NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
The New England Patriots will enter their bye week with a 7-2 record after blowing out the Pittsburgh Steelers via a 55-31 final score which re-established New England’s offense as a force to be reckoned with. The Patriots struggled on defense, allowing 479 total yards, but managed an incredible 610 yards themselves, dramatically improving the consistency of their production, especially on third-down, where the team converted seven-of-twelve attempts. Read on for five key takeaways from what was an encouraging Patriots victory.
1. Tom Brady finally gets back on track, improves rapport with receivers
Quarterback Tom Brady’s poor play had been the elephant in the room through the Patriots’ first eight games of the season, but he finally got back on track this week with a signature game, completing 23/33 passes for 432 yards and four touchdowns, with a staggering 13.1 yards per attempt against what was the second-best passing defense heading into the game. His connection with Rob Gronkowski was a key factor (more on that later), but Brady also looked much more comfortable throwing to his receivers, Danny Amendola and Aaron Dobson, to whom he completed a total of nine passes for 252 yards and three touchdowns. Amendola benefited from two blown coverages on his initial receptions, a 34-yard touchdown reception and a 57-yard catch-and-run, then converted a pair of first downs later, including one impressive leaping grab down the seam. Dobson was relatively quiet in the early going but eventually made an incredible back-shoulder grab for a touchdown down the left sideline early in the fourth quarter and blew past double coverage down the left sideline late in the game for an 81-yard touchdown which gave the Patriots an insurmountable 48-31 lead.
2. Rob Gronkowski appears borderline uncoverable throughout the game
After a game in which his production was limited to just two catches for twenty-seven yards, tight end Rob Gronkowski made his presence felt early in this week’s game, converting his first reception for an eleven-yard first-down conversion with cornerback William Gay in coverage, then gaining 34 yards on a third-and-fourteen situation with Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu in coverage to move the Patriots into Steelers territory. The very next play, Gronkowski burned Gay again for another 27-yard gain, then caught a six-yard pass to bring New England to the one-yard line. Unfortunately, the drive failed to result in any points for the Patriots, as Brandon Bolden and Steven Ridley were each stopped on consecutive fourth-down attempts separated by a defensive offsides penalty. Early in the second quarter, Gronkowski converted a first-down against Shamarko Thomas and beat bracket coverage from Jarvis Jones and Polamalu for his first touchdown of the day. Thomas was guilty of a pass interference call late in the second quarter which set up New England on the one-yard line, as well. Gronkowski led New England’s receivers with nine receptions for 143 yards and the touchdown, receiving ten targets in total.
3. Stevan Ridley submits an impressive on the ground, scores twice
Running back Stevan Ridley was the topic of one of this week’s Ten Keys, in which we speculated about the potential for him to have a big game should he successfully secure workhorse responsibilities. This week, he did indeed earn a significantly bigger role in the offense, and his performance against one of the league’s weakest run defenses did not disappoint. Ridley appeared very explosive out of the backfield, choosing his holes decisively and spinning off of contact to fall forwards whenever possible en route to a twenty-six-carry, 115-yard rushing performance which also included two touchdowns. By comparison, Brandon Bolden and LeGarrette Blount made mere cameo appearances until the game was firmly in New England’s grasp, although the two were also effective. There were, however, a few plays which head coach Bill Belichick can successfully point to as evidence of room for improvement, most notably the failed back-to-back attempts by Bolden and Ridley in the first quarter to score from the one-yard line, as well as Ridley’s fumble one of his three receptions. All told, the team’s running backs accumulated 198 yards over 34 carries, scoring three times.
4. Patriots pass rush picks up five sacks of Ben Roethlisberger
Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to elude defenders in the pocket is among the best in the league, but in general this game, he was unable to compensate for generally poor blocking, being sacked five times in this week’s game and only narrowly avoiding sacks on a few other occasions. Defensive end Chandler Jones picked up two sacks and three quarterback hits, one of those sacks being a result of effective coverage, while his counterpart, Rob Ninkovich, successfully strip-sacked Roethlisberger early in the first quarter. The final two sacks came by way of recently-signed defensive end Andre Carter and linebacker Dane Fletcher, with those two occurring late in the fourth quarter. The Patriots were not necessarily as aggressive as they were last week in rushing the passer, but did blitz some of their linebackers early on and generally benefited from the poor quality of Pittsburgh’s blocking up front, which suffered due to injuries sustained by center Maurkice Pouncey and right guard David DeCastro prior to the game. Not much was impressive about New England’s pass defense in this game, but they showed that they could capitalize when given an appealing opposing offensive line.
5. Secondary, missing Aqib Talib, struggles to cover Pittsburgh’s receivers
Easily the biggest weakness of the game from New England’s perspective was the team’s poor coverage in the secondary, which did intercept two poorly-thrown Roethlisberger passes but also allowed nearly 400 yards through the air, with Big Ben also accounting for four touchdowns over his 43 attempts. All of New England’s top cornerbacks this week – Kyle Arrington, Alfonzo Dennard, and Logan Ryan, allowed touchdown passes, with Arrington responsible for two. In fact, the game appeared all but over early on, but Pittsburgh’s ability to consistently throw streaks with success allowed them to tie the game at twenty-four midway through the third quarter and force the Patriots to redouble their efforts on the offensive end. While it’s true that many of the team’s failures in the passing game also came on perfectly-timed, perfectly-placed throws, it’s simply inexcusable to allow the likes of Jerricho Cotchery to catch three touchdown passes. New England’s pass defense had been a strength of the team until this point, but it has now become clear that significant additional work is needed. Hopefully left cornerback Aqib Talib will be able to return once the Patriots conclude their upcoming bye week.