What a difference a week makes for the Patriots


What a difference a week makes for the Patriots

By Mary Paoletti

PITTSBURGH -- What's in a bounceback?

What does it take for a team to turn its game around 180 degrees in a week?

"It's the NFL,'' Bill Belichick said. "You never know. If you knew what was going to happen in this league you'd make a lot of money.''

Belichick wasn't being cryptic after his team's 39-26 win Sunday over the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was just being honest.

"I thought we just had a good, consistent offensive performance,'' he said. "We ran the ball competitively, made them worry about it. Did a good job in the passing game, got good yards after the catch. Of course the red area is huge like it always is.

"Give the players credit. They played well, they played hard; they blocked, they got open, they threw it, they caught it. They did a good job."

It wasn't a flawless game for the Patriots. But that wasn't the point. It was just so markedly better, so resolutely executed from the kickoff, that it was surprising. And it really was as simple as Belichick said.

And they tackled, and they sacked. The fact that Jerod Mayo leads the NFL in tackles by more than 10 isn't necessarily a good thing. The Patriots linebacker has been capitalizing on all the opportunities presented to him and then some, garbage-collecting on the guys his teammates miss. Mayo had nine tackles against the Steelers on Sunday, a tie with cornerback Devin McCourty for second-highest on the team.

He couldn't have been happier.

"It's a great feeling knowing the guys are out there trying to make all the plays,'' he said of sharing the effort.

Patrick Chung's 10 tackles held the top spot.

After missing two games with a knee injury, Chung reentered the lineup with authority. His field awareness was on point when he set up a deflection of a fourth-quarter Ben Roethlisberger pass. The tipped ball was snared by teammate James Sanders, who returned the interception for a touchdown.

Again, their play wasn't perfect.

In the second quarter, McCourty got shoved inside on the run blitz, allowing Steelers' leading rusher Rashard Mendenhall to break containment. Mendenhall then faked Chung out of his cleats for a 34-yard gain and a momentum shift in Pittsburgh's favor.

But the defense didn't have to be perfect to be better.

Limiting Mendenhall to 50 yards after letting Cleveland's Peyton Hillis abuse them was huge. Posting five sacks on large-target Roethlisberger was astounding. It was the Steeler defense -- the best in the NFL, a Dick LeBeau-led blitzing machine -- that was supposed to be suffocating.

Instead, the Patriots 'D' held Pittsburgh to three points through three quarters (Cleveland, remember, scored 24 in the first three quarters.) By the time the choke hold loosened in the fourth, New England had an insurmountable lead.

"We just wanted this game to hurry up and get here," said Vince Wilfork. "We got off to a good start this week in practice, and it showed today. I think we prepared well this week."

Wes Welker finally found some space on Sunday.

The wideout, and favorite option of Tom Brady's, has been quiet since the trade of Randy Moss. In Cleveland he had a pedestrian four catches for 36 yards -- not the kind of productivity expected from the guy who led the league last year in receptions. Eight receptions and 89 yards against the Steelers defense was a move in the right direction, even if Welker said it "should have been more" in the postgame.

The point of such progress isn't restoring receivers back to career-high heights. It's enough right now to simply pull fading wideouts back into service. Like Brandon Tate, the guy expected to pick up Moss' mantle as The Downfield Threat. The Browns limited Tate to 1 catch and 12 yards a week ago. Sunday night on second-and-10 at the New England 20, Brady reintroduced Tate to the offense with a 45-yard frozen rope on the post.

Deion Branch discussed how huge it was for the receiving corps to be a better bet for Brady.

"It's been frustrating,'' he said of the struggles. "There've been some things we haven't hit. You know we'll get to it. We never panic, that's the most important thing.''

Branch was the owner of just three catches between Cleveland and Minnesota. He more than doubled that total Sunday (7, for 71 yards).

"It was important, period, to the whole team. Important to all of us,'' Branch said. "This week in practice was totally different. This week was totally different."

Tom is never terrible, he just hasn't been very Brady lately.

Last week's first drive? New England's QB went 1-for-6 with a sack. Pittsburgh was not so lucky. Until TB came to town, the Steelers had not allowed a single first-quarter touchdown, and only eight TDs through the air, all year. Brady opened with a 4-for-5, 52-yard touchdown drive. It was the first time New England scored on its first drive since Week 3 against Buffalo.

That tenacity that set the tone for the day. Brady notched his first 300-plus yard game of the season and he did it through force of will. Every minute, the field general was screaming orders or encouragement at his troops.

"I was exhausted," Brady said. "There's only one way to play. It's an emotional game. Part of playing quarterback is trying to make sure everyone is always into it. There's a certain level of concentration and focus that you need on the road. The crowd gets noisy."

For the majority, anyway. There were definitely some painful moments.

"It was all self-inflicted,'' Welker said. "We had drops, I had one and we just cant have that."

What was noteworthy wasn't who was dropping the ball, but who wasn't. Rookie Rob Gronkowski had made a mess of his Week 9 chances. His "productivity" amounted to a fumble on the Browns' goal line, a special teams blunder-to-turnover and a complete lack of chemistry with his quarterback.So the Steelers had the misfortune of facing the oversized tight end when he had something to prove.
"He's a great player," Welker said. "It's great to see a guy really bounce back from something like that and do such a great job. He plays hard and he works hard. I'm glad it really paid off for him. He had a better week."
Better? Just slightly. Gronkowski reeled in a career-high three touchdown catches and 72 receiving yards. Just one more piece in the puzzle that amounted to a solid game -- a beautiful bounceback -- for Belichick.

