Patriots vs. Steelers: 10 Observations from the Validating Week 8 Win
Instead of having his blood sucked from his neck, Brady essentially got bit in the rear as he watched the Steelers offense drink the real life blood of the game: time of possession.
With the New England offense on the sidelines as time continually ticked away, Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense drained away precious scoring opportunities.
Like in 2004, the Steelers held the football for twice as long as the Patriots. Unlike the spooky holiday seven years prior, the Pittsburgh field general spent the afternoon being Big Ben Brady.
Using a predominant passing attack, the hapless New England secondary was further exposed, surely causing many to question the legitimacy of Super Bowl aspirations in Boston.
While one week doesn't make a season, the victory was much needed for the 'Burgh. The Black and Gold have validated their 6-2 record. Meanwhile, Belichick and Co. have to wonder how far one unit can carry another; the defensive secondary looked awful.
In an exciting 25-17 finish, the pendulum of power continues to both swing and circle on an axis around the AFC. Who would have predicted Pittsburgh sitting atop the conference through Week 8, especially during the tumultuous first month?
While a tough battle lies ahead against Baltimore, a refreshing victory (at last!) over New England merits another look back. Here are 10 observations from the satisfying win.
The Steelers Made the Right Adjustments: Pressure, Press Coverage and Passing
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All week long, fans, sick of hearing about the dominance of Tom Brady and the Patriots over the Steelers, reflected on an array of losses.
Included was last year's 39-26 defeat, a surprisingly easy stroll through Heinz Field by New England.
What could be done differently to prevent these losses? Dating back to setbacks in Ben's first few seasons, the only win came when the Steelers possessed the ball and kept Brady off the field.
Clearly, this would be one important element of the game. In 2004, the lone win to that point, the Steelers ran for well over 200 yards and pounded the Pats on the ground and with timely passing.
In 2011, a mature and poised Ben controlled the game through the air, and the Steelers possessed the ball for nearly 40 minutes.
"The best defense is a good offense." Check. The "B and G" dominated "T.O.P."
"Getting pressure is a key." Check, too. Brady didn't go unscathed in the pocket.
Against rookie tackle Nate Solder, Lamar Woodley got two key sacks on Tom Brady, his first coming when the Patriots offense had begun to develop rhythm in the second quarter.
Leading up to the game, day after day, we heard the same themes on local radio: "Get pressure, pass them to death.."
The last item on the list? "Get physical. Press cover."
Altogether, many key adjustments left the Patriots saying, "Check, please!"
Even a Real Genius Makes Mistakes
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Most of his peers have labeled Bill Belichick a coaching genius, and this boast is rightful. The savvy defensive mind is the brain behind two of the Super Bowls greatest defensive game plans (Giants over Bills; Patriots over Rams), owns three Super Bowl rings, and clearly makes more sound decisions than not in key situations.
Still, dating back to his days of being dominated by Pittsburgh (in Cleveland, of course!), the Belichick hasn't always been the gridiron guru.
Fans in Cleveland questioned his management style, and the town was largely unapologetic at scolding the coach when he released Bernie Kosar. Later, in New England, he released locker-room favorite Lawyer Milloy.
Beyond personnel moves, some of his on-field decisions have come under scrutiny, none more than his decision to gamble in 2009 on fourth-and-2 in their own territory to prevent Peyton Manning and the Colts from having a chance to rally late in Indianapolis.
The decision failed, and the Colts won.
Years (and one humongous scandal) removed from his last championship, fans are eager to question the coach's every decision. Earlier in the week before the game, a surprising release raised curious eyebrows.
With the league's worst ranked defense, Belichick and the Patriots chose to sever ties with veteran cornerback Leigh Bodden.
With the secondary limited to its youth, the Steelers dissected the abysmal unit. At a time where talent clearly needs to be added to the failing corps of defensive backs, the unit is being chiseled down.
In his post-game press conference, the roster decisions in the secondary were brought up, and the coach did his best evasion: the automatic response answer of "we could have done better."
Gee, you think?
Sure, it's one personnel decision amongst many. The Patriots were a pick of many to win the Super Bowl in 2012. With such disarray in the defensive backfield, many will look to Belichick to find the answers in order to prevent another early exit from January football.
