FOXBOROUGH — Seven days earlier, despite it coming in a 10-point win, Tom Brady had been held to 116 passing yards, by far a season low.
How quickly things can change. On Sunday, against the second-best passing defense in the NFL, three Patriots had at least that many receiving yards, a startling aerial assault that told much of the story in a 55-31 win over the Steelers.
Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola, and Aaron Dobson all went over the 100-yard mark, giving the Patriots three 100-yard receivers in a game for the first time in franchise history. Brady threw for 432 yards, the third-highest passing total of his career; all but five of his passes and all but 37 of his yards went to Gronkowski, Amendola, or Dobson.
Gronkowski had 143 yards on nine catches, a career high. Dobson caught five passes for 130 yards, also a career high. Amendola was thrown to just four times, but he caught them all, for 122 yards, a season high. Gronkowski and Amendola each scored a touchdown; Dobson had two.
What made those numbers stand out was that Pittsburgh came into the game having allowed just one 100-yard receiving game this season. No quarterback had thrown for even 300 yards against the Steelers.
“Everyone starts clicking and everyone’s contributing,” Gronkowski said. “They had huge games, and that’s what’s so great about working together as a team and working together as an offense.”
Gronkowski did much of his damage in the first half, with seven catches for 119 yards. He found the end zone early in the second quarter, grabbing a 19-yard pass from Brady to make it 14-0.
The only scare came when Gronkowski limped off the field in the third quarter after being hit hard in the right leg by Ryan Clark while making a 16-yard catch. But the tight end returned to the game and made one more catch, an 8-yarder in the fourth quarter that gave him his career high.
Dobson’s career best in yardage came courtesy of an 81-yard touchdown catch with 5:15 left in the game, one minute after the Steelers had cut the Patriots’ lead to 41-31. Dobson streaked past cornerback Ike Taylor and caught the deep ball from Brady in stride.
“I just knew I had him beat, so me and Tom connected on the deep ball,” Dobson said.
Their first touchdown connection also came in the fourth quarter and was just as pretty. With the Patriots at the Pittsburgh 17-yard-line, leading by just 27-24, Dobson turned at the last instant to corral a perfectly thrown back-shoulder pass from Brady.
It’s a play that often takes a while for a quarterback and receiver to master. Dobson, drafted in the second round out of Marshall, is beginning to get comfortable with the offense. “I still have a long way to go,” Dobson said, “but I’m just more comfortable than I was when I first got here.”
Dobson has played more games with the Patriots (eight; he was inactive in Week 1) than Amendola has. The team’s biggest offseason acquisition, Amendola was hurt in the season-opening win, missed three games, then missed another game after suffering a concussion.
Sunday marked his second game back, and it was his best game yardage-wise. He was helped by the Steelers’ defensive breakdowns, twice finding himself wide open in the middle of the field. The first went for 34 yards and the touchdown that opened the scoring. The second went for 57 yards.
Amendola credited Brady.
“Tom did a great job of looking off the safety on the touchdown. It was a play we’ve been working on all week, and it worked out,” Amendola said.
Most of the passing plays did. Pretty much anything that Brady flung the trio’s way was safely brought in. Gronkowski, Amendola, and Dobson combined for 18 catches, 395 yards, and four touchdowns. A passing offense in need of some kind of spark found three.