ReFo: Steelers @ Patriots, Week 9
A 28-point fourth quarter saw the New England Patriots pull away from the Pittsburgh Steelers, pushing their win total to seven and maintaining their two-game lead in the AFC East. With Rob Gronkowski returning to form, the Patriot offense had the dangerous air of seasons past and proved to be too much down the stretch.
The Steelers hung in for three quarters with Ben Roethlisberger putting up big numbers of his own, but ultimately fell again, making their two-game win streak of early October seem less and less like the truth of the team and more like a bright spot in an otherwise dark season.
Here are a handful of notable individual performances from the game:
Pittsburgh – Three Performances of Note
There’s something to be said for the reliability and comfort offered by a quality safety valve. Jerricho Cotchery hasn’t occupied top billing among Pittsburgh receivers in his time with the team, that honor has always gone to the flashy sideline-working deep threats the Steelers seem to produce one on the next. Cotchery, on the other hand, fills a support role, though through nine weeks this season he’s already seen more targets than in either of his previous two as a Steeler and in this game he was a front-stage player. His seven catches came against four different defenders and while he spent much of the afternoon working under and across the defense, he also went downfield for two of his three touchdowns. Cotchery’s WR Rating on the day was a near-perfect 156.3 and he has pushed his overall grade on the year into the Top 10 among WRs.
Not unusually, it was a day of memorable plays for Steeler safety Troy Polamalu. What was a bit out of the ordinary, though, was seeing him come up on the short end more often than not. Polamalu, a defender whose sheet has always been splashed with more green grades than red, took a significant overall negative this week with penalties and some troubles against the run chiefly responsible. An unnecessary roughness call for leading with his head on Rob Gronkowski’s second-quarter touchdown, a defensive pass interference for laying out Aaron Dobson across the middle well before the ball arrived, and a defensive offsides at the goal line when mis-timing the snap all reflected his typical eagerness to make a play, but also a lack of restraint, to his team’s detriment.
Beyond the penalties, Polamalu was found blocked out of runs or over-pursuing the play and when he did arrive correctly, as was the case on a 3rd-and-short at 5:16 of the third, even a tackle for a short gain tumbled over past the marker and moved the chains. His forced fumble on Stevan Ridley’s short catch early in the second half was even outdone by the massive bite on a Brady look-off that sent him flying across the field too far from Danny Amendola’s seam route that ended in a 34-yard score.
Third-year defensive end, Cameron Heyward, picked up his first sack of the season and added a pair each of hits and hurries on 28 pass-rushing snaps to post a Pass Rushing Productivity number of 14.3 on the day – the best of the week for a 3-4 DE. Heyward did the bulk of his work against the Patriots’ Connolly-Wendell-Mankins interior, stunting on occasion to come loose and press the middle of the pocket. His positives as a run defender, however, were largely from slicing moves inside of New England’s tackles that resulted in two run stops. After a 2012 season that saw him come on at the end, Heyward has built on it, grading green in four of his last five games while seeing his pressure and run stop numbers climb in that span.
New England – Three Performances of Note
Chandler Hard to Handle
A well-rounded bounce-back day was what Chandler Jones needed and was what he gave the Patriots in Week 9. Following his season-low (and career-low) -5.5 grade against Miami last week, Jones logged positive marks as both a run defender and a pass rusher against the Steelers with seven total pressures and five stops along the way. Doing most of his damage – a sack, a hit and a hurry – against Pittsburgh left tackle Kelvin Beachum, Jones also managed to share some with right tackle Marcus Gilbert (sack) and his late-game injury replacement, Mike Adams (hurry). Tight end Heath Miller got a taste too as Jones knifed inside a run block to get a piece of the runner on a third down play (Q1 1:56), though Le’Veon Bell squirted through to convert. If you’re going to watch one play from Jones’ performance – a display of his athleticism – have a look at Q1 1:05 where Beachum attempts a quick cut block as Jones, with embarrassing ease, hops it on his way to Roethlisberger’s blindside.
The Gronkowski Effect
Seven first downs, a touchdown, a catch that came up inches short of another score and one that might have been if not for a PI in the end zone — the Gronkowski effect was felt. The returning centerpiece of the Patriot offense appears to be getting his game legs back as he had no trouble hauling in nine of 10 targets for 143 yards against a variety of assigned coverage men. Working certain branches of the route tree, Gronkowski made a home on outs, but kept the longer stem in play, hitting enough posts and seams to remind us of his downfield ability. With his top target back in play and up to speed, Tom Brady has to be happy and the two seemed in perfect sync, turning 26 routes into those 143 yards for a dominant 5.5 Yards Per Route Run figure.
A troubling trend is developing at left guard for the Patriots. Logan Mankins has earned three significant negative grades as a pass blocker in his last four games – a stretch unlike we’ve seen from him in the five-plus years we’ve been grading his play. His Pass Blocking Efficiency rating is dropping (now 95.5, 36th among guards) and, when combined with center Ryan Wendell’s known weakness in that aspect, is working to widen the danger area for potential problems, not something Brady will like to see given his history with pressure up the middle. With 13 total pressures allowed in the three games (sandwiched around a clean sheet against the Jets) compared to the seven pressures he gave up in the season’s first five weeks, there’s hope that is an extended blip. The Patriots will hope that’s the case and not a downturn of longer hold.
– LeGarrette Blount played eight snaps, carried five times, broke two tackles and scored a determined game-sealing touchdown while earning a +1.1 rushing grade. He also broke a couple of tackles on kick returns.
– Though it felt like more when watching the game, Steeler corner William Gay was targeted 12 times and gave up seven catches for 98 yards and a touchdown.
– Eight different Pittsburgh defenders missed tackles.
PFF Game Ball
Back to full speed, Rob Gronkowski reminded everyone of the kind of impact he can have in the passing game and — with Brady’s blessing despite his own outstanding game, I’m sure — he takes the game’s award.
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