I don’t know why, but football players more than any other athlete legitimately rally around negative press. So when the media almost universally gave Sunday’s New England Patriots-Pittsburgh Steelers game to the visiting Patriots, a Steelers victory became a near-guarantee. And the Steelers won in truly convincing fashion, doubling up the Patriots in both total yardage (427 vs. 213) and possession time (39:22 to 20:38). The Patriots never led and, coupled with a Bills’s shutout of the lowly Redskins, fell back into a tie atop the AFC East.
In a game this poor, did anyone play well? Here’s my report card.
Tom Brady had to withstand a constant barrage of Pittsburgh pass-rushers while his receivers hurried to get open. That he completed over 68 percent of his passes and threw no interceptions is quite remarkable. Even more remarkable: his second-to-last drive of the game, in which Brady went 8-for-10 in a pass-exclusive offense. Brady’s high completion percentage and two touchdown passes helped him finish with his highest QB rating (101.8) since beating the Chargers in Week 2, but Patriots fans have seen far superior performances from Brady, especially at Heinz Field.
Running Backs: C
Nice to see Kevin Faulk (32 yards on the ground, 20 in the air) back, but Sunday’s game was a no-show for the Patriot running game. BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushed for just 9 yards; neither back made it into the end zone, and Faulk could not convert any third down in which he carried the ball. Granted, these were usually third-and-long situations, but Sunday was a huge step back for a ground game the Patriots need to keep opponents from eating Brady and his receivers alive.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: B
Only Rob Gronkowksi gave the Steelers’ defense any problems, averaging 13.4 yards a reception and leading the team with seven catches and 94 yards. Otherwise, Pittsburgh’s corners manhandled New Englands’ receivers at the line and hung with them down-field. With no running game, Brady had to throw. He hit Deion Branch and Aaron Hernandez for touchdowns, but besides Gronkowski and Faulk, no other receivers caught more than 75 percent of the balls thrown their way.
Offensive Line: C-
The Patriots’ offensive line is moving in the wrong direction, becoming increasingly more porous as the season progresses. Brady is the one suffering for it. The line allowed three sacks and four quarterback hits Sunday, plus two more tackles-for-losses. Completely dominated by the Steelers’ front-seven, the Patriots could never get a running game going to balance the offense. They couldn’t even handle Pittsburgh’s three-man rush on the final play! And as icing on their toilet cake of a performance, they committed four false-start penalties. The third, committed by Matt Light in the third quarter, helped stall out a drive that had reached the Pittsburgh 24 and led to Stephen Gostkowski‘s missed field goal.
Defensive Line: A-
Believe it or not, the Patriots’ defensive line actually out-performed the Steelers’. The Patriots sacked Ben Roethlisberger five times, all by defensive linemen. Andre Carter, who has quietly turned into the best sacker on the team, recorded two more Sunday. The line also held the very talented Rashard Mendenhall to 70 yards and no touchdowns on 13 carries – a 5.4 yards-per-carry average just 0.1 more than Faulk’s. Given how bad New England’s pass-rushing has been, this is a game the defensive line can be proud of. With better pass-coverage from teammates and a victory, this might even have been a straight A.
Gary Guyton‘s interception – which gave the Patriots’ fantastic starting field-position and set up Brady’s first touchdown pass – kept this unit from the “D” range. Otherwise, the linebackers did little positive, giving up 85 yards to tight end Heath Miller and looking downright foolish at times on Steelers running plays. They didn’t play as poorly as the secondary, but they didn’t do much to back up the decent performance from the defensive line. Better penetration and blitzing might have forced Roethlisberger to throw a bit earlier, leading to fewer completions.
Defensive Backs: D+
It’s the day after Halloween, so I’m going to let Peter MacNicol from “Ghostbusters 2” give my assessment of the Patriots’ secondary:
The Patriots’ defense could not make a single big play against the Steelers, giving up 365 total passing yards and reception-yard averages over 10 yards to five different players. The Steelers picked up 29 first downs Sunday, converting 10 of 16 third downs. Discounting the Steelers’ final drive, Roethlisberger went 8-for-12 on third downs, converting on every completion.
Patrick Chung personally gave the Steelers 15 yards with a face mask penalty that highlighted just how incompetent a tackler he is. This secondary is simply not good enough to take the Patriots deep in the playoffs.
Special Teams: C+
Zoltan Mesko‘s 42 yards per punt may have been the only thing the special teams unit did right Sunday. Gostkowsi missed a very makeable 42-yard field goal midway through the third quarter, and the Steelers averaged 8.5 more yards per kickoff-return than the Patriots. But both of those problems pale in comparison to one of the most poorly executed onside kicks I’ve ever seen. Bill Belichick shouldn’t have gone for it in the first place – he had three timeouts and the two-minute warning left – but the place-kicker must at least give his team a chance to make a play. That ball traveled four yards and stopped dead. When the resulting punt pinning the Patriots near their 20, a comeback was virtually impossible.