Perry's Patriots AFC Title Game Report Card
ONE FINAL TEST
With their dominating performance over the Steelers, the Patriots proved they were in a different class. They proved they belonged in the Super Bowl as the AFC's representatives. And it was really never close. Against Pittsburgh's defense, Tom Brady was surgical and posted a postseason-high 384 passing yards -- not bad for the quarterback who has started more playoff games than anyone else. Against Pittsburgh's offense, Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia took away Ben Roethlisberger's top big-play threat while the other sat out injured, and players executed the bend-don't-break style that they have embraced. That's where we'll start the grades this week, since the defense was followed by "yeah...but" observations for much of the season and deserves its due after a stingy performance against a playoff-tested quarterback.
Some breakdowns in coverage -- both early and late -- nicked up this group's final grade. But considering the talent level the Patriots faced, this was perhaps their defense's strongest effort of the season. When the Steelers lost Le'Veon Bell after just six carries, that allowed the Patriots to take resources devoted to the dynamic back in the passing game and use them elsewhere. They bracketed Antonio Brown for much of the game, especially in critical red-zone situations, forcing Roethlisberger to go elsewhere. Goal-line stands in the second and fourth quarters sapped Pittsburgh's will, and with a big lead, a one-dimensional approach by the Steelers did little to impede the Patriots on their way to the Super Bowl. This is a legitimately good defense that just so happened to embarrass substandard quarterbacks late in the season.
DEFENSIVE LINE: A-
The Patriots were given a bit of a gift when Bell's groin gave out in the first quarter, but they had to adjust to more of a hard-charging running style with DeAngelo Williams (a very capable back in his own right) taking over. They held both to meager gains thanks to strong performances from two-gapping tackles Alan Branch and Malcom Brown -- both of whom benefited from occasional double-teams drawn by Trey Flowers, who once again played more snaps than any other Patriots defensive lineman. By the end of the night the Steelers had abandoned the running game after racking up just 2.7 yards per carry on 20 attempts. The front did not record a sack, and Flowers had its only hit, but there were not many opportunities to get after Roethlisberger as he was quick to throw in order to try to hit Patriots zones with underneath stuff. Branch, Vincent Valentine and Jabaal Sheard all played critical roles in helping stop the Steelers at the goal line at the end of the first half. Sheard's contribution at that point came on a quick inside pass-rush on third down, but he played well against the run throughout.
Kyle Van Noy's strip of Eli Rogers (recovered by Rob Ninkovich) was a gut punch for an offense that was clinging to hope late in the third quarter. The one-play drive seemed to bury just about any chance of a comeback at Gillette Stadium. Used in the middle of the field as a coverage linebacker, Van Noy was sound. Elandon Roberts continued to get reps in the middle of the field as well and had moments both good and bad while exploding into the line of scrimmage to thwart Steelers runs. Dont'a Hightower and Shea McClellin both spent time on the edges, dropping into shallow zones, and McClellin had an effective pass-rush in the first quarter that led to an incompletion on third down. Hightower, meanwhile, finished strong. He de-cleated tight end Jesse James on a shallow crossing route, eliminating one of Roethlisberger's red-zone options in the fourth quarter. The pass eventually went to Cobi Hamilton in the end zone, but it was an illegal touch, and the Steelers eventually turned it over on downs. Hightower also timed a blitz perfectly in the first quarter that flushed Roethlisberger out of the pocket to help force an incompletion. He played just 36 snaps -- fewer than McClellin and Van Noy, indicating his shoulder injury limited him -- but when he was on the field, he looked to have good burst.
Though the Patriots picked off Roethlisberger once, and though they limited Brown to seven catches for 77 yards on nine targets, the image chosen to represent this group this week may depict the biggest play Patriots defensive backs made all game. It's Duron Harmon and Patrick Chung combining to stop James from hitting the goal line at the end of the second quarter. It was initially ruled a touchdown, but was overturned, and the Patriots held at the goal line to yank momentum away from Pittsburgh's offense before the half. At the goal line, Chung made the first-down stop, followed by Valentine's tackle for a loss, which then led to a third-down play when good communication between Eric Rowe and Logan Ryan led to a pick play that never had a chance. A field goal made the score 17-9 instead of 17-13. Harmon's tackle on James in support of Chung was huge. Ryan had a tough matchup in the slot with Rogers as Rogers used his quickness to uncover in the first half. But in the second half, as Ryan got more physical with the slightly-built wideout at the line, Rogers became less and less effective. Brown did not have a catch with Butler in coverage until the third quarter. Despite two 30-yard completions on Rowe with the Patriots in Cover-2 at the end of the game, it was a very good overall performance for those who occupy the Patriots' defensive backfield.
The knock on this unit was its inability to create space in the running game. Luckily for Josh McDaniels and the Patriots, they didn't really need it. Brady was on point, helped by receivers running free through Steelers zone coverages for much of the night. There were several plays where Brady had his choice of open receivers. To have a chance against the Patriots at home, you can't give Brady one opening consistently. Forget about it if you're going to make the thing a choose-your-own-ending children' novel. Credit Josh McDaniels for delivering what felt like an early knockout blow when he took advantage of safety Mike Mitchell's aggressiveness on the flea-flicker. It was the perfect time against the perfect personnel. Brady, once again, actually had multiple open options on that play. Had it not been Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell was also running free behind the Pittsburgh defense. Credit McDaniels, too, for going up-tempo and taking advantage of Pittsburgh's reluctance to substitute defensively. They looked gassed at times -- and played like it -- as the Patriots got to the line quickly.
