Generally speaking, opposing teams rarely want to play the New England Patriots. But opposing teams never want to play the Patriots after a loss, when the Patriots are 24-2 since 2003. Unfortunately, that was the exact scenario the Pittsburgh Steelers found themselves in Sunday night at Heinz Field. Add to it Tom Brady’s 4-1 record in Pittsburgh (6-1 overall) and you’d think the Steelers would just throw in their Terrible Towels. By the time the game was over, they probably wished they had. Brady threw for three touchdowns and rushed for one more, and the Patriots defense sacked Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger five times en route to a 39-26 Patriots victory in Pittsburgh. It was the most points scored by an opponent at Heinz Field since the Patriots scored 41 in the 2004 AFC Championship Game.
A week after barely completing 50 percent of his passes, Brady looked like Tom Terrific once again. He completed nearly 70 percent of his passes, throwing for 350 yards. He also ran the ball in from 3 yards out in the waning seconds of the third quarter. After his touchdown sneak, Brady celebrated with an emphatic spike. The move characterized a night in which Brady was clearly fired up, constantly shouting at his teammates, often in adulation, occasionally in criticism. This was not the somber and frustrated Brady that’s been seen in many of the games this season. This was a Brady who wanted to prove that his team belonged at the top of NFL, and wanted to do so by summarily defeating one of the other top teams in the NFL.
Banner Day for Tight Ends
All three of Brady’s touchdown receptions went to Rob Gronkowski, the first time a Patriots rookie had scored three touchdowns in a game. The first touchdown pass was a 19-yard strike thrown perfectly by Brady, whizzing just past the defender’s hands and into Gronkowski’s. It put the Patriots up 7-0 and was the first touchdown allowed this season by the Steelers in the first quarter of a game (let alone on an opening drive).
Gronkowski’s second touchdown pass came on second-and-goal from the 9-yard line, when he lined up as if to block on the right side. Gronkowski then broke off the block and went right, catching the pass and running it in for the score, putting the Patriots up 17-3 with just under 10 minutes left in the third quarter.
Gronkowski’s third touchdown came on third-and-5 from the Steelers 25-yard line. Gronkowski ran up the middle of the field, then fooled Troy Polamalu by changing direction mid-route. Once he slipped behind the Steelers safety, all Brady had to do was toss him a floater. Gronkowski caught it easily, at which point there was no one left to tackle him, and he easily ran it for the 25-yard touchdown, giving the Patriots a 36-18 lead with less than five minutes left in the game.
Gronkowski rebounded nicely after a tough game against the Cleveland Browns last week, catching all five balls thrown to him for 72 yards. But another tight end made his presence known as well. Though Alge Crumpler only had one catch for 4 yards, he made several key blocks that allowed BenJarvus Green-Ellis to average a respectable 4.8 yards per carry. He also cleanly caught Pittsburgh’s final onside kick attempt, killing any hope of a late-game comeback.
Beating Up Ben
The Patriots defense took advantage of key injuries to Pittsburgh’s offensive line early and often. Roethlisberger was sacked five times, 1.5 times each by Mike Wright and Tully Banta-Cain. Banta-Cain’s solo sack was especially pretty, with Banta-Cain spinning inside of his block to get to the Steelers quarterback. Roethlisberger was constantly under pressure from oncoming Patriots. He sometimes eluded tackles, picking up many of his 387 passing yards outside the pocket, but at no point in the game did he enjoy the kind of protection Brady had all night (no sacks, just three quarterback hits at all).
The Patriots onslaught held the Steelers to just 76 yards rushing (12 by Roethlisberger on a broken play). The Steelers managed just a field goal through three quarters, at which point the Patriots defense shifted to a “prevent” defense designed to trade points for clock time. The Steelers scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, two to speedy wide receiver Mike Wallace, but they never cut the lead to single digits, in part because every time the Steelers scored, the Patriots came right back and scored to re-establish the lead.
The Patriots also played very good red zone defense. In the second quarter, the Steelers had third-and-3 from the 4-yard line and had to settle for a field goal. Then in the third quarter, they had first-and-goal from the 8-yard line, and once again had to settle for a field goal attempt four plays later, which was shanked wide right. The Steelers were unable to punch it in from the red zone until the fourth quarter, at which point it was too late. James Sanders’ returned an interception that Patrick Chung had tipped in the air near the Steelers 32-yard line all the way for a touchdown, giving the Patriots a 29-10 lead with 8:32 left in the game.
The Backup Booter
In his first game with Patriots, placekicker Shayne Graham connected on field goals from 31 and 36 yards out, though he missed one point-after attempt. His kickoffs never flew out the back of the endzone like Stephen Gostkowski’s, but their line-drive flight pattern made it difficult for Steelers returners, who averaged 25.1 yards per return. It wasn’t perfect, but it was serviceable.