Phillip Dorsett had just one. Not enough production

Tight Ends: A++

Rob Gronkowski came back from his one-week suspension and played like a man possessed, especially in the second half. Gronkowski finished with 9 catches for 168 yards, where 135 of them were after halftime. He was simply dominating the game.

Pittsburgh had no answer for him and they were simply outmatched by his strength and speed. It is one thing saying that you’re going to be physical with him, it is another thing entirely going out and doing it.

He owned the field on the final Patriots touchdown drive gaining 26 yards on back to back plays taking the Patriots from deep in their own end to the Steelers 25 yard line. Then showing incredible flexibility, (TB 12 Clinc?) he reached down to pluck a low Brady pass off the turf and rumbled for 17 more setting up Dion Lewis’ touchdown run. On that play, both he and Dwayne Allen put punishing blocks on the Steelers defensive line.

And he’ll still hear it in the film room, he dropped a touchdown that he’d normally make the catch on. But his overall play more than made up for that. As games go this was a dominating performance as you’ll see.

Offensive Line: B-

The offensive line had a mixed game, they were allowing too much pressure, once again Joe Thuney struggled, as did Shaq Mason in pass protection and they didn’t get the consistent push in the running game but it was good enough. As is the norm with them, when the chips were on the line, they held up really well. Nate Solder had one of his best games of the year. Did anyone hear T.J. Watt’s name once in the game? He’s been a disruptor for the Pittsburgh defense and Solder kept him far away from Brady all day. Nice bounce back type of game for Dante Scarnecchia’s crew after the Miami mess of a week ago.

Defensive Line: C

Trey Flowers was back and he made his presence felt getting some pressure in the passing game. But overall the pass rush is still an issue and it is a case of them “almost getting there” it seems. No Alan Branch this week and the Steelers ran at the interior early but the middle of the line, Lawrence Guy, Malcom Brown and Ricky Jean-Francois did a pretty good job of gumming up the middle. Where the Steelers ran very effectively was on the edge. Both Deatrich Wise and Eric Lee were consistently washed out or pushed inside and Le’Veon Bell was eating them up on the outside.

Lee missed a sack that he should have had against Roethlisberger, he’s not as mobile as he used to be and Lee should have made that. The team dropped Flowers into the flat on a few passing plays and he was abused by Bell.

Linebackers: D

This is an area to watch moving forward and a possible Achilles Heel in January, especially with no Kyle Van Noy. Elandon Roberts, David Harris, and Marquis Flowers had games that won’t be pretty in the film room this week.

They were consistently blown up in the running game by the Steelers offensive line who once they got to the second level owned them. Roberts flew up into the wrong gap and had a handful of air on Bell’s touchdown run and looked lost there. Harris, whose specialty is the run game, was blown up quite a few times, too many.

Coverage isn’t their strong suit which is why the Steelers were successful on those shallow crosses. Matt Patricia tried blitzing them and they had an o-fer. Every time they blitzed Roethlisberger made them pay going a perfect 6-6 for 80 yards and a score.Ugly day again for the linebackers.

Secondary: B-

The secondary had its problems with the Pittsburgh speedy group of wide receivers. Overall the Steelers were 10-16 on third down which is very good, but the team stopped them on their final three attempts. When they’re having that kind of success, the secondary has to bear a lot of the burden but it goes hand-in-hand with the pass rush as well. Rewatching the film, Roethlisberger had so much time, the receivers had time to shake themselves open.

Stephon Gilmore had a rough day with Martavis Bryant who was giving him trouble with his combination of size and speed. Malcolm Butler didn’t have to cover Antonio Brown for long as he was injured, but made a great play tackling Heyward-Bey inbounds on the Steelers final drive keeping the clock moving… under the radar great play.

Eric Rowe made the tip on the final interception that Duron Harmon picked off. Don’t pay attention to that knucklehead on the radio. Harmon is a money player who is always around the ball. Devin McCourty and Pat Chung were solid as always. Jordan Richards? What in the wide world of sports was that attempt on the JuJu Schuster-Smith catch and run? That was singularly awful and nearly cost them the game. That’s a tackle he has to make and to whiff like that? Inexcusable.

The secondary as a whole deserves high marks for not falling for the fake spike. Roethlisberger threw that into triple coverage, something that been lost in the shuffle among the hysterical fan/media outrage over the James drop in the end zone.