The court of public opinion is very current....and brutal!
The Hines Ward Replacement Plan Is Well-Insured with (S)Antonio
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With Hines Ward out of the lineup, Emmanuel Sanders took his spot with the starting offense. Coupled with young speedster Antonio Brown, the two standouts continued to show that the team has a bright future even after the departure of "Psycho 86."
Sanders caught five passes for 70 yards, continuing to contribute in key moments. While Emmanuel is a key member of a young, dynamic, and FAST receiving corps, another budding star may be the better option across from Mike Wallace.
With nine catches, Antonio Brown set a career high, continuing to validate the promise he displayed during a breakout preseason. This effort came on the heels of a 100-yard performance in Arizona.
With a key touchdown in the second quarter and a number of third-down conversions (many from long distances, i.e. 12 yards), Antonio continues to display a playmaking ability that was lost with the departure Santonio Holmes.
That said, Antonio is only one "S" away from having the same name as the Super Bowl MVP, and his intangibles may prove him to be on par with the former Steelers star. If he continues to contribute in such mass, maybe he could wear that "S" on his chest.
Make that two of them; after all, he is developing into a Super Steeler. I continue to stand by the opinion that Brown should be groomed as the second receiver on the depth chart, replacing Ward as early as this season.
Finishing Drives: Field Goals Can Win Games Late....and Lose Them, Too!
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On a day where the running game came through in small doses and the passing game ran (or, technically threw) rampant, Steelers fans had little to complain about regarding the offense.
Yet, red-zone efficiency was one key area that can be focused on during film studies this week. With two short field goals, in addition to a longer make and miss, the inability of the offense to finish off more drives than not with touchdowns kept the Pats alive for longer than necessary.
Leading 20-10 in the fourth quarter, the Steelers had the ball in Patriots territory three times, totaling three points. On the first two drives with a chance to score, a touchdown on either would have turned the contest into a three-score game.
Ahead 20-10, a field goal made the score 23-10.
Afterward, another attempt would have made the gap 16 points, still only two scores with conversions. Ultimately, a missed field goal kept the deficit at 13 points.
While the team played well, these chances to bury an enemy that had so frustrated the franchise were certainly not seized!
While statistics showcase a brutally dominating effort by the Steelers, the scoreboard shows a tight contest. Against an opportunistic and dangerous Patriots squad, this could have come back to haunt.
Moreover, touchdowns prevent the team's fate from resting on the right foot of Shaun Suisham, who has led the league in missed field-goal attempts.
Underrated Men of Steel Spotlighted
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The contest highlighted two Steelers who are among the best at their respective positions but receive little notoriety in NFL circles.
With many key catches on the opening drive, including yards after the catch and some physical battery, Heath Miller continued to show fans in a marquee game that he has the hands of the game's best tight ends. In Steel Town, he's become known as a hard worker, blocker, and selfless player.
Remember the catch he made in the air along the right sidelines against Arizona? Make no mistake that Heath is not just a hard-nosed tight end. He's a playmaker, and his contributions tend to come in spurts.
While reports indicate that the offense intended to go deep early against the Pats, Miller was wide open on nearly every play on the opening series.
I can't remember anything like the demonstration on the game's first possession. With six catches before the Patriots ever saw the football, Heath served notice to fans and players alike that it was going to be a long day for New England defensive backs.
Speaking of defensive backs, Ike Taylor broke up a couple of deep attempts that Tom Brady seemed to always complete in recent outings.
In addition, a majority of his assignments saw him matched against Wes Welker, who couldn't eclipse 40 yards receiving.
In press coverage, Ike and the rest of the secondary contained the acclaimed Patriots aerial attack, no small feat against the man rated No. 1 in the recent NFL Network series "Top 100 Players of 2011."
A Zany Final Play Breaks the Rules....and Some Hearts!
Ahead 23-17, the Patriots received the football with less than 20 seconds remaining. To win, the team would most likely have needed a Hail Mary completion coupled with intense prayer.
When Brett Keisel stripped Tom Brady of the football, the pigskin landed on the Heinz Field turf, and Troy Polamalu (falling to the ground) punched the ball into the backfield, where it rolled into the end zone before being touched by the defense out of bounds.
