Three times the charm? (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
Penalties: There were some pretty lousy mistakes that made this game last to the final set of downs. A questionable pass interference call by Brandon Meriweather gave the Steelers the ball with a short field to score when it could have kept the Steelers out of even just field goal range. The Patriots have the Steelers too many second chances and cannot afford to have these mistakes against other top teams.
Defenders of Mike Wallace: Wallace is a burner receiver and was able to take advantage of the Patriots' coverage. Kyle Arrington, normally the player asked to cover the speedy receivers, was unable to control Wallace as the Steelers' receiver found pockets in the coverage down field. Devin McCourty also looked rough in coverage of Wallace just because of his inability to keep pace with Wallace. While the secondary was bailed out because of the fantastic pressure by the front seven, the Patriots need to figure out a way to contain such talented and fast players like Wallace.
4th Quarter Defense: Yes, they managed to score a defensive touchdown. They also allowed three quick touchdown drives to keep the Steelers in the game. The Patriots knew the Steelers needed to take some deep shots to stay in the game, yet they left open coverage underneath and the Steelers were able to pick up 20+ yards at a time and scored in 3:11, 1:48 and 1:24. The defense is young and is learning, and this next week is when they need to focus on controlling the clock on defense. They need to be able to dictate opposing offenses, especially in crunch time, and they need to get off the field quickly- but by means of punt or turnover, not an allowed touchdown.
Darius Butler: How far this young corner has fallen. After starting the first two games of the season, and then seeing his role diminish, Butler has hit bottom as a healthy scratch. The Patriots went into the game with only Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington and Jonathan Wilhite at cornerback. What's up with Butler? He needs to shape up quickly, or he might have to get comfortable with staying on the inactive list.
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The Utilization of Aaron Hernandez: Where was Herndo this whole game? His absence was part of a game plan that worked, but one has to wonder what's happened to Herndo. The offense functioned extremely well without him, but it would still be nice to see him get involved. The Patriots favored the two tight end set all game, featuring Alge Crumpler and Rob Gronkowski. Hopefully Hernandez can find a way to get on the field next week.
Special Teams Defense: Every time the Steelers had a return, it made me have a heart attack. It seemed as if they were always one step away from breaking free and the Steelers always had phenomenal field position. The return defense unit needs to work a bit in order to prevent opposing teams from getting great returns- especially with Devin Hester and C.J. Spiller in the future.
Pat Chung's Health: Chung rejoined the ranks and made an immediate impact on defense. He played pretty well, despite getting taken to school by Antwaan Randle El. Randle El ran slant routes that Chung couldn't defend. Beyond that, Chung played well and was the main reason the Steelers couldn't generate a consistent run game. He was stopping plays left and right and was a force that the defense had been missing. His health, not his performance, falls under "bad' as he was injured twice during the game. He may need an extra week to get back up to speed since he seemed a little dinged up.
The Utilization of Jermaine Cunningham: For some reason, the Patriots decided to go with Tully Banta-Cain all game and Cunningham ended up not recording a stat. Only the coaches know why Herndo and Cunningham weren't used on Sunday, but hopefully they can stay engaged. When Shawn Crable sees the field more than Cunningham, it means something is up- especially against a run heavy team like the Steelers, which plays to Cunningham's strength.
Tom Brady: What a game by Brady against the best defense in the league. He destroyed them. He picked them apart after looking inept against the Browns. His foot looked like no trouble and he was aware in the pocket. He was hit as many times by BenJarvus Green-Ellis as he was by any single opposing defensive player. He was at his best and had his accuracy back. One long pass into the end zone to Brandon Tate sort of drifted and was almost intercepted, but that's how wild the Heinz Stadium air flow is. Brady was at his best and hopefully can perform at such a high level for the rest of the season. His fire on the side lines definitely had a positive impact.