Special Teams: B-

Stephen Gostkowski missed an extra point but that was because of a rare snap miscue by Joe Cardona. Ryan Allen had to adjust and didn’t have a good hold, it forced Gostkowski’s timing off and he shanked it.
Allen had a net 47 yards on his punts and Gostkowski’s kickoffs consistently put the Steelers deep, behind the 20-25 yard line. Other than the one miscue, they were fine, but it could have been costly. Matthew Slater had a great play on a sliding downing of an Allen punt pinning the Steelers deep.

Coaches: B

Bill Belichick always preaches situational football, that’s why the Patriots pull out so many of these close games and opponents fail. No one bit on the fake spike, and the Steelers were unprepared for the final few plays after the James score was overturned. That is something the Patriots never have to worry about. Josh McDaniels’ crew couldn’t convert third downs again in the first half, but once he locked in on the Brady-Gronk connection, he rode it. Matt Patricia’s beat up crew on defense couldn’t get off the field on third down. It wasn’t for lack of trying, but they got the final three third downs including the final pick.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Five Takeaways From The Patriots Win Over Pittsburgh

Ian Logue
December 18, 2017 at 5:00 am ET

Sunday’s win over Pittsburgh came down to the wire and certainly had some tense moments but fortunately, the Patriots came away with a 27-24 win to clinch the AFC East and put them in control of the top seed in the AFC with two games to play.

Looking back at the victory, here are some thoughts after the Patriots improved to 11-3 on the season.

1) Without Van Noy, the defense continues to struggle – The Patriots were still without Kyle Van Noy on Sunday and it’s obvious that he’s been one of the key difference-makers who has allowed the team to survive the loss of Dont’a Hightower and still be relatively successful.  The only problem is, New England’s defense has struggled in his absence, which was evident last weekend in Miami and again on Sunday.

The Steelers piled up 143-yards running the football, with the Patriots struggling to stop a Steelers’ team that converted 10-of-16 (63%) on third down and had difficulty at times getting them off the field.  With Pittsburgh having success sustaining drives, it allowed them to control the clock and keep Tom Brady and the offense on the sideline as the Steelers held the ball for 19:53 in the first half, compared to just 10:07 for the Patriots.

The veteran linebacker was downgraded to out prior to Sunday’s game, with Van Noy having last played back on December 3rd during New England’s win over the Bills in Buffalo.  Coming into Sunday’s game he was second on the team in tackles with 73, as well as second in sacks with 5.5.

Fortunately, on Sunday the Patriots survived without him but it’s clear that heading into the final two games and into the postseason, they’re certainly going to be much better off if he’s able to come back healthy.

2) Patriots are lucky the 69-yard play they gave up at the end of the game didn’t cost them – Staying on the subject of the defense, there were definitely some rough moments, including one key miscue at the end of the game that nearly cost them.

The play came following New England’s go-ahead touchdown in the final moments, which looking back at how it unfolded, it’s safe to say that it will most definitely be a point of emphasis in the film room this week.

Clinging to a 3-point lead, the Steelers had 0:52 left to work with, which was still a fair amount of time to get from their own 21-yard line into field goal range to potentially force overtime. But it felt like, at the time, the Patriots finally had the momentum and were back in control of the game at that point.  The only thing they needed was for their defense to put together one final stop and close the game out.

Instead, their beleaguered group gave it all back and then some in just one play.  On the snap, Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster came across the middle and beat Eric Rowe, with Ben Roethlisberger hitting him in stride as he came across.  From there, Smith-Schuster made a mad dash toward the sideline and safety Devin McCourty came flying in toward him to try and help Rowe out and seemingly had the angle he needed to push him out of bounds.  The only problem was, Jordan Richards was locked up with Le’Veon Bell near the sideline.  Richards dove at Smith-Schuster as he ran past, and unfortunately, he took McCourty out of the play, leaving Rowe having to continue chasing after him.

By the time Duron Harmon wrapped him up, Smith-Schuster was at New England’s 10-yard line and the Steelers seemingly had just the play they needed to at least force overtime.

You could see the frustration on the face of Tom Brady after the play, who isn’t exactly a stranger to being on the wrong end of those situations given some of the losses he’s been through.  However, fortunately, Harmon came up with the play they needed to put the game away, and New England finds themselves right where they want to be heading into the final weeks of the 2017 regular season.


