Phil Perry's Patriots Report Card: Room for improvement
Not quite fridge-worthy
For those fans who were unhappy that the Patriots would not be seeing Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, and therefore have one fewer test this season, ain't it funny how things work out?
On the road, against a backup quarterback, and against one of the worst pass defenses in the league, coach Bill Belichick's club still got all it could handle. If not for some self-inflicted wounds, a 27-16 victory could have been much more lopsided. Instead, the Patriots relied upon their best players to make plays late in the game to put it away, earning what could be an all-important win at the end of the year when things like postseason tie-breakers and homefield advantage come into focus.
The Steelers should finish up as one of the top teams in the AFC this season. They just didn't look like it on Sunday.
Let's get to the grades . . .
The Steelers did what teams will do from time to time against the Patriots, it seems, which is alter their defensive approach in order to catch quarterback Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels off-guard to some extent. It's not a terrible idea. Would you rather Brady and McDaniels see exactly what they've been preparing for? Or would you rather try something a little different, force the Patriots to diagnose it, then force them to go back in the archives of their memories to pick out a game plan that will work? You might still lose, but at least you'll buy yourself some time by switching things up.
The historically blitz-happy Steelers opted not to rush the quarterback for the second straight week. After blitzing just nine times against Miami, they came at Brady with a blitz just four times all game.
That allowed Pittsburgh to drop more bodies into coverage, and limited explosive Patriots gains -- for a time, at least. Credit the Patriots, and Brady in particular, for waiting out their opponents, handing off when that was the best option, and hitting receivers available underneath before striking for game-changing plays late.
Had it not been for some lapses in focus -- Patriots pass-catchers lost a fumble and had two third-down drops -- this grade would have seen a significant bump.
Brady didn't post the eye-popping numbers that he did against the Browns and Bengals, but he continued to pick apart the AFC North by completing 19 of his 22 attempts for 222 yards and two scores. Through three games, he's now on pace for over 4,000 yards and 32 touchdowns in just 12 games. Given how the rest of the league has performed, those would probably be good enough for his third MVP award.
With the way the Steelers deployed their coverage, Brady attempted just one pass that traveled over 20 yards all game -- a dart of a throw down the middle of the field to Rob Gronkowski, who had safety Robert Golden trailing behind him in one-on-one coverage. Brady's other long strike of the day picked on Golden again. He couldn't stay with Gronkowski over the middle of the field, and the tight end snared Brady's well-placed pass, running with it for a 37-yard pickup.
Brady continued to put on a clinic when it comes to accuracy. Of his three incompletions, two were drops (Julian Edelman and Brandon Bolden) and the third was a shovel pass attempt to James White after Brady had been flushed out of the pocket. If he keeps this up, it may be a while before the Patriots throw their first interception of the season.
Sound decision-making led to two first-down scrambles for Brady on third downs where he had nowhere to go with the football. He also snuck his way over the line of scrimmage for another first down. Let's call that extra credit.
RUNNING BACK: A-
The Patriots are versatile enough offensively that for every defensive game plan thrown at them, when healthy, they have an answer. Sunday was a LeGarrette Blount game because Pittsburgh made the decision -- for a time, at least -- to stop Patriots tight ends by using their sub packages. If that's what you decide, you can count on a heavy dose of New England's 250-pound back, which is exactly what McDaniels gave them.
Blount ran for 127 yards and two scores against his old team, pickng up 56 of those yards after contact. He made a season-high six would-be tacklers miss, and read his blocks well, particularly down near the goal line.
James White saw just 24 snaps and didn't take a hand-off, but he checked in with another steady performance as he caught two of the three targets sent his way for 32 yards and a 19-yard touchdown on a screen pass that was textbook. Offensive linemen Joe Thuney and David Andrews get credit for impact blocks on the play, but White read them well. His quickness and change-of-direction ability may not be what Dion Lewis' was early last year, but when combined with his vision, they are more than enough to do damage. He has now caught 84 percent of the targets sent his way this season, and he has just one drop. Only three backs in the league with 30 targets or more have yet to drop a pass.
Bolden's third-down drop was costly, and it's what knocked this grade down a smidge. He played in three offensive snaps in his first game back since suffering a knee injury against the Bills. On four targets this season, Bolden has two drops.
Chris Hogan's fumble on New England's first play from scrimmage didn't necessarily kill his team's chances of getting out to a strong start. With about 11 minutes left in the second quarter, the Patriots had run 24 of the game's previous 27 plays, and they were up 14-0.
Still, the turnover was a nuissance for a team looking to establish some momentum in a difficult place to play after beginning the game with a three-and-out on the defensive side of the ball. Hogan needed a poor throw from Landry Jones and a Malcolm Butler interception to bail him out.
