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Patriots Beat Beaten-Up Steelers, 27-16

Monday, October 24, 2016 4:28
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The Patriots continued their recent dominance over Pittsburgh yesterday, outlasting the Roethlisberger-less Steelers, 27-16. The win, coupled with Buffalo’s loss to Miami, gives the Pats a two-game lead in the AFC East, and a one-game lead over the Oakland Raiders for the top spot in the AFC. Next week is a chance to avenge their only loss of the year, when they travel to Buffalo to take on the Bills — this time with Tom Brady.

Yesterday’s contest came down to the Patriots ability to cash in their opportunities for touchdowns and their ability to make the Steelers take field goals instead. Both teams scored four times, but the final wasn’t all that close because New England scored three touchdowns on three trips to the red zone and Pittsburgh was 1-of-4 in similar circumstances.

The Patriots offense was hot-and-cold. Quarterback Tom Brady completed his first 11 of his first 12 passes, then cooled off until midway through the third quarter, when he heated up on two consecutive touchdown drives. He finished the day 19 of 26 (73%) for 222 yards, 2 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, and a 124.2 QB rating.

Brady also also finished as the highest rated quarterback in the league for the season, with a 132.6 rating. (Trivia question #1: name the second-rated QB in the league; answer below.) What Brady is doing is astonishing, almost as amazing as the team going nearly half a season without throwing a single interception yet.

Helping out Brady was a dominant running game, which was all LeGarrette Blount. Blount ran, pushed, bullied, and fought his way to 127 yards on 24 carries and 2 touchdowns. Brady had the other 13 yards on the ground. Blount ran under control and found some gaping holes, thanks to…

The offensive line is getting a lot of good pub online for their performance yesterday. They did open huge holes in the running game, aided by the double-threat tight ends (more on them later). However, the Steelers rarely blitzed but seemed to get to Brady whenever he had to go past his first read. This was acceptable given the game result, but they’ll have to play much better when they face the blitzing Bills next week.

On the line, Nate Solder and Joe Thuney blocked very well on the run. Even center David Andrews did some damage at the second level. However, the holding calls went thusly: Solder had two, Shaq Mason had one, and Andrews had one. Thuney pitched in with a false start penalty — all of which is to say it wasn’t all roses for the O-line.

The tight ends and receivers provided some extra help in the running game. Martellus Bennett did more damage run blocking than in the passing game, and as always, Rob Gronkowski was a mismatch whomever he blocked. Gronkowski did a great job sealing the edge, and to mix it up, several of the runs had the two blocking away from each other and Blount running through the vacated hole. Also, Julian Edelman has some key blocks at the edge, both downfield and near the line of scrimmage.

As for actually catching the ball, it started as the Edelman show (9 catches for 60 yards), then morphed into the Gronkowski show (4 for 93 and 1 touchdown). James White contributed another TD catch, making some nifty moves and getting great blocking down near the goal line. The only big disappointment was Chris Hogan’s fumble on the first offensive play of the game.

If you check the stat sheet, it looks like the defensive secondary got burned a lot. But the reality was much different; with excellent play from corners Malcolm Butler and Eric Rowe, and outstanding play from safety Patrick Chung. There were some long completions that hurt. But Butler undercut a route perfectly on the interception, and then covered a hobbling Antonio Brown one-on-one most of the second half.

Rowe had six tackles and one pass defended. In fact, the Pats got deflected passes from Butler, Rowe, Logan Ryan, and even Leonard Coleman. A total team effort — although in the spirit of competition, Rowe might be ready to challenge Ryan for the second starting spot.

Chung was everywhere. He led the team with ten tackles, including some for very short gains. He also knocked down two passes of his own, and was a force in slowing down the short passing game of Pittsburgh.

Rob Ninkovich and Elandon Roberts pitched in at linebacker this week, and starter Jamie Collins returned with a vengeance. Collins missed a few plays by inches, and still totaled eight tackles. Roberts saw less time than Ninkovich, though it’s tough to tell sometimes, because Nink moves from defensive end to linebacker with ease.

Along the defensive line, they miss Ninkovich’s ability to hold the edge. Jabaal Sheard was decent at it last year, but not in this game. And newcomer Chris Long hasn’t been good at it yet. In fact, I’ll make the blanket statement that all the outside linemen got pinched inside at least once in this game, all of them allowing Steelers running plays to get outside of them.

But the D-line wasn’t a total disaster. Inside lineman Malcom Brown still crushed it, and Alan Branch came up with three tackles and a forced fumble. But the team will need more consistency from the defensive ends if they hope to hold up against balanced offenses moving forward.

Special teams continues to be a source of worry. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski pushed an extra point wide right, a line that seems to be a weekly staple of this column. Edelman fumbled a punt return, and even old reliable, punter Ryan Allen, shanked one at a very inopportune time.

One other gaffe was a punt that Brandon Bolden should have touched out of bounds at the six yard-line was reviewed by replay and it was determined to be a touchback instead (and placed at the 20 yard-line).

Also, their strategy of kicking to the one yard-line to force a kickoff return backfired thrice yesterday. Of the five kickoffs, Pittsburgh returned four of them, and three times they got past the 25 yard-line (the benchmark for a good return).

Eventually the Pats had Gostkowski kick it out of the end zone on the last kick, but it appears teams have figured out this strategy and they are ready to make the Patriots pay with good returns. Might be time to do this more sparingly, just to give them the element of surprise.

In the end, none of these things killed the Patriots. But in close games against good teams with their starting quarterbacks, all of them could make the difference between a W and an L. As Pete Carroll used to say, “Gotta clean it up!”

The coaching plan was excellent. The Steelers defense played to stop the pass with drops into deep zones, so the Patriots emphasis on the running attack exploited that perfectly. And the Pats defense played to make Pittsburgh drive a long field with a backup quarterback. So when he couldn’t go all the way for the touchdown, the Steelers settled for field goals.

So where does that leave us? 6-1 ain’t half bad, especially when it has you sitting pretty atop the AFC heap. Buffalo will be a significant challenge next week. Bills head coach Rex Ryan knows a loss here puts the division title out of reach, so he’ll pull out all the stops to stay in the race. But bear in mind, the Pats actually play better against the Bills in Buffalo than at home in Foxboro.

Non-Brady MVP of the Week: Malcolm Butler with the INT, three passes defended, and six tackles. (Note: it was going to be Edelman, until he fumbled a punt. Then it was going to be Chung, but Butler had impact plays down the stretch.)

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Yesterday’s broadcast joined the game late, so for the first time since 1994, I missed a play in a Patriots game. But the oddity isn’t that I missed a play, it’s that the first play I missed yesterday was a kickoff, and the last play I missed in 1994 was also a kickoff — in fact it was a kickoff returned for a touchdown against the Bill Parcels coached Patriots.

(Trivia question #2: can you name the team that scored that touchdown against the Pats in 1994? Answer below… and yes, you can use the Internet if you like.)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: “When you give up 15 points a game, it’s pretty easy to win against a backup QB.”

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 6-1!

PPS. Trivia Answers:
(1) Patriots QB Jimmy Garoppolo is the second-rated quarterback in the league, with a 117.1.
(2) The Pats gave up a kickoff return touchdown to the San Diego Chargers; but they still won the game, 23-17 — November 20, 1994.


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