Ouch. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
1. Patriots Secondary - At first look, it appears as if the Patriots secondary was torched; Ben Roethlisberger threw for 365 yards and 2 touchdowns on 36 completions and 50 attempts. Those are not good numbers. However, looking at Pro Football Focus' breakdown, Ben went 16/21 for 177 yards and an interception against the linebackers. That means that Ben went 20/29 for 188 yards and 2 TDs against the defensive backs. Not fantastic by any means, but it's clear that the Steelers' game plan was to attack the linebackers in the middle of the field. Devin McCourty had himself a quietly good game and Kyle Arrington continues to progress as a corner. Antwaun Molden was a disaster in coverage, as were the safeties. By no means did the Patriots secondary play well enough to win, but they did not play nearly as poorly as the stat line suggests. The Steelers still win this match-up, but the Patriots have hope in the secondary, so long as the linebackers and safeties improve in coverage.
2. Jerod Mayo and the Linebackers - Jerod Mayo made a quiet return and should look to improve his snaps over the next few weeks. However, he had very little impact against the Steelers and the trio of Gary Guyton, Brandon Spikes, and Rob Ninkovich played for most of the game. While Guyton had one of the few positive plays on defense (the interception), he played a very poor overall game and still struggles in both run defense and coverage. Brandon Spikes was his usual great self in run defense, but exposed the defense with his blitzing and opened up passing lanes for Roethlisberger to make plays. Rob Ninkovich had himself a awful game and did not contribute to any phase of the defensive game at a high level and, for some reason, kept forgetting to chip at Steelers tight end Heath Miller. Bad day for the unit that was exploited the entire opening drive, and for the rest of the game. Steelers win this match-up.
3. Patriots Offensive Line - Average. Exceptionally average. There were times when Tom Brady had time in the pocket, but he never had plenty of time. There were mental mistakes (Sebastian Vollmer pushing LaMarr Woodley on a shallow drop, while Tom Brady dropped deep into the pocket. Yeah, Vollmer pushed Woodley right into Brady), there was little help in the run game, and there was little to talk about in the passing game. While the Steelers may not have lit up the stat sheet with pass rushing numbers, they kept Brady moving all game. Their poor play prevented the offense from getting into any sort of rhythm. Win by the Steelers.
4. Patriots Slot Receivers - Well, the Steelers lied about the coverage. Ike Taylor stuck Wes Welker like glue and bumped him at the line with an extremely physical style of play. The Steelers wanted the Patriots to challenge the outside corners and Deion Branch just doesn't have enough in the tank to get consistent separation from man coverage on the outside. We've seen that the past few weeks- Branch has been struggling to get free. Looking at the slot, the Patriots rarely looked at Wes Welker or tight end Aaron Hernandez. They combined for 11 attempts and 8 completions for 48 yards and a touchdown. The extremely tight press coverage of the Steelers prevented the quick passes from picking up any YAC and the slot receivers were limited. As the Steelers have been saying since the game- the Patriots didn't have a threat over the top to force the secondary to play back. This was the playoff game against the Jets all over again. Steelers win.
5. Third Down Defense - The Patriots allowed the Steelers to convert 10 of 16 third downs, with four of those failed conversions turning into field goal attempts. The Patriots dropped from 42.5% conversion and 23rd ranked to tied for 30th with a 46.1% conversion. They are in elite company with the winless Indianapolis Colts and the 2-6 Carolina Panthers. The top 5 third down defenses? Ravens, Lions, Jets, Texans, 49ers. All contenders (like the Patriots), yet all five have some of the most creative and/or effective pass rush and blitz packages in the league. The Patriots might want to think about how they can crank up the pressure. Patriots couldn't stop the Steelers between the 20s. Win by the Steelers.
Clean sweep by the Steelers and the game felt that way. The fact that the defense hardened in the red zone saved the final score, but that defense needs to show up before the Steelers are in scoring range if they want to not only save time of possession, but give the offense more chances to score.