Edelman had somewhat of a bounce-back game, catching nine of 10 targets for 60 yards with Pittsburgh more focused on Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett. The one incompletion sent Edelman's way was a drop on third down that likely would have been his longest reception of the game given the open space in front of him. It certainly would have helped to bleed the clock. Instead, the Steelers took over with just under two minutes left, drove the field and kicked a field goal to make the score 14-10 going into the half.
Edelman did make his presence felt as a blocker, blocking Golden on Blount's first touchdown run. He got Golden again on an 11-yard run in the fourth quarter, and he pushed poor rookie corner Artie Burns back about 12 yards to help clear space for a Blount's 25-yarder in the third -- his longest run of the day.
Danny Amendola and Malcolm Mitchell were not targeted in 49 combined snaps. Amendola did, however, force some miscommunication and attract safety help on Gronkowski's long score in the third.
TIGHT END: A-
When they are called upon to catch passes, they can do that. When they are called upon to move people at the line of scrimmage, they can do that as well.
The mere presence of Gronkowski and Bennett on the field together attracted enough attention for Edelman and Blount to have big afternoons, but they were more than decoys. Both "small forwards," as Matthew Slater calls them, made key blocks on Blount's touchdown runs. Bennett, in particular, was able to walk some bigger bodies down the line of scrimmage in order to make running lanes.
On the receiving end of things, it was Gronkowski who made the biggest dent. He played in 52 of 57 snaps, but he only saw four targets, catching them all for 93 yards and a score. Bennett, meanwhile, played 30 snaps and saw one target, catching it for five yards.
After the game, Bennett's unselfishness was apparent. He knew why he didn't get the ball, and he didn't seem to mind.
"Today they relied a lot on us blocking," he said. "We did a great job blocking. A lot of poeple always looking at the pass catching or how many receiving yards we get, but what makes us dymanic is our ability to block and open up holes for LeGarrette."
OFFENSIVE LINE: B+
No sacks and 4.8 yards per carry? Hard to find much fault in the performance of Dante Scarnecchia's unit, but it's a group that knows it has plenty to clean up before its matchup with the Bills.
The Steelers were without their best defensive lineman, and arguably their best defensive player, in Cameron Heyward, but the combination of Stephon Tuitt and Jarvis Jones still provided Brady's protection with some issues.
Nate Solder, who has put together clean performance after clean performance this season, had perhaps his worst drive of the season to start the second half when he allowed a pressure and then picked up back-to-back holding calls. He took the blame for both on Monday, acknowledging he needs to have better technique in those situations.
Shaq Mason had a difficult time keep his man in front of him on the interior, allowing four pressures and picking up a penalty. Andrews and Thuney both picked up penalties of their own and both allowed quarterback hits.
Marcus Cannon had yet another stout performance on the right side after perhaps his best game of the season against Cincinnati. He's been penalty-free for two weeks and hasn't allowed a sack since Week 1.
Again, all in all, it was a good day as they were able to move the Steelers at the point of attack and help Blount to a bully's performance. But they weren't faced with a series of exotic pressures, and Scarnecchia won't have to look too hard to find room for improvement for his starting five.
The Patriots came into the game as the No. 27 team in the league when it came to third-down defense. They were No. 29 when it came to red-zone defense. Both needed to improve, and both did.
They allowed just 10 points on four red-zone trips, and they held the Steelers to just five third-down conversions on 16 tries.
Once again, they had the whole bend-but-don't-break thing pretty well figured out.
Instead of bull-rushing their way into the Steelers backfield in order to rattle Jones, Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia opted to hang back, often dropping seven or eight into coverage, forcing Jones to make difficult decisions with the football. Through most of the third quarter, the Patriots had just one quarterback pressure, and it came from corner Malcolm Butler on a rare blitz.
Jones, a capable backup in his fourth year out of Oklahoma didn't exactly puke in his shoes as the Patriots let him sit back in the pocket. He threw for 281 yards and a touchdown, but didn't do enough to win. And that's what the Patriots care about.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B+
The pass-rush numbers were not impressive -- no sacks, one quarterback hit, a handful of pressures -- but the plan wasn't to knock Jones off of his spot. New England's front kept him in the pocket, and they did it with a shorthanded group.
With rookie defensive tackles Vincent Valentine and Woodrow Hamilton out, they had to get creative with their depth on the interior. The bulk of the work went to Alan Branch (40 snaps), Malcom Brown (35) and Anthony Johnson (21), but Jabaal Sheard (35) spent some time inside as did Chris Long (50). The Patriots also tapped into their numbers at end, using Rob Ninkovich (57) extensively, as well as Trey Flowers (20) and Shea McClellin (10).
Branch continued his stretch of flashing good energy, particularly early in games, when he forced a fumble on the second play from scrimmage. He was in on a pair of run stuffs, as was Brown and Long -- who was impressive in terms of his ability to set the edge.
