After re-watching the Patriots 39-26 victory over Pittsburgh in Week 10, there were a few points that caught my eye:
Patriots come out swinging: The Patriots played with a lot of intensity, and seemed determined not to repeat their lopsided loss to Cleveland the week before. New England gained momentum early when they deferred on the opening kickoff and forced the Steelers to go three-and-out on their first drive. Tom Brady then led the team into the end zone with a four-minute, eight play drive that included big plays to Rob Gronkowski who redeemed himself after some critical mistakes against the Browns. After another defensive stop, Brady came back down the field all the way to the Pittsburgh 12-yard line before a somewhat harsh chop-block penalty moved them back 15 yards, where New England eventually settled for a field goal. These drives killed most of the first quarter, quieted the crowd, and combined with the loss of Hines Ward on the next series put the Steelers in a difficult position early.
Officials allow physical play: I was impressed with Carl Cheffers and his officiating crew’s willingness to allow physical play in this game. There were a number of situations where a more trigger-happy referee might have thrown the flag for unnecessary roughness or a late hit. It is good to know that even as the NFL tries to crack down on illegal hits and promote player safety, there is still room within the rules for a sock-‘em-in-the-mouth style of game between these two AFC powerhouses.
Vince Wilfork deserves recognition: Vince played his heart out in this game. While Tom Brady was screaming at the offense to improve and rallying them around him, Wilfork was quietly doing the same for the defense as he led by example. Virtually every snap he played, regardless of where he lined up, he generated a ferocious push forward, causing problems for Ben Roethlisberger and the running game. Vince was frequently able to force acclaimed rookie center Maurkice Pouncey backward and collapse the pocket. Once the Steelers resorted to double teaming him, he still held his ground, and drew attention away from his teammates so they could make the play. While it’s important to have a passionate general like Brady leading the way, Vince deserves tremendous credit for the game he played and the example he set. It is heartening to see Wilfork and Brady play with such passion after receiving monster paydays before the season started.
Blitzing pays off: New England blitzed frequently in the first half. Gary Guyton had some success early as he batted down a Roethlisberger pass on the first possession, then sacked him on the second. Patrick "Missile" Chung (I was calling him "Mini-Missile," but there is nothing small about the way he plays) looked like a terror as he came screaming of the edge on a few blitzes, but he was not able to actually record a sack. Jerod Mayo also seemed well-suited to blitzing, which was a bit of a surprise since Brandon Spikes had been given that task in Cleveland. The Patriots fearless blitzing, combined with good push from their linemen helped make Big Ben uncomfortable and kept the Steelers from finding their rhythm in the first three quarters. The loss of Hines Ward for the game likely contributed to this as well, since he is often a quick-pass option to combat blitzes.
Cris Collinsworth not a New England fan: Or if he is, he has a strange way of showing it. Collinsworth seemed positively gleeful talking about how the Browns ran all over the Patriots. He seemed to be giving New England a number of backhanded compliments in the first half, but as the game wore on he became less and less critical.
Defensive line getting deeper: When the season started it seemed as though the only defensive linemen who were experienced enough to get regular playing time were Wilfork, Mike Wright and Gerard Warren. Since then Brandon Deaderick and Ron Brace have thrust themselves into the spotlight with some good physical play. Deaderick especially impressed me against the Steelers with his strength and refusal to give up on plays. Gerald Warren also has been better than expected despite having little experience in a 3-4 defense prior to this year. While nobody can play the Patriots style of run-stuffing defensive end quite like Ty Warren, the depth and versatility of the defensive line has made his absence less disastrous. Mike Wright has also been playing well in his preferred inside rusher role, and leads the team with 5.5 sacks. Myron Pryor has been a nice backup as well, although he missed the Pittsburgh game due to injury. Being able to rotate these players and keep them fresh without sacrificing too much on the field bodes well for later in the season.
Brady still the man: I have been a bit critical of Brady this year, but his accuracy this game was phenomenal. Receivers were getting the ball right on the money so they could make the catch in stride and run. His 45-yard pass to Brandon Tate in the third quarter was especially well placed as Tom lofted the ball perfectly off Tate’s right shoulder and away from the defender. The offensive line deserves a lot of praise for consistently giving him time to make plays.
Excellent game plan: Aside from the loose defense we saw toward the end of the game, I though Bill Belichick and his staff put together a great game plan and adjusted it well. The Steelers no doubt prepared a lot for the Patriots leading pass-catcher at the time, Aaron Hernandez. Instead they had to deal with the massive Rob Gronkowski running routes, and could not stop him from grabbing three TDs. I also liked the decision to start Wilfork, Brace and Deaderick to clog the middle while sending various speedy blitzers off the edges. Bill made a nice, albeit ruthless decision to challenge the catch on the first-quarter play where Ward was injured. It was only a five-yard gain, and would not have given Pittsburgh a first down, but he knew he would win the challenge and further demoralize the Steelers who were already down by 10 at home.
Alge Crumpler is the rich man's Kyle Brady: Not only is Crumpler a capable blocker with the size and skill to take on premier pass rushers like James Harrison, he also can catch the ball and even play fullback. Crumpler had a great game overall, and his signing looks like one of the Patriots shrewdest moves of the offseason.