There was no stopping Gronkowski on Sunday.

3) Gronkowski reminded everyone what a difference-maker he is – Having Rob Gronkowski back in action on Sunday was obviously huge, and watching him take over the game in the fourth quarter was certainly impressive.

Gronkowski hauled in 9 catches for 168 yards during the victory, including 3 receptions for 69 yards on the team’s game-winning drive, which he polished off with a 2-point conversion following Dion Lewis’ 8-yard touchdown.

He was in the zone all afternoon, making some terrific catches and his performance over the final two minutes was just ridiculous.  On his first reception, he picked up 26-yards after beating safety Sean Davis on a post coming across from the left side of the field just before the two-minute warning.

They went right back to a similar route on the next play, picking up another 26-yards after Gronkowski got behind Davis again, with Brady hitting the veteran tight end in stride between two defenders.  Gronkowski took a big shot from safety Mike Mitchell, who hit him low and wrapped him up for the tackle. But it didn’t affect him as Gronkowski was fired up at that point, flexing and clearly on a mission after back-to-back 26-yard receptions.

But as if that wasn’t enough, the catch he made on the ensuing play was just incredible.  After lining up again in the left slot, Gronkowski ran a route across the middle and Brady, who was under pressure by Pittsburgh’s defense on that play, managed to slide away and while moving to his left fired the football to Gronkowski, but the throw was slightly off target and low, reaching him mere inches from the ground.  However, Gronkowski managed to reach down and snatch the football just above the turf, pulling it into his body before somersaulting and rising to his feet.

At that point, you could see in his eyes that there was no stopping him.  Lewis would score on the next play, and Gronkowski slipped past the defender and made a twisting leaping grab for the two-point conversion.  It capped an incredible afternoon after spending the previous week as a spectator thanks to his suspension.  He admitted after the game, he was happy to be back.

“I missed the boys,” said Gronkowski of his teammates.  “They are always grinding every single week. These guys are my teammates and they are great to be around. I definitely miss them and it’s great to be back.”

And after what we saw on Sunday, they were clearly lucky to have him.

4) Expect a rule change again this offseason thanks to the James play – As we know, the NFL isn’t a fan of their own rules when it works in favor of the Patriots, and the controversial play at the end of regulation involving Steelers’ tight end Jesse James’ apparent touchdown will likely spark a discussion with the competition committee during this next offseason.

After what initially looked like a 10-yard touchdown reception that would have sealed the game, the officials reviewed the play and ultimately overturned it after ruling that James didn’t control the ball all the way to the ground.  Looking back at the film, James caught the football above his head and then twisted his body back toward the end zone, while reaching the ball across the goal line.  The only problem was, as his body and the ball hit the ground, James lost his grip on the football.

According to referee Tony Corrente, they ruled that James “just didn’t survive to the ground.”

“In order to have a completed pass, a receiver must survive going to the ground,” Corrente told the field reporter after the game.  “In this case, [James] had control of the football but he was going to the ground.  As he hit the ball, the ball began to roll and rotate and the ball hit the ground and that’s the end of it at that point.”

That play obviously changed everything because it left the door open for Harmon’s interception, which we’ll get to next.


Roethlisberger and Tomlin didn’t appear to be on the same page Sunday.

5) Tomlin and Roethlisberger were clearly not on the same page – For two people who have worked together as long as they have, it sounds like Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin were definitely not on the same page at the end of Sunday’s game.

Following Darrius Heyward-Bey’s 3-yard reception with 20 seconds left to play, Malcolm Butler tackled him in bounds, which had the game clock running.  Initially, Roethlisberger brought everyone up to the line and was ready to spike the ball to stop the clock, but he claims “the sideline” didn’t want him too, which lead to some confusion.

“It wasn’t a fake spike,” Roethlisberger told reporters after the game. “I was yelling ‘clock it’ because I felt like that was the thing to do,  clock it and get yourself one play. And it came from the sideline, ‘Don’t clock it. Don’t clock it.’ Well, at that time, everyone thinks it’s clocked so you don’t have any time to get everyone lined up.”