While the fumble was clearly legitimate, the legality of Troy's play recalled a similar game played in the 1970's between the Chargers and Raiders (see video). In the game called "The Holy Roller," the Raiders offense scored a touchdown in similar circumstances.
In 2011, the play is illegal.
In this instance, fans questioned whether this rule applied to just offense, and if not, if the ruling of a safety would stand. In fact, the play by Polamalu was illegal, but it stood as that element of the play could not be reviewed.
Frankly, the rules on replay need serious addressing. Anything CAN be reviewed, but too much WON'T be in the NFL!
Aside from the competitive phase of the game officially ending, who else was affected by this moment? Let's rewind in time to the seconds before the score change.
Moments earlier, the comfort of a 23-17 final score had surely settled in for most folks, barring an interception return of miraculous rally.
But....on such a wild finish, imagine playing on a $2 block poll with a chance to win $200. Like any block poll, each player has two numbers assigned, one for each team corresponding to the last digit for each in the final score.
And, just for entertainment, suppose your numbers were 3 (Steelers) and 7 (Patriots), and remember that the score had been set to end at 23-17.
Then, hell broke loose, and the safety ended the game at 25-17.
Many fans in the Steel City were expecting some green with their Black and Gold win. They experienced something else. It was the "Oh my God! Did that seriously just happen to me?" blues!
While the outcome didn't affect the spread, not everybody escaped the contest unscathed!
Tom Brady Finishes with Game's Higher QB Rating....for Real!
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You don't watch a Patriots game without focusing on Tom Brady. It can't be helped.
Steelers fans hate him. California boy dates supermodel and wins Super Bowls.
With that said, maybe everyone outside of Boston hates him.
Yet, you have to respect him. His play is sublime, and his accomplishments are in utter contrast to his spot as a 199th draft selection.
Can you say value?
On Sunday, despite success by the Steelers defense and an apparent demolition of the Pats (everywhere but the scoreboard, that is!), Brady's statistics reflected hidden success. And, well....value.
Amidst hardly any time on the field and with his best receivers blanketed, Tom managed to complete 24-of-35 attempts with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Sure tackling and pressure kept his yardage down, a pedestrian 198 yards for the man threatening to demolish Dan Marino's single-season record.
Nevertheless, before his fumble in the fourth quarter's waning seconds, he avoided key turnovers and often made plays where none were available, fighting valiantly until the bitter end.
The Steelers fan in us all wants to relish in all elements of this win, bragging about the beatdown on Brady's bunch.
Well, the bunch may have been beaten up. Tom Brady was only beaten on the final score. Overall, his numbers reflect an efficient game for a man who got little help.
Completing 70 percent of your throws for two touchdowns and no interceptions against the Steelers at Heinz Field; if that's a "bad game," it only proves Brady's bravado even more!
The Steelers defense knew it couldn't stop Brady on Sunday, but they aimed to contain him. In this regard, their evening was a complete success.
Who Still Wants to Rank Ben Behind Vick and Rivers?
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Big Ben is Big Ben. Sure, he held onto a few balls and used his athleticism to develop plays. Granted, he made one ill-advised interception.
Again, Ben's Ben.
And, atop of that, Ben isn't Brady. But, when he needed to be, he proved he can be Brady. Or, Brady-like.
Perhaps that could be the title of Sunday's contest: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Brady." In fact, it would be a three-hour movie shot at Heinz Field. I'd DVR it, and I'd watch it over and over again, right through until the climactic final fumble.
Many fans have pointed out that Roethlisberger defeated the Patriots at their own game: making quick decisions, precise throws, hitting on quick routes, and utilizing fast receivers to confuse the defense.
Beyond revisiting the obvious, Ben had a great game, completing 36 over 50 passes for a season-high 365 yards. He hit nine different receivers and looked crisp. In fact, Ben has been on fire for a month, barring one anemic half against the Jaguars.
My question is simple. Does anybody still want to rate this guy behind the likes of Philip Rivers and Mike Vick?
It was said that the Steelers winning percentage dropped when Ben threw more. Without accounting for the argument that increased throwing could be the result of losing in a game (and not vice versa), those same critics of Ben's play have always noted that his numbers don't compare to Rodgers, Brees, Brady or Manning.
