This game felt a lot like the Patriots' season opener against the Bengals, where the Patriots played great defense for the first three quarters, then went into total prevent mode allowing the Steelers to rack up a lot of fantasy points in the fourth quarter. So don't let the score fool you, the Patriots defense had a defining game, as the Patriots had about as big of a rebound as you can get after last week's collapse against the Browns.
The Patriots, unlike last week, came storming out of the gates. They started off by forcing the Steelers to a three and out. They got the ball, drove straight down the field, and capped off the drive with a beautiful skinny-post from quarterback Tom Brady to tight end Rob Gronkowski.
By the end of the first quarter, the Patriots were up 10-0. Even when the Steelers began driving, the Patriots defense stiffened and held the Steelers to just a field goal even with their backs to the goal line. While the Patriots certainly left some points on the field due to some costly penalties on offense, they were able to enter halftime with a 10-3 lead.
The Pats came out on offense in the 3rd quarter, picking back up what they were doing at the beginning of the first half. Brady led the Patriots on a 10 play, 78 yard drive that was capped off on a slip-screen to a wide open Rob Gronkowski for his second touchdown of the day.
Following the drive, the Patriots continued to play well defensively. The Patriots used a various combination of fronts. While they ran some limited snaps from the base 3-4, they ran a lot of sub-packages, and constantly rotated in different defensive players. Gary Guyton, Mike Wright, Shawn Crable, and Tully Banta-Cain were all players who played great football defensively, and found ways to get to the quarterback. The Patriots also used a lot of exotic blitzes with safeties and linebackers, with the defensive lineman (including Vince Wilfork) taking on more of an attacking role. For a team that has had it's pass rush so heavily scrutinized, it was instrumental in the team shutting down a dangerous offense in the Steelers, as the team came up with five total sacks. Also, the return of safety Pat Chung was huge for the Patriots, as he had an excellent game covering the sidelines.
On offense, the Patriots had their best overall performance of the year. Tom Brady had his best game of the year, much of the credit due to the pass protection, which was nearly flawless. With all day to throw, Brady was patient and consistently found the holes in the defense. In addition, Brady also looked down field. Instead of looking for a lot of throws in the 5-7 yard area, Brady first looked to the 11-20+ area, and actually took some shots down the field (one of which resulted in a big completion to receiver Brandon Tate). In addition to Brady's performance, a couple of receivers, Wes Welker and Deion Branch also had great games. Welker finished with 89 yards off of eight catches, while Branch had 71 on seven. For Welker, it was arguably his best performance to date this year.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis also had a solid game on the ground, particularly in the second half in which he rushed for 66 yards while helping the Patriots ice the victory. Again, the offensive line had a big help in Green-Ellis' success, as well as the tight ends Rob Gronkowski and particularly Alge Crumpler, who helped the Patriots dominate the edge against Steelers' linebackers James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley. On a slightly unrelated note, props to Matt Light, who once again had a mostly mistake-free game against an elite pass rusher (next week against Dwight Freeney will be a real test for him).
Of course, I can't possibly talk about the offense without the performance of Rob Gronkowski. While Gronkowski had a miserable performance last week against the Browns, he bounced back big today, coming up with five catches for 72 yards and three touchdowns. It looks like Gronk is well on his way to becoming Tom Brady's favorite red zone target without Randy Moss. Gronkowski has six total receiving touchdowns this year.
While the Steelers put up a lot of big offensive numbers in the fourth quarter, it was mostly due to the Patriots playing a prevent defense, as frustrating as it was. However, once James Sanders intercepted a Ben Roethlisberger pass intended for Antwaan Randle El and returned it to the house making the score 29-10, this one was over. Or maybe it was over after Brady's touchdown to make it 23-3 (end the ensuing missed PAT by Shayne Graham... ew). Or maybe it was after the final Brady-to-Gronkowski touchdown. I don't know. What I do know is that this was the convincing win that the Patriots needed.
The Patriots now sit at 7-2, and still are tied for the NFL's best record. Next week, a crucial rivalry game at home against the Colts. Like tonight's match-up, next week could have some serious playoff implications. Should be a fun one.
Lastly, I just want to say that the way the Patriots rebounded this week shows us a lot about this team. They could have rolled over like the 2009 Patriots. This is a different team. This was an angry team. We've seen a lot of ups and downs this year, but if the team plays with the passion it had tonight, they can do anything. The Patriots went into Pittsburgh, against a Steelers team that nearly every prognosticator believed would stomp on the Patriots. The Steelers were too physical. So how do the Patriots respond? They respond by playing the Steelers with some physical football, and it showed. I'll sleep well tonight.