Brady put together one of his best postseason performances in a career chock-full of them. He went 32-of-42 for 384 yards and three scores, but even those numbers don't really indicate just how accurate he was. The Patriots dropped four passes (two courtesy of Chris Hogan, who otherwise had a career night himself), and one incompletion was a spike to stop the clock. The Patriots had a screen play snuffed out and Brady missed Hogan once and Julian Edelman once each, and he threw a couple away to avoid making a bad play worse. That was it. That was the extent of his misfires. Steelers zone coverages made it easy on the brainy quarterback and his savvy receivers who know when to sit down in open space.
RUNNING BACK: C
There is no mystery to LeGarrette Blount's game at this point. Belichick has admitted as much. When he has room to run, he's a unique force at the second and third levels of defenses due to his ability to power through contact for extra yardage. There was no better example of that than his 18-yard run with what felt like half of the Steelers' active roster clinging to him in the third quarter. One play later, he punched it in from the one. When there's little room for him to move? That's when it's hard for him to make people miss. Too many tight spaces. Not enough time to get that 250-frame with any momentum behind it. He averaged 1.9 yards on 15 carries when the 18-yarder was taken away from the equation. Dion Lewis -- who's better at creating something out of nothing -- had a slow day himself, grabbing just 11 yards on six attempts. The best contributions for this group came in pass protection. On Hogan's first score and Edelman's touchdown, James White laid big blocks to keep Brady clean. On 44 drop-backs he was pressured just six times.
What a day for Hogan, who set a new franchise record -- overtaking Deion Branch -- for most receiving yards in a postseason game (180). He might have put that mark even further out of reach had he not dropped a pair of passes thrown his way, including one would-be touchdown in the fourth quarter. But that will hardly be held against him as he continues to solidify himself as the team's top deep threat. To play as well as he did through a thigh injury -- he was visibly uncomfortable picking himself up off the turf at times -- made his night even more impressive. I know Steelers linebackers are athletic, but it may be time for coach Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Keith Butler to come up with a different plan for Edelman. He was unguardable at times, and was the recipient of an easy score in the third quarter. Mitchell was frustrated with his third-down drop in the first quarter, which thwarted an up-tempo first drive of the game for the Patriots, but he saw plenty of run as the team's No. 3 receiver in his first game since Week 16.
TIGHT END: C+
Martellus Bennett called himself an old pickup truck after the game, which seemed like a pretty apt description. He's getting the job done despite being in need of repairs, but just barely at times. It was a down day for him as a run blocker, getting cast aside by James Harrison on a couple of occasions -- and he picked up a false-start penalty in the fourth quarter. Bennett did catch five passes -- most since Week 10 -- for 32 yards. James Develin was solid as a run-blocker in 25 snaps and was left alone on the outside at one point for a 13-yard reception.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B+
Brady was provided ample time to throw throughout thanks in large part to the work done by his blockers up front. One of the two sacks Brady took was on him as tried to extend the play for a beat too long. Have to know when the journey is over sometimes, as the Patriots often like to say. The other came when Joe Thuney lost his rookie-on-rookie battle with Pittsburgh's talented defensive lineman Javon Hargrave. The Steelers seemed content to rush three or four for most of the game, dropping numbers into coverage to muddy the middle of the field. But Dante Scarnecchia's unit was content to block them, and Brady was content to take his time as he carved away. In the running game, the speed of Pittsburgh's linebackers -- particulalry Ryan Shazier -- gave the Patriots issues, but all in all, with Brady kept in one piece for the Super Bowl, this position group did its job. Extra credit to Marcus Cannon, who helped erase Bud Dupree, but also pushed the mass of humanity surrounding Blount toward the goal line on his 18-yard run.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B
Stephen Gostkowski came into the game having made 32 of his last 33 kicks, and his only miss was one from more than 50 yards away on some dicey turf in Miami. That streak of near-perfection -- after a bumpy season -- was snapped when he pushed an extra point wide right. Still kicking from the left hash when he's given the option, it was the equivalent of slicing a drive two fairways over. Gostkowski did, however make six other kicks (three field goals, with a long of 47) on the night. Jonathan Jones deserves to be recognized as one of this team's top players in the kicking game. They have a handful with Matthew Slater and Nate Ebner consistently leading the way, but Jones showed up once again on Sunday night. He made a finger-tip tackle of Brown on a punt return that limited the run to 10 yards when it could have been much longer. He also had the hit of the night when he dropped Sammie Coates in the first quarter during a kick return. Jones credited Ebner for knocking Coates off-balance first, and he just cleaned things up. Ebner's health is something to monitor the next two weeks as he had to leave the game with a head injury. Harmon took over Ebner's duties as personal protector on the punt team.