Roethlisberger snapped the ball with 0:09 left on the clock and it was obvious there were some players who weren’t quite sure what was happening.  The entire left side of the field saw his receivers standing around, while Eli Rogers continued his route into three Patriots’ defenders.

https://twitter.com/NFL/status/942549852595949568

“Eli (Rogers) kinda ran a quick slant in there and at that time you’ve just got to try to make a big play,” said Roethlisberger.  “I didn’t make a good enough throw.”

Roethlisberger did go through the act of faking like he was going to spike it, and then looked at Rogers and double-clutched the throw, which allowed Rowe just the amount of time he needed to close and dive out in front, knocking the ball away.  Harmon alertly picked off the football, and just like that, you could hear the collective gasp from everyone on hand at Heinz Field who were all stunned by what they had just seen.

Tomlin said after the game he had no issue with Roethlisberger’s decision to go for the end zone in that situation, despite the fact it cost them the game.

“No. No, man. We play and play to win,” said Tomlin.  “That’s what we do.”

Unfortunately for Tomlin, those types of moments have been what his team has done in these situations against a team they just can’t quite figure out how to beat.

Thankfully, it obviously worked out for the Patriots, who improved to 11-3 on the season with a rematch against the Bills up next this weekend.

Patriots – Steelers AFC Championship Key Matchups

Steve Balestrieri
January 20, 2017 at 9:44 am ET

The New England Patriots head to the AFC Championship Game for a record sixth time in a row and take on the Pittsburgh Steelers at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro on Sunday evening at 6:40 p.m.

The game will be televised by CBS and can be seen locally on WBZ-TV Channel 4 in Boston. Jim Nantz will handle play-by-play duties with Phil Simms as the color analyst. Tracy Wolfson will work the sidelines. The game will also be aired on the Patriots flagship radio station 98.5 The SportsHub with Bob Socci and Scott Zolak on the call, produced by Marc Cappello.

The Patriots (15-2) defeated the Houston Texans in the Divisional round 34-16 despite not being at their best offensively. The Patriots turned the ball over three times although Dion Lewis set an NFL record with a rushing, receiving and a return for a touchdown. The Patriots defense forced three turnovers with interceptions of Brock Osweiler.

The Steelers (13-5) defeated the Kansas City Chiefs in the Divisional Round 18-16. The Steelers offense also struggled and failed to score a touchdown relying on six Chris Boswell field goals. The Steelers defense stopped a two-point conversion with seconds left in the game that could have sent it into overtime.

We here at PatsFans.com are continuing our “Razor’s Edge” column in 2016 to give some quick analysis on some of the key matchups of the game and what you can look for in how the game plays out.

Series History:
The Patriots and Steelers meet for the 30th time but just the 10th in Pittsburgh. The Steelers own a 15-14 edge overall in the history between the two teams. However, since Bill Belichick took over the Patriots in 2000, the Patriots have had great success against the Steelers taking 10 of 13.

In their last meeting, earlier this season the Patriots won 27-16 at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh was without Ben Roethlisberger and had Landry Jones at quarterback. Tom Brady completed 19-26 for 222 yards and LaGarrette Blount rushed for 127 yards and two TDs on 24 carries.

Here is a look at some of the key matchups and who holds the Razor’s Edge.

First up is the Patriots offense:

Five Patriots Players to Watch Against the Steelers

Steve Balestrieri
October 21, 2016 at 11:53 am ET

Pittsburgh Still a Dangerous Team without Roethlisberger

The Patriots finish their current three-game tilt against the AFC North with a trip to Heinz Field to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers at 4:25 p.m. Sitting alone atop the AFC standings, the Patriots can put some distance between themselves and the Steelers who will be one of the teams to watch in the AFC once the postseason begins.

The Steelers come in at 4-2 and are undefeated at home, with both disappointing losses coming on the road this season. With Ben Roethlisberger banged up and not playing on Sunday, the Steelers offense still has plenty of weapons that they can bring to bear, notably RB La’Veon Bell and WR Antonio Brown. Both can turn a game around on their own in a split second, so they’ll be looking to limit each of their effectiveness.

Pittsburgh is trying to do what the Patriots did early in the season, rally around their backup QB and get a tough team win and show that they’re a team to be reckoned with. Landry Jones doesn’t have a lot of experience but he does have plenty of weapons to use and it should be an interesting matchup.