Yet, when called upon to wear the mask of these men, Big Ben passed with flying colors.
In Philadelphia, Mike Vick's health continues to deteriorate at any given moment, and his turnovers have dug the Eagles into a 3-4 hole in the NFC East (despite a current two game win streak).
Against the Chiefs, Rivers couldn't take the game winning snap sinner make the winning pass, and his play has shown a steep decline in performance in 2011. This season, the Chargers quarterback has thrown 7 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
Ben has a touchdown to interception ratio of 2:1. And, these numbers are skewed by a slow start resulting from poor line play and the development of young offensive talent. Now, with the offense shifting into high gear, a huge test comes to town in the Baltimore Ravens.
With the burden of proof now shifted squarely back into the corner of the cynics, I beg to revisit this topic.
Does anybody really want to argue that the two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback from Pittsburgh isn't better than those two aforementioned men ranked ahead of him on an infamous list revealed over the summer?
Rob Gronkowski Is a Beast
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The Patriots tight ends are matchup nightmares, but none is more scary than Rob Gronkowski. He is on pace for 80 catches, over 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Tom Brady's QB rating is highest when he targets the Pittsburgh native: 138. The two were easily the best combination for New England at Heinz Field.
With a quiet 97 receiving yards on seven receptions in Sunday's contest, the receiver who hauled in three touchdowns at Heinz Field in 2010 was still Tom Brady's top target this season.
On more than one catch, he demonstrated that he is a beast. What a matchup nightmare! He is tall and physical with a long reach and sure hands. Just look at the picture: the man has the physical build to be a great tight end.
A hometown product, his friends and family can be proud. He has developed into a very dangerous NFL tight end.
Validation: One Down. One to Go.
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In some ways, the opening day 35-7 loss in Baltimore feels like so long ago. Yet, it also feels like yesterday. The Steelers, like the Big Ben plush in the photograph, were left hanging that afternoon in Maryland. In fact, after another loss in Houston, most of the media sent the Black and Gold to the gallows.
On Sunday, they get a chance to turn the tables from their nightmarish first game. Make no mistake that the confidence gained in their win over New England will help Pittsburgh in their quest to stay atop the AFC North.
While the entire season is important, the homestand against the Patriots and Ravens has been circled by many as the Steelers' real shot to prove themselves as contenders in 2011. So far, so good.
Steelers fans are smart; they realize that improvement is key. The team left a lot out on the field, and it must be worked on! Yet, most fans went to bed smiling on Sunday night.
Aside from championships, the victory may have been the most satisfying regular season win in a handful of years in the Steel City.
Dropping to 1-7 against Brady and the Patriots would have been devastating for the esteem of the franchise and its fans. While only one game, the defeat would have come with labels.
"The team that can't beat New England."
"The team that is 5-3 because of a soft schedule."
"The team that won't beat Baltimore."
"The team with x, y, and z problems."
Executing their game plan, the Steelers demonstrated x, y, and z reasons for excitement, and a win over the Patriots showcased that they are capable of taking down the so-called "Evil Empire." At least, they're able to beat them in 2011!
With the victory, hopes are high heading into a contest against Baltimore. While a Ravens loss to Arizona would have made for the perfect Sunday, signs are there that Week 1's blowout may have been an aberration.
After completing less than one-third of his passes against the Jets, Flacco and the offense were nearly shutout in Jacksonville. Last week, the Cardinals nearly slapped another hard loss on the Steelers' bitter nemesis.
Psychologically speaking, the season is falling into place. Down the road, only the team's play will determine where this season ends, but the preparation toward the goal of winning is certainly aided with the confidence bred on Sunday.
Getting the monkey off of their backs, the Steelers can now look to simply focus on doing what they had normally done before Kickoff Weekend: beating the Ravens.
Suddenly, the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers are a team atop the power rankings, capable of winning the important games.
Surely, none are more important than this Sunday against the Ravens. Can the Steelers continue to fire up the fan base with another tough win?
Undoubtedly, a victory over Baltimore would fully prove that the Black and Gold are back in form (or getting close).