Belichick and his staff may like to see their players finish on some of the pressures they did generate -- Sheard had Jones in his grasp but let him get away in the fourth quarter -- but the front battled with a talented offensive line and did well to keep Le'Veon Bell to under four yards per carry (3.9).
In his return to the field after missing Week 6 with a hip injury, Jamie Collins moved well. He finished second on the team with eight tackles, and he allowed just 14 yards receiving on four targets thrown his way. Of those 14 yards, just four came after the catch. He held Bell -- one of the best receiving backs and most elusive runners in the league -- to just 10 yards on two grabs. Collins also drew an important holding penalty in the second quarter which nullified a Jones touchdown pass to Darius Heyward-Bey and pushed the Steelers back to their 24-yard line. They missed a field goal two plays later.
Rookie sixth-round pick Elandon Roberts played in 19 snaps, but as the game wore on, Belichick went with Collins and Hightower almost exclusively.
Hightower was also tasked with chasing Bell in coverage, continuing to prove he's more than a run-game thumper and pass-rusher. The "splash" plays from Hightower were harder to find, but he made one of the more impressive plays he's made this season when with 2:46 left he caught Bell from behind and dragged him down in bounds just before Bell could get to the sideline to stop the clock. A 265-pound man should not be able to move like that, particularly after playing nearly 60 snaps.
Hightower was called for an unnecessary roughness penalty in the second quarter, though it sounded as though the whistle had not blown before he took a shot at Bell while Collins struggled to hold the back up. About three minutes later came the missed field goal, though, so the penalty didn't hurt the Patriots on the scoreboard.
During a game in which the Patriots had to be focused on bringing down slippery runners like Bell and Antonio Brown, their defense got some critical stops from defensive backs. Patrick Chung led the way with 10 tackles, making several of those after apparently sufferingan injury that required attention from the team's medical staff. Devin McCourty also showed up in the running game, contributing on a pair of run stuffs.
In coverage, this was as strong a test as Butler would face all season and he responded. He allowed Brown to reel in five passes for 94 yards, but most of those came on a 51-yard catch when he was expecting to have safety help over the top. Brown "ran through" the coverage, as Belichick explained afterward, finding a gap deep over the middle and over Butler's underneath technique. Hard to put that all on him. Butler made his first pick of the year in the first quarter and could have had another in the third, which he was kicking himself over after the fact. When it was all said and done, he had been targeted 12 times, allowed five catches, deflected three passes and picked one. Nice day for him.
Chung also showed up in coverage, covering both Brown and Bell at different points. He broke up a pair of passes -- including one thrown to Bell in the end zone -- and allowed just three grabs on six targets for 17 yards.
There was a noticeable shift in personnel for the Patriots as Eric Rowe played in every snap while Logan Ryan filled in as the No. 3 corner. Going from 26 snaps against the Bengals to 73 against the Steelers represented a significant shift for Rowe.
Rowe allowed five catches on eight targets, including a touchdown in the second quarter, but also drew a pass-interference penalty in the first quarter, and Belichick seemed impressed by the job he's done since seeing some playing time defensively.
"I think he's done some good things the last couple weeks," Belichick said of Rowe on Tuesday, "though there's still some obvious newness for him, which is to be expected . . . I think we have a way to go, but he's certainly had a positive impact."
Seeing how the Patriots employ their corners as matchups change in the coming weeks bears watching. Ryan played 31 snaps and allowed three catches on four targets, and rookie second-rounder Cyrus Jones was named inactive for teh second consecutive week. Justin Coleman was active and saw 17 snaps.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C-
This was the worst game of the season for the Patriots kicking-game units thus far. Stephen Gostkowski's continued woes garnered the majority of the attention after the game, but the punt, punt-return and kick coverage teams had issues as well.
Ryan Allen booted one into the Heinz Field stands, which would qualify as probably the most wayward shank of his career. He likely wanted to keep the football away from Brown, which is understandable. He is as dangerous a returner as he is a receiver. Just not sure he meant to put the thing in someone's nachos.
On another punt at the end of the second quarter, it appeared as though Bolden lost track of the football as it bounced in front of him deep in Steelers territory. He had a shot to down it around the six, but instead banged it out of the back of the end zone for a touchback, giving the Steelers 14 extra yards of field position before they drove the field for a field goal.
Edelman fumbled a punt return with 10-and-a-half minutes remaining, giving the Steelers the football at the Patriots 43 and ample time to make it a one-score game. Pittsburgh kicker Chris Boswell missed his 54-yarder less than two minutes later to stop the immediate threat, but that was a mistake that could have been a back-breaker.
The Patriots kick coverage team, which came into the game allowing just 16.2 yards per kick return (second in the league), allowed 27 yards per return. There were no game-changing plays in that phase, but still, Slater deemed their work, "not good enough."