First impressions: Patriots smother Steelers offense, punch Super Bowl ticket

First impressions: Patriots smother Steelers offense, punch Super Bowl ticket

FOXBORO -- Here are a few quick-hitting impressions from Sunday's AFC title game, which resulted in the Patriots making their seventh Super Bowl under head coach Bill Belichick . . . 


​* The Patriots defense has heard "yeah, but" all season. They finished the season as the top scoring defense in the league, but because they've faced a spate of mediocre (or worse) quarterbacks since a Week 10 loss to the Seahawks, there have been some reservations about crowning them as a championship-caliber. Those reservations evaporated as Ben Roethlisberger was held to 239 yards on 24-of-38 passing (6.3 yards per attempt), no touchdowns and one interception before Roethlisberger picked up some easy yards late in the fourth quarter with the Patriots defense hanging back. Roethlisberger did hit Cobi Hamilton for a 30-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter, adding a two-point conversion to make the score, 36-17.

* Matt Patricia's unit can hang its hat on one particularly impressive goal-line stand at the end of the second quarter, when the Steelers had a first-and-goal from the one-yard line. On that goal-line stand, the Patriots stuffed a DeAngelo Williams run with good penetration from Dont'a Hightower and Patrick Chung. On a second-down rush attempt, rookie defensive tackle Vincent Valentine powered through the line almost untouched and made a tackle for a three-yard loss. Roethlisberger took to the air on third down, missing Eli Rogers (with Eric Rowe in good position) to force a field goal. 

* The Patriots plan of attack seemed to be to rely on zone coverage for good chunks of the night, forcing Roethlisberger to string together a series of well-executed plays to drive the field. When the Steelers got deeper into Patriots territory, when the defense benefited from a more tightly-packed field -- situations where the Steelers offense has struggled this season, particularly on the road -- the Patriots were able to clamp down. Not only did they pick up their goal-line stop in the second quarter, they also forced a turnover on downs deep in their own territory in the fourth quarter when Logan Ryan broke up Roethlisberger's floater to the back corner of the end zone. 

* The Patriots wisely doubled Antonio Brown at different points, but particularly in the red zone. The goal seemed to be to very obviously take away the first-team All-Pro -- as they did in Week 7 when Landry Jones was at quarterback -- and force Roethlisberger to go elsewhere. Roethlisberger had some luck going to tight end Jesse James (five catches 48 yards) deep in Patriots territory, but not enough for the Patriots to change their plan. 

* Le'Veon Bell's groin injury in the first quarter took away what was arguably Pittsburgh's best weapon coming in. He was shaken up on the Steelers' third drive of the game, returned to take one hand-off, but looked slow to the line of scrimmage (which, granted, is kind of his running style even when he's healthy) and did not return. He finished with six carries for 20 yards (a 3.3 yards-per-carry average). Williams was Pittsburgh's leading rusher, taking 14 hand-offs for 34 yards (a 2.4 yards-per-carry average). Patriots defensive tackle Alan Branch had yet another strong outing, chipping in on at least three run-stuffs. Trey Flowers and Malcom Brown were in on at least two of their own as well.

* A pair of first-year Patriots played big roles in the defensive performance put together against Roethlisberger and Co. Linebacker Kyle Van Noy, acquired mid-season in a trade with the Lions, forced a fumble in the third quarter that was recovered by Rob Ninkovich. In the fourth, Eric Rowe easily picked off a Roethlisberger overthrow to stop another Steelers drive before it could start.

'Man, why do we continue to do this?' Patriots FG block work finally pays off

'Man, why do we continue to do this?' Patriots FG block work finally pays off

FOXBORO -- Stay low. Drive off the tight end's inside shoulder. And whatever you do, keep your feet. You don't want to be falling into kicker and picking up a penalty. 

Those were the kinds of things that were bouncing around somewhere in Cassius Marsh's subconscious as he lined up to try to block Falcons kicker Matt Bryant's field-goal attempt from 37 yards away at the end of the first quarter. Swimming past his blocker off the snap, Marsh got both arms extended and into the path of Bryant's kick, knocking it down and giving his team a boost. 


"Guys work hard on that every week," Bill Belichick said after his team's 23-7 win. "Cassius has gotten some opportunities in practice. It’s hard to block Steve [Gostkowski]. Steve gets good height on the ball, gets the ball off quickly. I think this one with not quite as much height maybe as Steve's ball, or at least what Steve's balls were in practice, Cassius got a hand on it. 