The Passing Game: Four players with over 50 yards. Six players with multiple receptions. And none of them were Aaron Hernandez. The spread offense was firing on all cylinders and showed how potent the offense can be when everything is running smoothly. Players were getting open, Wes Welker was being targeted, easy passes weren't being dropped and the chains kept moving. Deion Branch quietly had a phenomenal game with 7 receptions for 71 yards. Everyone played their part to perfection.
Rob Gronkowski: The rookie had to get his own section. He rebounded from a terrible week against the Browns, where it could be argued that he lost the game for the Patriots. He rebounded with an incredible performance. He caught every pass in his direction (5 for 5) for 72 yards and 3 touchdowns. He stayed on the field for most of the game and helped create lanes for the running backs, but also kept opposing pass rushers away from Tom Brady.
The Running Game: After playing Houdini against the Browns, BenJarvus Green-Ellis had a solid game. He was a reliable runner as the game wore on and took the heart away from the Steelers. The offensive line and tight ends were great in the run protection as they were opening lanes left and right for the running backs. Logan Mankins played at a high level, as did the rest of the line. The running game functioned, which allowed the play-action pass to work extremely well and give Brady plenty of time to look down the field for receivers.
The Utilization of Mike Wright: I've often harped on the performance of Mike Wright. I believe that he isn't the right type of player to stop the run in the Patriots defense. The Patriots decided to play a defensive line of Vince Wilfork, Brandon Deaderick and Ron Brace against the run for a lot of the game, which opened up lanes for Pat Chung and Jerod Mayo. Wright wasn't on for many run plays. He managed to stop a draw play in the backfield, but that was on a passing down and play- which is still a great heads up play. Wright was utilized as a left defensive end (instead of his typical right defensive end position) and played next to Wilfork and Gerard Warren on passing downs. Wright stunted around Wilfork for most of the game to get an open lane to Ben Roethlisberger. Wilfork took on Steelers' center Mike Pouncey, while Gerard Warren was double teamed by their left tackle and guard. Wright split between Wilfork and Warren in a pick and roll as the right guard, who was blocking Wright, is picked by Wilfork and Pouncey. Wright was able to run to Big Ben unblocked. This is how Wright should be used- he shouldn't be used to square up and try to beat opposing linemen. He should be used to run around linemen due to his burst and speed.
The Run Defensive Line: Brace, Wilfork and Deaderick did a great job of slowing the run early and preventing the Steelers from generating early offense. Chung and Mayo greatly benefited from this defensive line, and I'm sure that this line will be used in the future against other run heavy teams. All three players demand double teams, which allows other Patriots defenders to attack the running back at will.
The Pass Rush Defensive: Warren, Wilfork, Wright, Tully Banta-Cain, Shawn Crable, Gary Guyton. These were the players who took the field against the pass. Crable generated plenty of pressure, Guyton was used on blitzes, Banta-Cain showed flashes of last season's success, Wright made Ben's life hell, and Wilfork and Warren opened lanes all over the Steelers' offensive line.
The Offensive Line: In both the pass and the run game, the offensive line gave plenty of protection. The Steelers were playing without their top two defensive ends, but Brady still had more time than he knew what to do with in the back field. Logan Mankins has been a great addition to the offensive line and Dan Connolly performed like natural in the right guard slot. Hmmm...
Zoltan Mesko: Dealing with a new long snapper, Mesko had one heckuva day. On the missed extra point, the new long snapper Matt Katula flipped the ball high and wide and Mesko was unable to adjust the ball in time- something that will be worked out with more time. As a punter, Mesko was beyond words. He punted five times. His first was a touchback. The next two pinned the Steelers in their own red zone. The punted the next one from the Patriots 27 yard line and sent the ball 50 yards into Steelers territory. His final kick, once again, pinned the Steelers in their red zone. Mesko's emerging as a star punter and has played fantastic football this season.
Coaching Staff: The coaches get props for refocusing this team after such a terrible loss. The team functioned like a well oiled machine and moved the ball at will and, until the fourth quarter, looked like a steel wall. Hopefully another solid week of practice follows this performance as the Patriots gear up to play the Indianapolis Colts.
Great game! Moving on to the Colts!