Steelers vs. Patriots: Takeaways from New England's 55-31 Win over Pittsburgh
After questions about Tom Brady's play were fodder for talk radio and sports pundits all week, Brady put together a vintage performance and silenced the doubters with 432 yards passing. He looked cool and calm in the pocket and shredded the Pittsburgh defense with throws both long and short.
But Brady's superb day wasn't the only highlight of the day, as the Patriots defense continued to weather injuries and come through with the clutch stops when the team needed them.
Here are all the takeaways from the best Patriots win of the season.
Injuries Hit Hard Yet Again
The Pats have three significant injuries to monitor coming out of the Steelers game. Steve Gregory was lost with a thumb injury and did not return, nor did Austin Collie with a knee injury.
Rob Ninkovich left with a foot injury but returned to the sideline after a visit to the locker room and appeared available to go back in as the Pats pulled away on the score board. The smart decision was made to keep him off the field and not risk further injury.
Gregory would be a significant loss, as he was a having a solid season. His absence would thrust Duron Harmon into the starting spot next to Devin McCourty. Harmon has two interceptions in the past two games.
Losing Ninkovich would be as big of a blow as the defense has seen all season and they've already lost their two defensive captains. Hopefully his return to the sideline in the fourth quarter is a positive sign for his availability in two weeks.
Run Defense Is a Major Problem
The Patriots were in command for most of the game, and that helped hide how porous their run defense was. They gave up 108 yards on the ground at a rate of 5.4 yards per carry. They also gave up runs of 25 and 30 yards. Oftentimes, New England's run defense looked nonexistent.
Without Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, and two undersized defensive tackles playing in their place, the run defense has taken a step backward. The Patriots could struggle if they need to get stops late in a game where they are down, but against the Steelers the weakness was masked.
New addition Isaac Sopoaga showed up on a couple of plays from his nose tackle spot and will be an important player moving forward.
The Patriots defense came through in the clutch moments enough times to allow the offense to pull away, but the run defense remains a concern.
Amendola Showing Up
Rob Gronkowski wasn't the only one to have a big game for the offense. Danny Amendola picked up his first career touchdown catch from Tom Brady, en route to four catches for 122 yards receiving.
Amendola also caught a 57-yard pass from Brady in his best performance since Week 1. He continues to have his snaps managed a bit, splitting time with Julian Edelman at the slot receiver position, but against the Steelers, he flashed the kind of potential that should win him the job outright going forward.
Amendola can use the bye week to heal as much as any other Patriot, but this was a positive way to head into the break and should help spark his season that had earlier been derailed by injuries.
Aqib Talib Is Needed
While some of the Steelers' 371 passing yards can be attributed to the Pats' sizable leads throughout the game, the Pats still had their struggles in the passing game. It's clear that Aqib Talib is a key piece in their pass defense and his expected return after the bye should provide a big boost.
Jerricho Cotchery, the Steeler's third receiver, had seven catches for 96 yards and three touchdowns as Logan Ryan and Marquice Cole were both overmatched at times. Kyle Arrington also had his struggles playing on the outside in relief of Talib.
Five Steelers had catches of 20 yards or more as the Pats struggled against the deep ball.
Luckily the Patriots pass rush once again showed up, with Chandler Jones adding two more sacks to his season total. The Patriots got five sacks and hit Ben Roethlisberger seven times.
That kind of pressure can offset some deficiencies in the secondary, but it's clear the Pats need their defensive MVP back.
Tom Brady Is Still Really, Really, Just Ridiculously Good at Football
There were plenty of murmurs about Tom Brady this past week, pointing to his subpar stats through eight games, but against the Steelers, things finally started to go right for Brady. He found an early rhythm, connecting with Rob Gronkowski in the first quarter, and that seemed to set Brady up for his huge day.
He spread the ball around like old Brady, with three receivers (Gronkowski, Amendola and Aaron Dobson) all topping 100 yards receiving. The offense was 7-of-12 on third down, a season best, and 5-of-8 in the red zone. Those two areas have haunted the Patriots all season long.
Brady had 432 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. The storylines around Brady and the Pats over the next couple of weeks should be a little different now as it's clear that New England's offense is still one to be feared.
Ridley Overcomes Fumble
Stevan Ridley also had his best game of the season, going over 100 yards for the first time on the season. He finished the day with 26 carries for 115 yards and two touchdowns.
When Ridley fumbled early in the third quarter it looked like he might be benched for the day, but Ridley didn't miss a snap. It was clear the Patriots wanted to feature Ridley Sunday to see what he could do, and he delivered.
Overcoming the mistake should be a good confidence boost for Ridley.
The running back rotation had been much more balanced before the Steelers game, but LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden combined for just eight carries on the day.
Can Ridley handle the full feature back role going forward? That will be a question to monitor, but Shane Vereen's return should also help keep Ridley fresh.
Gronk Is Back
Rob Gronkowski was quiet in his first two games back this season, but he exploded against the Steelers with nine catches for 143 yards and a touchdown.
There's no other way to put it, Gronk looked like the Gronk of old in this one, playing smooth and strong and seemingly unfazed by the brace on his left arm. Once Gronk got going in the first quarter, Brady relaxed and the whole offense seemed to blossom.
We've been waiting for Gronk to make a big impact for a Patriots offense that badly needed him, and he was all that and more against the Steelers. Now, with the bye week off, Gronk should have a chance to heal up even more.
If the Gronk of old is back, the NFL should be on high alert for a Patriots title run.
The Patriots Are 7-2 at the Bye
Once again, the only thing that truly matters is what your record is, and the Pats are 7-2. It hasn't always been pretty or perfect, but they've persevered and done enough to be atop the division and in the hunt for home-field advantage.
Their performance against the Steelers was the perfect way to go into the bye week, with their best game in nearly a calendar year. And they only stand to get back more reinforcements from injury after the break.
Shane Vereen and Aqib Talib should be back against Carolina, while Armond Armstead could provide some more depth along the defensive line.
The Pats will only get better down the stretch, a Bill Belichick hallmark that should have the rest of the NFL on notice. Don't count Tom Brady and the Pats out just yet.
The Patriots still have their weaknesses, but they've shown great grit and toughness, overcoming injuries and point deficits, pulling out last-minute wins or at least going down swinging. They'll be a tough out in the playoffs no matter who or where they play.
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