Patriots

Curran: Steelers feast on weak Patriots secondary

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Curran: Steelers feast on weak Patriots secondary

PITTSBURGH Candor was going to be in short supply in the Patriots locker room Sunday evening.

So instead of going in there to be served the simple pablum of gotta look at the film and gotta play better and they did some good things out there and we have a lot of work to do, I chose to go to the Steelers locker room.

In there, I hoped, insight into what exactly the Patriots were attempting to do on defense might be gained. It was easy to see what they werent doing: Covering eligible receivers. But what appeared to be their plan?

I didnt even get to their locker room before I was getting answers. Hines Ward, who didnt play on Sunday because of an ankle injury, laid it out for me in the hallway outside the Steelers locker room.

Offensively, it felt like we could spread the ball out and we didnt have to take shots down the field, Ward explained. We felt like our wide-receiver corps could take advantage of the secondary. Considering they didnt really have a huge pass rusher, it gave us time to go spread. It was a great game plan and we just executed.

Last years 39-26 Patriots win was the catalyst for Sundays game plan laid out by Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.

We watched the game last year and that game could have been closer than it was, said Ward. It was more what we were doing than what they were doing. We felt like, especially with Leigh Bodden, when we found out he wasnt there, with our wide-receivers corps, thats probably the strength of our team in terms of having depth. We felt like we could exploit and take advantage of the secondary coverage.

Exploit would be an understatement.

From the first drive, when tight end Heath Miller was allowed to roam free in the yawning space between the blitzing Patriots front and the deep-dropping secondary, the Patriots were maddeningly ineffective, especially on third down.

The Steelers converted a third-and-11, a third-and-12 and a third-and-15 during the day as part of a game in which they went 10-for-16 on third down and Ben Roethlisberger put it in the air 50 times.

Going into the game, everybody had success throwing the ball against them because those guys were 32 (in the league against the pass), explained Mike Wallace. Some of it was because of those guys running up the score and teams trying to catch up (and gaining yards) but you still dont get there, last (in the league against the pass), by just blowing people out. Other people had success against them.

The bulk of the success against the Patriots came in the first three games. They seemed to settle down against Oakland and neither the Jets nor the Cowboys did enough to challenge a secondary that seemed ripe for abuse.

The Steelers carried no such illusions about the Patriots secondary being a daunting group. The Patriots strategy of blitzing Roethlisberger, playing deep zone coverage and making the Steelers think their way down the field blew up in their faces.

"We knew we had a great matchup and that theyd play zone coverage and give us an opportunity to hit em across the middle," said wide receiver Antonio Brown. "Heath Miller did a great job getting open across the middle, we did a great job of converting third downs and controlling the ball.

I think they just wanted to blitz Ben. Get Ben confused and thinking the younger guys wouldnt be on point with the hots (hot routes that are broken off when blitzes are sent). I think that was their aim and I think we did a great job counteracting that. They played zone coverage (because they were) scared that Mike Wallace was gonna get deep. That allowed us to get the middle open and make some big plays on third down.

Aside from the scheme, though, there seemed to be a matter of poor communication in the zones. Safeties could be seen gesturing after plays to each other trying to figure who missed a read. Often, it seemed there were defenders leaving receivers to go cover targets who were already being attended to. The 7-yard Antonio Brown touchdown was a perfect example where two defenders were bird-dogging Wallace and Brown was left completely alone.

And the tackling? Still woeful.

Patriots safety Patrick Chung tried to keep a stiff upper lip after the game, saying, We gotta keep playing. Whatever coach Bill Belichick wants to do, well do. Were a good football team, Im not worried about all that stuff.

The release of Bodden on Friday and this performance Sunday really underscores how weak the Patriots are at corner. Antwaun Molden, who got most of the early reps that were normally Boddens, was benched. Devin McCourty continues to struggle, this time with tackling. Its an alarming spot to be in entering the eighth week of the year.

The Patriots better adapt and do so quickly, because after Sundays performance, any offensive coordinator who doesnt attack the New England secondary is plainly not doing his job.

Energized Patriots defense forces 'critical swings' with turnovers

Energized Patriots defense forces 'critical swings' with turnovers

“We’re a blue-collar team…”

Devin McCourty didn’t hesitate when asked about the Patriots’ identity. Moments prior, McCourty and his teammates had just stomped the Oakland Raiders in Mexico City, 33-8, to run their win streak to a half-dozen games. The Pats are tied for the best record in the AFC with the Steelers

“We played at a high level,” said McCourty. “They made some plays, but I thought we executed our game plan and did exactly what we wanted to do today.”

