Patriots vs Steelers: 6 Things We Learned About Pittsburgh in 25-17 Win
As Pittsburgh breathes a collective sigh of relief for a game that ended much closer than statistics could ever show, it's time to sit back and take stock of what we learned from the Steelers' victory and big step forward against the now 5-2 Patriots.
The Steelers, who now move into pole position in the AFC standings, have a long way to go, but today was a huge step in the right direction.
Here are six things that we learned this week.
They Found a Way
Tom Brady came into the game 6-1 against the Steelers all-time, with the last Pittsburgh win coming in 2004 against Brady on Halloween night. Almost exactly seven years later, the Steelers found a way to stop the Patriots cold.
The Steelers did one of the more novel things in the NFL this season in beating the Patriots. They took New England's game and threw it right back at them. As a result, the Steelers snuck out with a victory that very, very few people thought possible.
The Steelers used their tight end in the passing game. They discarded a so-so rushing attack in favor of running with screens and short passes to their speedy receivers. They played man coverage on defense and kept their opponent off balance.
The Steelers held onto the ball for long periods of time and kept a dangerous offense impotent on the sideline.
In short, they did everything to New England that the Patriots were planning on doing to Pittsburgh. And they also did what the Patriots were certain they would do: they won the game.
Ben Roethlisberger Is Elite
Going toe to toe with the consensus best quarterback in today's NFL, Ben Roethlisberger outplayed Tom Brady in every way and came away as the MVP of the game with some of the best football in his career.
Time to put the old argument to bed: Ben Roethlisberger is an elite quarterback. He's in the same class as a healthy Peyton Manning, Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. There's no arguing it at this point. This guy is one of the best.
Against a team that has always found a way to frustrate him, Roethlisberger dominated. He showed that he can do anything it takes: take hits, throw deep, throw medium, throw short, scramble, whatever. He's got every tool that can fit in the toolbox.
Oh yeah. He can call a pretty fair game too. That no-huddle success that made New England pull its hair out? That was all his handiwork. Bruce Arians lets him run the show when they go into that mode.
He made one mistake: the interception. He rebounded from it by executing a nearly flawless drive that ended with an Antonio Brown score.
"Next Man Up" Works Yet Again
Mike Tomlin's mantra when it comes to injuries has been "next man up", with the understanding that the expectations don't change. That style is working wonders right now.
James Farrior and Hines Ward? Out.
Lamarr Woodley? Hurt in the second half.
This could have gotten very ugly. The Steelers lost so many players for pieces of this game that it would have been easy had they lost to say that the injuries just played too big a role.
Instead, they won because the backups stepped in an acquitted themselves well.
Stevenson Sylvester made his first career start and was solid. Chris Carter, save for one penalty, didn't embarrass himself in his first action after replacing Lamarr Woodley.
Heath Miller played the role of possession receiver with sure hands (just like Ward).
It didn't matter who got hurt or when, the next guy up was every bit as motivated and ready to play. That's a powerful thing. If the Steelers get healthy, they'll now have one of the deepest and best-prepared rosters in the NFL.
Don't Mess with Woodley
Before getting hurt, Lamarr Woodley was Sebastian Vollmer, Nate Solder and Tom Brady's biggest nightmare, and probably would've had a bigger impact as the game wound down if not for that hamstring injury.
This guy is a beast.
I would go out on a limb right now and say that Woodley is playing the best outside linebacker spot in football right now, and he's doing it with a defensive front that's held together with athletic tape and Dick LeBeau's crossed fingers.
He added two more sacks to his yearly total and right now looks like a Pro Bowl starter and also a guy who's definitely earning his huge contract.
What am I most excited about? Seeing him opposite a healthy James Harrison. That'll make an already lethal weapon even more deadly.
Is he healthy? That's the question now. But I don't think anything keeps him out of next week's game against the Ravens. Joe Flacco has to be sweating a little thinking about Woodley and Troy Polamalu coming at him.
That Offensive Line Was Good...But
The Steelers offensive line was great against the league's worst defense, but let's hold off on all the compliments until we see how they do next weekend.
If they'd have played bad, they would've looked like the worst collection of guys in history.
They didn't play bad, they played excellent. So the jury is still out.
Here's what we learned: the Steelers offensive line and Ben Roethlisberger have gotten on the same page. That means that Ben is adjusting to the line's deficiencies and getting rid of the ball more quickly most of the time.
The Steelers have done a good job of gelling that line and getting the offense adjusted to what they do well: pushing people around for a little bit of time.
This isn't anyone's favorite line, but they've been good when they needed to be lately. They're on a nice run right now. Those sacks today were either intentionally taken by Roethlisberger or were coverage/style induced. They weren't on the line.
Still Work to Be Done
This was a good, important win. There are still things to work on, however. Mike Tomlin's work is far from done.
The Steelers are 6-2, a half-game up in the AFC North and ready for a big rematch with rival Baltimore next weekend.
They are a very good, very dangerous team. They aren't, however, a complete team.
They still need to solve the running game woes. They ran well, a hidden statistic thanks to Ben Roethlisberger's huge day passing, on Sunday, but didn't break anything worth mentioning.
They also need to tighten up their defense some. The Patriots had no business getting as close as they did on Sunday. That's not all on the defense, but the Steelers could've closed out some drives a little more effectively.
Their biggest work must come in the red zone on offense, where the team was largely ineffective on several drives. Keeping Shaun Suisham, who is not a pressure kicker and is becoming good at the easy miss, off the field is essential. Scoring touchdowns will beat teams. Kicking field goals on long drives will keep them in games.
That red zone inefficiency kept New England alive on Sunday afternoon. That can't keep happening.