By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots, behind a vintage Tom Brady performance put on an offensive show in a 55-31 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday afternoon in Foxborough.
Brady, who has been struggling all season with a new supporting cast at wide receiver showed none of those issues that have plagued him and the offense all season, he was sharp, focused and made great decisions in dismantling what came in as the #2 defense against the pass in the NFL.
The win put the Patriots (7-2) in very good position at the bye week, 2 games ahead of the New York Jets. If the playoffs started today, the Patriots would be the #2 seed behind the Kansas City Chiefs and have a bye.
The win over the Steelers (2-6) though came at a high cost again; injuries which have ravaged the Patriots roster once more took their toll. Wide receiver Austin Collie left the game with a knee injury, DE/LB Rob Ninkovich injured his foot and S Steve Gregory injured his wrist and Alfonzo Dennard went off on the Steelers final drive and none returned.
Gregory was spotted after the game with his hand in a cast, Ninkovich was not in a walking boot and seemed to be okay walking through the post-game locker room. No information was available on Collie. The bye week comes at a good time for New England as they have too many injuries to count at this juncture.
For the Steelers, the questions that dogged them coming into the game are now ringing loudly. They had labeled this contest as a must win and the defense gave up franchise records of yards (610) and points (55), unheard of numbers for a Dick LeBeau unit.
Ben Roethlisberger had a fantastic game throwing for 400 yards and 4 touchdowns, three of which went to Jericho Cotchery. Dealing with a heavy pass rush for most of the game, Roethlisberger put the Steelers in great position in the third quarter leading two scoring drives to tie the game at 24 with two touchdown passes to Cotchery.
But the defense couldn’t stop New England in the fourth quarter with the Patriots scoring 28 points in the final frame. Considering that New England has scored more than 27 points only twice this season, that stat is particularly noteworthy.
Brady has fared well against LeBeau and the Steelers defense going 7-2 overall and in his last five games has thrown 13 touchdowns against zero interceptions. Pittsburgh’s secondary was confused and late reacting on many of the plays.
Here are some other observations from Sunday’s game:
Brady Shines Again: “Beginning of a slow decline”, “doesn’t have it anymore”, “can’t throw the deep ball.” These are the comments that Brady has been subjected to this season. Well none of those things were in evidence on Sunday.
Brady was laser-sharp and hit 23 of 33 for 432 yards and 4 touchdowns on Sunday. He averaged over 13 yards per pass attempt and his QB rating was 151.8, all season highs for him.
He was in command from the outset and dissected the Steelers secondary easily on Sunday. His touchdown pass to Danny Amendola was a beauty, where he looked to his right and his pump fake drew S Troy Polamalu away and then hit a ridiculously wide open Amendola down the seam for a 34 yard touchdown.
Brady put the exclamation point on things in the fourth quarter with a play-action pass that fooled the Steelers defenders and hit a wide open Aaron Dobson for an 81 yard touchdown pass that was perfectly thrown down the left sideline.
With everything clicking on offense, Brady spread the wealth around and had three receivers with over 100 yards in receptions on the day, Amendola, Dobson and tight end Rob Gronkowski. It was a fantastic performance from Brady and just the one needed going into the bye week to build off of.
Offense Clicks, Balance Key: One of the most frequent criticisms this season (here often) is that the Patriots play-calling has been entirely too predictable and that they gave up on the run too soon.
Here on Thursday, one of our keys was getting the run game especially Stevan Ridley more heavily involved against the Steelers. Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels did exactly that on Sunday, mixing in the run much more frequently in early downs and featuring Ridley almost exclusively.
Ridley carried the ball 26 times for 115 yards and 1 touchdown on Sunday, giving the Patriots exactly what they needed from him as they rolled up 197 yards on the ground against the Steelers. That’s the kind of balance the team has preached about since the spring and with it comes the play-action passing that Brady used yesterday to perfection.
Third down which has been the bane of the Patriots offense this season, was not a factor on Sunday, with the Patriots going 7-12 a huge improvement over the past few weeks. The Patriots rolled up 33 first downs against Pittsburgh and wore down the Steelers defense in the fourth quarter.