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After surrendering a 100-points per game through the first month (ok, it was only 32), the Pats defense has flexed their muscle during this stretch, allowing 12.5 points per game, which would be the best in the NFL were this a season-long thing. We’re not looking at the same unit even though the personnel is largely the same. If anything, from a talent-level, this defense has less skill than it did when the season started. Their best player, Dont'a Hightower, is out for the year, lost during the first win of this 6-game streak. They’ve also survived three-game absences from $31-million cornerback Stephon Gilmore and their most consistent interior defender, tackle Malcom Brown. Yet the defense keeps showing up, keeps improving and its confidence is growing by leaps and bounds.

“We’re just playing together…we’re kind of figuring that out,” said McCourty. “We’re understanding how we need to prepare, how we need to practice, whether it’s a hard, full-padded practice, whether it’s a walkthrough, we know what we need to do on each of those days and when we do that, we give ourselves a chance. You’re seeing that on Sundays. Everyone running around, everyone knows their job and it’s all about execution.”

“I thought our players gave a great effort tonight,” said Bill Belichick. “We came out and performed well early, throughout the game and played really good situational football.”

The Pats were opportunistic, forcing three turnovers, including one in a huge spot, when Marquis Flowers stripped the ball from wideout Seth Roberts as the Raiders were knocking on the door. It was 14-0 at the time, and Oakland had life. Second-year cornerback Jon Jones battled Roberts, Flowers popped the ball free and safety Pat Chung pounced on it. Instead of milking the clock and heading into halftime up two scores, the Pats turned that fumble into points, driving to midfield before Steven Gostkowski kicked a career-long 62 yarder. That further energized a Pats team that was already surging.

“It’s something we talk about every week,” said McCourty. “We’re playing solid defense, executing the game plan, but changing the game with turnovers - you know, even Duron’s interception was a third down so it was kind of like a punt. The energy that brings - when the offense takes the field after we get a turnover - that’s huge. And then with them driving again in the red area before the half is what we talked about, getting that stop.”

“We had some real critical swings with those turnovers,” admired Tom Brady, a chief beneficiary of those change in possessions.

Earlier this week, I asked McCourty if he got a sense that the team was coming together at the tail end of their stay in Colorado Springs. He smiled and joked initially, but you could sense the veteran safety can see and feel what the rest of the league is now a witness to.

“I hope so. I mean, it’d probably be terrible if I say yeah and then we go on a five-game losing streak. I can see the headline: ‘McCourty was wrong.’ So, no, I think we understand how the season starts to pick up. You know, each game means more. We understand that seven wins (now 8) doesn’t mean anything. We have to continue to get better. So, I think why we end up usually improving is because it’s the understanding of there’s no tomorrow.”

The defense ordered that Code Red after losing to Carolina in Week 4, and since then, they have worked harder, worked longer and cleaned up so many of the issues that ailed them that opening month. It’s a credit to the players, “they won’ the game tonight,” said Belichick, and the coaching staff as well. if you’ve followed this team over the years, you know even now, they’re not satisfied. There are “things to work on” added Belichick and they’ll start that work on the flight home from Mexico City to Foxboro. 

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No doubter: Gostkowski knew he wouldn't be short on record-setting kick

No doubter: Gostkowski knew he wouldn't be short on record-setting kick

The Raiders gave Stephen Gostkowski plenty of time to think about the 62-yard kick he was about to line up when they called a timeout just before the end of the first half. Didn't matter. Gostkowski returned to his spot, watched a good snap turn into a good hold, which turned into a Patriots record.

It was the longest field goal in Patriots history, making it the longest in Stephen Gostkowski's career as he bested his previous record of 58 yards set earlier this season. It was also the perfect exclamation point to a perfect day for Gostkowski, who went four-for-four on field goals and three-for-three on extra points in his team's 33-8 win over the Raiders in Mexico City. 

When asked about the half-ending kick, Gostkowski credited his teammates for putting him in position to kick it. They got from their own seven-yard line with 33 seconds left to the Raiders 45-yard line with five seconds remaining. A 20-yard run by Dion Lewis and completions to Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski did the trick. 

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"I think every time I kick a long kick, it's Gronk who makes the catch right beforehand," Gostkowski told reporters. "It's a nice little polish connection. It was cool. You can wait your whole career and not get a kick like that. It's a very opportunistic job. You're only as good as the opportunities you get. I got a good opportunity, and I'm glad I took advantage of it."

The longest kick Gostkowski tried in warmups was from 60 yards away but he had no concerns about trying to make something longer. Having kicked at altitude all week at the Air Force Academy, he knew his range would be better than it usually is. 

"I don't usually go past 60 in warmups," he said. "I hit one and I made it by a good bit. I knew that coming up short -- if I hit it good -- probably wasn't going to happen. Warm weather, altitude, the ball is going to fly. I just tried to concentrate on getting a good foot on it , making sure it stayed straight enough. Got the opportunity, took advantage of it. It's exciting for the whole team."

Gostkowski also used the extra oomph he had in Mexico City to boot six of his seven kickoffs for touchbacks, keeping the NFL's leading return man Cordarrelle Patterson (30.8 yards per return) from burning the Patriots in that phase.

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