"This week was definitely better," the coach said before pausing a beat. He continued with a tight little smirk, "That wouldn't take much."

You wonder if another change of the wind could bring the Pats back to Cleveland-status. Was the Steelers win a special effort? Did everything come together on the right night at the right time, never to be replicated? Or did it just take time for things to click and potential be made reality?

Whatever the case, nobody in New England's locker room was oozing overconfidence. Maybe therein is the difference between 6-1 and 6-2, where learning you aren't invincible is inevitable but feeling you might be actually flawed is frightening.

No time to dwell, though. The wins have to be filed away just like the losses.

"It feels good, but you gotta move on,'' Chung shrugged. "You gotta move on quick, too. We got a big game next week" -- the Colts come to Foxboro -- "so this one's over now."
Mary Paoletti can be reached at Follow Mary on Twitter at http:twitter.comMary_Paoletti

Speed to burn: Cooks, Brady team up to form most productive deep-ball combo


Speed to burn: Cooks, Brady team up to form most productive deep-ball combo

The first came in the second quarter, when Brandin Cooks turned on afterburners to beat a Raiders double team and glide underneath a Tom Brady heave for 52 yards. The second came in the third quarter, on the third play from scrimmage of the second half, when Cooks faked an out-route, jetted past rookie corner Obi Melifonwu, and sped into the end zone to make the score 24-0. 

Both deep completions in New England's 33-8 win over Oakland just added to cumulative effect that Cooks has had on the Patriots offense since arriving before the season to become their top deep threat. 

Paired with Brady, Cooks has actually become the most productive deep threat in the NFL. 


According to Pro Football Focus, Cooks leads all receivers with 431 yards on deep passes (throws that travel 20 yards or more down the field). In second place is Houston's DeAndre Hopkins with 313 yards. 

And Brady, who has long been more effective in the short-to-intermediate range than he has been deep, is now among the league leaders in creating explosive plays from the quarterback position. The Patriots are third in the NFL with 41 pass plays of 20 yards or more, and they are tied for second with nine plays of 40 yards or more. 

"You're always trying to work on that," Brady told WEEI's Kirk and Callahan Show of his team's deep passing game. "It's not one particular year [you work on it]. I think that's been a concerted effort by our entire offense, trying to make more explosive plays in the pass game. 

"Sometimes your offense is built differently. We actually have some guys now that can really get down the field so that becomes more of a point of emphasis. The way Brandin runs, the way that Chris Hogan runs, the way that Phillip Dorsett runs, they're very fast. You need to be able to take advantage of their skill set . . . 

"When we had David Patten we were throwing it deep. I mean, but David Patten didn't run a lot of short routes. I would say Brandin Cooks, in general, he doesn't run a lot of short routes. Everyone has a different role. If we can get by you, I think that's a good place to throw the ball. if we can't, we gotta figure out ways to throw it underneath and different weeks are going to call for different things based on the strengths of the defenses we're playing, too."

A week before beating the Raiders, against the Broncos and their talented corners, the Patriots had less luck pushing the ball down the field -- though they tried to hit Cooks deep multiple times. In Mexico City, Cooks matched up with a weaker secondary, and he wasn't at all slowed by the altitude, catching six passes in all for 149 yards and a score. 

Per PFF, Cooks has seen almost one third of his targets (30 percent) come on deep passes, which is the ninth-highest rate in the league. He's caught all 11 of his catchable deep passes, three of them accounting for scores.

"Obviously when you're throwing the ball 50-60 yards down the field," Brady said, "your chances of completion go down, but if you hit it, it ends up being a very explosive plays and you can change a lot of field position and get a defense really on their heels if they have to defend every blade of grass on the field." 


Belichick remembers Glenn: 'A good person with good intentions'

Belichick remembers Glenn: 'A good person with good intentions'

Terry Glenn, the Patriots' top draft pick in 1996, died early Monday morning in a one-car accident in Irving, Texas. He was 43. 

Bill Belichick coached Glenn as an assistant with the Patriots during Glenn's rookie season. He was later Glenn's head coach in 2000 and 2001. Belichick traded Glenn to the Packers before the 2002 season after a tumultuous run in New England that involved legal trouble, injuries and clashes with the coaching staff.

During a conference call with reporters soon after the news of Glenn's death was published, Belichick remembered Glenn for his natural physical ability and "a good heart."

"I was pretty close with Terry," Belichick said, "and his rookie season was my first year here in '96, and so I had a lot of interaction with him and other people that were involved in his life and his upbringing separate from the Patriots. Terry's a very smart individual. Had a lot of, obviously, a lot of physical skill and talent. Could do a lot of things on the football field very naturally. And I think he was deep down inside a good person with good intentions and, you know, a good heart. Obviously it's very unfortunate. Very unfortunate passing. I mean, it's a sad day. Sad news."

According to reports, Glenn was with his fiancee at the time of the accident. She's being treated at a local hospital for unspecified injuries.