Ridley who played sparingly against the Jets and Dolphins was the workhorse for the team and rewarded McDaniels’ decision to play him more. Coupled that with the return to health of both Amendola and Gronkowski and the Patriots offense resembled nothing of the unit that has struggled so far in 2013. With Shane Vereen eligible to return to game action against Carolina on November 18, the possibilities are apparent for this unit going forward.
Gronkowski Is The Difference Maker: As if there were little doubt before as to how valuable Rob Gronkowski is to the Patriots offense, Sunday’s game left little doubt. Gronkowski seems entirely healthy now and his presence set the tone for the entire game.
Gronkowski had a career high nine catches for 143 yards and a touchdown on just 10 targets and the Steelers had no answer for him. No matter who they put on him, he was getting open and with him clearing out the middle and drawing a lot of attention with him. And that opened up a lot of space for everyone else.
“Rob and I haven’t played together a lot in games, but I can tell that defenses need to cover him with one or two guys, which means other guys have to make plays and be there,” said Amendola in the post-game lockerroom. “He’s a great player. Everybody tries to double-team him and do a lot of things to take him out of the game.”
Gronkowski was upbeat after the game stating, “It felt good getting more games under me and I’m feeling good, getting better every week,” Gronkowski said. “When we’re clicking, we’re clicking and it’s awesome.” And while he still only played 48 of 75 offensive snaps, the value of a healthy Gronkowski to this offense was on full display.
Dobson Has His Best Day…So Far: Rookie wide receiver Aaron Dobson shined on Sunday and had the best day of his pro career against the Steelers. He’s been improving from week to week and gradually earning the trust of Brady and the Patriots coaches.
That was evident from the outset with Kenbrell Thompkins being a healthy scratch and Dobson getting more and more looks in the passing game and he rewarded the coach’s confidence with a big game. Dobson caught 5 passes for 130 yards and 2 touchdowns and showcased the vertical stretching of the field that was talked about when Dobson was drafted this spring.
His first touchdown was a nice back shoulder throw to the left pylon by Brady that Dobson was able to haul the ball in and just manage to stay in-bounds for the touchdown. The second was late in the game and Dobson was able to beat the jam at the line of scrimmage and get nice separation down the left sideline.
As soon as he got open, the long-framed Dobson waved his hand in the air, signaling he was open; something that another Marshall alum used to do for the Patriots that looked oh-so familiar. Brady hit him perfectly and Dobson cruised for an 81 yard touchdown. “All the work is paying off, all the extra things we do, just meetings, just extra stuff in particular is paying off,” Dobson said.
Injuries Continue to Pile Up: Sunday was just another bad day for the Patriots injury wise, and with Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Tommy Kelly and Sebastian Vollmer already on IR, and the hits just keep coming.
Austin Collie, Rob Ninkovich, Steve Gregory and Alfonzo Dennard all left the game with injuries on Sunday and perhaps the most damaging could be Ninkovich if he’s forced to miss any significant time. He’s an extremely valuable and versatile defender who does so much and always seems to come up with a big play.
Gregory went from a player on the bubble this summer to a player who has earned his starting role and was wearing the green dot communication device relaying the signals for the defense.
Ninkovich was seen walking without a limp after the game which is a good sign but Gregory was wearing a cast. The team hopes to have Aqib Talib back after the bye, Talib will be a very important piece of the defense going down the stretch but especially in the first three games against Carolina, Denver and Houston.
Sopoaga Makes Presence Felt: New Patriot NT/DT Issac Sopoaga, just arrived in a trade deadline swap with the Eagles made a couple of nice plays in his first albeit brief (26 snaps) action for New England.
Sopoaga swatted down and nearly intercepted a Ben Roethlisberger screen pass and had a big stop on a 4th & 1 Steelers running play. His role should increase as he becomes more familiar with the Patriots defense but he already has made a mark and was loving his new surroundings. “I feel like today is my birthday again. Winning and playing with Tom Brady? Come on,” he said.