Here are our five players from a Patriots perspective to watch on Sunday:

QB Tom Brady: While still defying Father Time at the ripe old age of 39, Brady has been outstanding in his first two games back this season throwing for 782 yards and six touchdowns with zero interceptions. Now he’s facing a Pittsburgh defense that has struggled to defend the pass this season.

Brady has mostly shredded the Pittsburgh defense in the eight games that he’s faced them, with a 6-2 record. In the last two matchups, Brady has completed 48 of 65 passes (73%), for 720 yards (11.07 YPA), eight touchdowns and zero interceptions for a passer rating of 149.3 in those games

Pittsburgh’s best pass rusher, Cam Heyward is out for this one, and the Steelers are going to have to get very creative with their pressure packages. He should be primed to have another big game against the Steelers Sunday.

We circled this one as a shootout with the Steelers when the schedule came out. The Steelers don’t want that type of game with Jones at the helm. Now without Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh will try to slow down the pace and shorten the game.

LB Dont’a Hightower: The big man in the middle of the Patriots defense was fantastic a week ago. He logged 13 tackles, 1.5 sacks including a safety and was awarded the AFC’s Defensive Player of the Week against the Bengals. If anything, his job this week is even tougher.

Facing a Steelers duo of La’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams, and with Jamie Collins’ status still unknown, the onus this week of slowing down the Pittsburgh tandem will fall to Hightower.

While the big men upfront Malcom Brown and Alan Branch and edge setters Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard must slow things at the point of attack, the playmaker that must step up is Hightower. Bell especially is a dual threat; he can run the ball very effectively and be a mismatch in the passing game. Hightower will be under the microscope again this week.

TE Rob Gronkowski: Questions about the big man’s health have been answered. Two weeks ago, he had five catches for 109 yards against Cleveland. Including a highlight reel 34-yard completion where he made five defenders miss.  Last week against Cincinnati he posted up a career-high 162 yards on seven catches (23.1 yards per reception) and a touchdown. He enters this game on a roll.

Last year the Steelers didn’t have an answer for Gronk in the season opener and had big communication issues that saw the big guy left all alone in one red zone gimme touchdown from Brady. He finished with 5 catches for 94 yards with three touchdowns to lead the Patriots.

He and Martellus Bennett are the big mismatches this week as the Patriots will try to stretch the Pittsburgh defense both down the middle as well as lining up out wide. They struggled a year ago to match up with him. Now with Gronk on a roll, the past two weeks and Bennett aligned opposite, both he and Gronkowski are primed to have a big day.

Julian Edelman: Earlier this week we wrote about #11 and the fact that he hasn’t had a big impact this season…yet. While his foot injury may have resurfaced where he’s not 100 percent physically, the additional weapons added to the Patriots arsenal may have something to do with that as well.

Edelman too, had a big game against this Steelers defense a year ago, catching a team-high 11 passes for 97 yards, he was at his best, exploding off the line, making sharp cuts and consistently moving the chains for the offense.

Brady’s favorite target and closest friend on the team is #11. The two are fiercely protective of one another and lean on each other on the field. This is the kind of big game that Edelman normally elevates his game for. The Steelers are a tough, physical football team, Bill Belichick told the players this week, if you love football, then this is the week for you.

Edelman isn’t the biggest guy. But he’s as tough as they come. He’s made a living going into those dangerous places across the middle, making the plays and taking the hits that come with that territory. He’ll definitely be a guy to watch on Sunday as Brady will try to get him involved early and often.

CB Malcolm Butler: The Patriots third-year cornerback is having a very good season and had a very solid game a week ago against the Bengals. This week, as with the running backs, the Steelers have a plethora of very good, explosive wide receivers who can catch the ball and make big plays. Butler must be on his A-game regardless of who is at quarterback.

A year ago, in his first NFL start, Butler was matched up with Antonio Brown one-on-one for much of the game. Brown won the duel with 9 catches for 133 yards and a touchdown on 11 targets for the game. But Butler challenged well and learned some valuable lessons that served him well the rest of the season.

It isn’t known if the Patriots will use Butler to match up again with Brown this year, but whoever he’s matched up with, he’ll have to set the tone in the secondary. This will be an interesting chess match this week, because these two teams may be doing this again in January.

Stay tuned to PatsFans.com as we’ll have up-to-the-minute breaking news as well as post-game analysis.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.