"It was a big play for us because, again, we worked so hard on that and that’s everybody across the board. That’s all 11 guys, not just the guy that blocks it. The other guys have to do their job and if they block Cassius and take him away then that gives somebody else an opportunity so we never know how that’s going to go. We just want everybody to come hard and do their job right and wherever the opening is it is. That was a big play for us . . . 

"You can see the whole team – we were all excited. Sideline, players, guys on the field. That was a big moment for us. Our special teams units work very hard. They take a lot of pride in their job. The return teams, the coverage teams, the field goal and the field goal block team. It’s good to see that hard work pay off in a big play like that."

It was a big enough play that it earned Marsh a high-five from his coach. Marsh laughed about his reception on the sideline, remembering that the last time he got that kind of recognition from Belichick it came after a Week 4 sack.

"That's pretty much it that I can remember," Marsh said, beaming. "He only really smiles in situations like that so you've gotta cherish those moments."

The Patriots recovered at their own 26-yard line and embarked on an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to get them on the scoreboard.

"With the defense playing as well as they were, to be able to preserve the shutout at the time was big," said special teams captain Matthew Slater. "Those are huge momentum plays when you're able to block a kick. It's not a traditional play that happens every game. Huge play. A UCLA guy stepping up, who would've thought? 

"You gotta tip your hat to those guys because they coach that, they work that and sometimes it seems like, 'Man, why do we continue to do this?' But it paid off for us tonight. You tip your cap to not only Cash but the rest of the guys on that unit." 

While Marsh's block was the highlight, it was a strong night overall for New England's special teams units. Every Falcons drive started inside their own 30-yard line, and Gostkowski had kicks returned to the 12, 19 and 18 before they were stopped.

Slater called it the most complementary game the Patriots played all season. Offense, defense, special teams. They all worked together to make Sunday perhaps their most dominating performance of the year. 

"That's the effort that we've been looking for and striving for all year," Slater said. "I think that's a good starting point for us. Lot of football left. Nine games left so we're going to have to continue to do it and be consistent week in and week out."


Butler credits improved Patriots defense for 'playing smarter'

Butler credits improved Patriots defense for 'playing smarter'

As safety Duron Harmon emerged from the showers following the Patriots 23-7 win over the Falcons, he noticed a crowd gathered by his locker. As one of the captains of the team - and a man nicknamed by teammates as “The Voice” because of his ability to articulate the right words at the right time, the affable safety is a must listen postgame. But for a change, Harmon knew the mass gathering of media wasn’t there for him - at least not yet. We were there for Malcolm Butler, who had just played his best game of the season.

“You all want to talk to Malcolm?” Harmon sang. “I’d want to talk to Malcolm too.”

Devin McCourty got in on the act as well with some good-natured chirping in Butler’s direction. Both safeties were energized by the victory but also, it seemed, by the performance of a player they’ve come to rely on in games just like this. 


“Awww man, Malcolm. . . Malcolm was great for us,” said Harmon later. “We need that.”

It's hard not to draw the parallel between Butler having his best performance of the season a week after making two of the biggest plays in the game against the Jets. He did all this while the man who indirectly caused so much of the 28-year old’s troubles - Stephon Gilmore - hasn’t been able to play because of a concussion. Meanwhile, an undrafted player in his 6th year, Johnson Bademosi, has emerged opposite Butler to play very sound football.

“Communication,” said Butler of the team’s defensive improvements. “Just playing smarter and better. That’s all.”

Butler himself didn’t want to spend much time analyzing his own performance. That’s usually not his thing. And it wasn’t as if that performance was perfect. Far from it. But Butler’s energy was evident right from the jump. He stuck his nose in there on running plays to his side, including a terrific submarine tackle of Tevin Coleman in the opening quarter. Butler also got his fair share of Julio Jones over the course of the night. Even though he surrendered that late touchdown to the Falcons wideout, he showed not only a willingness to play the big dog, but to go right at him. That is - after all - a Butler trademark. 

“Just competing,” said Butler. “Great player; you just got to compete.”

It’s not just competing, but it’s playing with confidence, something Butler said was an issue for him in the aftermath of his snap reduction in New Orleans. But now? That seems long gone and hard to find.