You rarely want to play the Patriots at all, but you never want to play the Patriots after they’ve lost. One week after a humiliating loss to the Cleveland Browns, the Patriots returned with a vengeance, beating the Pittsburgh Steelers 39-26. Any questions that might have been raised about their status as an elite team in the NFL were answered against another elite team. Everything the Patriots did wrong a week ago- pass rush, turnovers, passing rhythm- they corrected on Sunday. Statement game? I think so. So let’s give this statement a grade.
Quarterback: A+. How can you not give top marks to a quarterback who threw for 350 yards and three touchdowns without an interception? Brady was on target and on fire yesterday, completing almost 70 percent of his passes. And these were accurate passes, too. Receivers were running routes and catching balls at their chests, not over their heads or at their feet. Brady’s first touchdown pass, a 19-yard bullet to Rob Gronkowski, was a perfect pass. The ball went just beyond the defending Steeler’s outstretched hands and right into Gronkowski’s. Brady needed to hit a target less than one square foot in area, and he threw a strike. On his third touchdown pass, a 25-yard pass again to Gronkowski, Brady showed he had touch as well as power. Once Gronkowski juked Troy Polamalu, Brady floated a perfect pass over the safety’s head and into Gronkowski’s awaiting arms. Where last week he was overthrowing his targets, this time Brady was hitting the open man every time. He was also an emotional and energizing leader, cheering, celebrating and shouting when he had to. On his 3-yard touchdown quarterback sneak, Brady spiked the ball with power and authority. Top marks for passing, top marks for leadership, top marks all around.
Running Backs: A-. You wouldn’t think the Patriots had much of a running game, but they actually combined for 100 yards on the ground between BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead and Sammy Morris. Green-Ellis also caught four passes for 36 yards, and Woodhead caught 2 for 22 yards. That’s 158 all purpose yards by the running backs. Not so bad, right? Additionally, give the running backs credit for helping to sell the play-action pass, which Brady used frequently. If the running game isn’t there at all, defense won’t bite on play-action. So the running backs did enough to at least make the defense think they were running sometimes, which opened up big passing plays, including a 45-yard reception by Brandon Tate in the third quarter. It might not have been the most effective running game this year, but it certainly didn’t hurt the offense in any way. Tack on Green-Ellis’ decent 4.8 yards per carry and it’s clear that the running game is good enough to complement the passing attack.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: A. Rob Gronkowski: three touchdowns. And they were good touchdowns too: well-run routes that made defenders think he was going one way, only to watch him go the other. A week after a key fumble, Gronkowski held on to all five balls thrown his way. Wes Welker also had a terrific game, catching eight passes for 89 yards, averaging 11.1 yards per catch. Welker also helped convert both a first-and-15 and a third-and-9 situation.With the exception of Welker, every receiver’s reception total was within two of their target total. Brady was on point, and his receivers responded. When the Patriots went play-action, the receivers were there. Good to see them and Brady finally on the same page. Lastly, give Alge Crumpler credit for providing key blocks on several of the Patriots’ big running plays, and also for cleanly fielding an onside kick in the fourth quarter.
Offensive Line: A. No sacks is a surefire way to get a high grade. The line was so protective that the Steelers only managed to hit Brady three times. The line also helped spring the running backs for 100 yards on the ground. The line did exactly what it was expected to, and it did so with only one holding penalty against it (Matt Light, third quarter). Logan Mankins looked far more integrated with the rest of the line, and that’s bad news for defensive linemen and linebackers.
Special Teams: B+. Shayne Graham wasn’t perfect in his first game as a Patriot, missing a point-after in the fourth quarter. But he connected on two field goals and did a competent job on kickoffs. The Steelers started most drives around the 30-yard line. His kicks weren’t the booming touchbacks that Patriots fans are used to (except when he got to kick from the 45-yard line), but they were good enough on a Heinz Field that’s notoriously hard on kickers. Zoltan Mesko had a decent night, averaging 40.2 yards per punt and pinning the Steelers inside the 20 three times. The special teams unit also cleanly fielded two onside kicks, and this time they were not caught off guard. It might not have been a fantastic night for special teams, but they were nowhere near a liability.
Defensive Line: A. The defensive line accounted for two of the Patriots’ five sacks against Ben Roethlisberger: 1.5 by Mike Wright, .5 by Gerard Warren. They also held Rashard Mendenhall, a man who averaged 87.75 yards per game through the first eight games, to just 50 yards (and of those 50, 34 came on one play). Roethlisberger was under constant pressure all night from linemen and linebackers. While sometimes Roethlisberger was able to elude tacklers or clear the pocket, the pressure-laden defense caused numerous broken plays that forced the Steelers to improvise. They sometimes pulled off a positive play anyway, but there’s no way Roethlisberger felt comfortable at any point during that game.
Linebackers: A. Gary Guyton sent a clear message when he swatted away Roethlisberger’s first pass of the game: “we’re coming to get you, Ben.” The linebackers sacked Roethlisberger three times, including 1.5 by Tully Banta-Cain and 1 by Guyton. Banta-Cain’s solo sack was especially pretty, spinning inside his blocker to get to the quarterback. The linebackers brought constant pressure on the pass and were great and preventing big run plays, with the exception of Mendenhall’s 34-yard run. The linebackers also did a decent job containing tight end Heath Miller, although running back Mewelde Moore should not have been able to rack up 79 yards in receptions. Overall, you can’t say the linebackers were anything less than spectacular in their tandem onslaught with the linemen.
Defensive Backs: B+. OK, first the highlight. Patrick Chung tipped a Roethlisberger pass in the air, and James Sanders returned it for a touchdown. Chung also did a great job timing his tackles to break up passing plays, especially in the red zone. However, the Steelers still gained 387 passing yards, and the defensive backs committed way too many penalties, accounting for 54 yards, although 38 came on one questionable pass-interference call against Brandon Meriweather in the third quarter. You also have to take into account that over 240 of the Steelers’ passing yards came in the fourth quarter, where the Patriots held between a two- and three-score lead the entire time. It was classic garbage time, and the Patriots were more than happy to play prevent defense, trade points for clock time and then score on offense (which they did twice). The cornerbacks should have played better, but it wasn’t bad enough to really hurt the team, and for three quarters it was dominant.
Coaching: A. Great game plan coming in for Bill Belichick: pass on offense, bring pressure on defense. The team executed it almost flawlessly. Belichick also showed some very good in-game creativity. It seemed as though the defense frequently guessed wrong on which way a player would run, what routes the receivers would take, and whether a play was a run or a pass. His use of play-action especially seemed to confuse Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. This was a dominating victory by the Patriots, and Belichick gets credit for planning well at the beginning, then scheming up some new plays at halftime to bury the Steelers in the second half.
So there you have it: the lowest grade was a B+. I can’t think of too many parents who’d be mad to see a report card like that. Next week the Patriots continue to run the gauntlet with the Indianapolis Colts coming to town. Peyton Manning is another quarterback adept at making something out of nothing, so it will be interesting to see what new strategies Belichick comes up with. I, for one, can’t wait.