Bill Belichick was being nice in his news conference after the Patriots thumped the Steelers Sunday, 55-31.
“Well, I’m not sure exactly how it all happened today,” he said in his opening statement. “Maybe we got our inspiration from the Red Sox, I’m not sure.”
Belichick didn’t want to rub it in Mike Tomlin’s face. Because the reality is that while the Patriots’ opponent wore yellow and black uniforms and came from Pittsburgh, this was hardly the Steelers team we’ve seen dominate the AFC for much of the last four decades.
The Steelers’ defense, especially, was a shell of its former self. Pittsburgh blitzed Tom Brady on about half of his dropbacks, and had a couple of coverage sacks, but otherwise Brady had all day to find his receivers. The front seven got manhandled by the Patriots’ offensive line, as New England averaged 5.6 yards per carry and rushed for 197 yards.
And the Steelers’ secondary looked old and decrepit. Troy Polamalu likely will make it to Canton one day, but he looked completely lost and out of sorts as Brady fooled him over and over again with his eyes.
The Patriots should be thrilled with the blowout win, especially heading into a bye week. But they shouldn’t get too confident. The Steelers, now 2-6 and limping toward the finish line, are just that bad.
A review of the game after watching the coaches tape:
When the Patriots had the ball . . .
■ It was shocking to see the Patriots run the ball with so much ease against the Steelers, whose defense is hardly the Steel Curtain. The Patriots had eight runs of 10-plus yards, plus four more of at least 7 yards. They were especially effective running behind left tackle Nate Solder and left guard Logan Mankins. Stevan Ridley had runs of 8, 8, 9, 11, and 13 yards off left tackle, Brandon Bolden had an 11-yard run to the left side, and LeGarrette Blount had runs of 12 and 23. Jason Worilds, Lawrence Timmons, and Brett Keisel repeatedly were blown off their blocks.
Ridley also had a run off right guard for 11 yards, and Bolden had runs of 11 and 14 up the middle.
■ The Steelers’ tackling and effort were also questionable at times. Rob Gronkowski dragged William Gay 6 yards on a catch over the middle in the first quarter, then dragged him 3 yards for a first down in the fourth. Ridley’s bulldozed right through Vince Williams for his first touchdown, and on his second touchdown, he was first hit at the 4 yard line, but he bounced off two defenders and reached the end zone. On Blount’s touchdown, he was first hit at the 5, but he powered through Ziggy Hood and dragged him into the end zone.
And on Aaron Dobson’s 81-yard touchdown reception, cornerback Ike Taylor gave up on the play at about the 50, Dobson caught the pass on the 40, and Ryan Clark gave up at the 25. Not a good effort.
■ If the Steelers watched game film of Gronkowski’s first two games this season, it didn’t show. The Steelers sent seven different defenders at Gronkowski throughout the game, yet he often found himself in single coverage, and not getting jammed at the line of scrimmage. With a free release, Gronkowski was able to catch 9 of 10 passes thrown his way for 143 yards and a touchdown, and most of the catches weren’t even contested.
■ The Patriots had a pretty good game plan to attack the Steelers’ Cover 3 defense. On Danny Amendola’s 34-yard touchdown reception, he and Dobson both ran vertical routes at Gay, who chose Dobson and left Amendola wide open.
■ Polamalu, especially, was terrible in pass coverage. He made junior high mistakes of looking into the backfield, and Brady shredded him all day. Amendola was wide open on his 57-yard catch because Polamalu was running around the field in circles, like a chicken with his head cut off. Polamalu, like Ed Reed, uses his instincts in coverage. Sometimes it results in game-changing interceptions, and sometimes, like Sunday, he gets burned over and over.
When the Steelers had the ball . . .
■ Now that we’re done trashing the Steelers’ defense, we’re not going to let the Patriots off the hook, either. The secondary was very shaky playing its third game in a row without Aqib Talib, and Ben Roethlisberger showed no fear in attacking Kyle Arrington, who was burned on Jerrico Cotchery’s first touchdown reception, a 20-yarder. Arrington was burned on Emmanuel Sanders’s 42-yard catch down the sideline, and when the Patriots got down inside the 15, Roethlisberger targeted Arrington on two passes in a row, although he misfired both times and the Steelers settled for a short field goal.
■ The run defense is starting to become a concern, which isn’t too surprising given the departures of Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, and Jerod Mayo (plus Rob Ninkovich going down Sunday). Chris Jones and Joe Vellano are playing admirably for a couple of rookies thrown into quick duty, but the Patriots have now allowed 734 rushing yards over their past five games (146.8 average) and let the Steelers average 5.4 yards per carry.
Rookie Le’Veon Bell gashed the Patriots for runs of 8, 9, 10 and 25 yards, plus catches of 22 and 29 yards. Alfonzo Dennard whiffed badly on tackles on the second and third plays of the game. Dane Fletcher was way out of position and looked lost on the 29-yard screen pass on third and 30. And Steve Gregory took a horrible angle on Bell’s 25-yard run.
■ A week after blitzing the Dolphins to smithereens, the Patriots only blitzed eight times on 53 dropbacks as they tried to contain the slippery Roethlisberger in the pocket. The Steelers opened the game with a lot of quick, high-percentage passes, and used backup tackle Mike Adams seven times as an extra tight end to give Roethlisberger more protection.
Dennard was straight-up burned by Antonio Brown for a 27-yard touchdown in one-on-one coverage, but he showed tremendous ball skills in knocking away a deep pass to Brown in the fourth quarter. Arrington and Marquice Cole were helpless against Cotchery, who caught seven passes for 96 yards and three touchdowns. And great job by the Steelers to get Cotchery matched up against Brandon Spikes on Cotchery’s third TD catch.
■ This game would have been a lot closer if the Steelers could get out of their own way. Their first four possessions ended: Fumble, punt, interception, downs. If Roethlisberger could have side-stepped Spikes and put more velocity on his throw out of the back of the end zone, he might have had a completion, but instead he threw off his back foot and was easily intercepted by Devin McCourty.
■ Matthew Slater didn’t get credited with the tackle, but he saved a touchdown on Brown’s 24-yard punt return in the third quarter. On Felix Jones’s 40-yard kickoff return to open the game, Cole, Nate Ebner, and McCourty each were blocked out of the way.
■ Julian Edelman only had one catch for 11 yards, but he is a marvel to watch on punt returns. He avoided or broke five tackles on his 43-yard return in the third quarter.
QB Tom Brady: A vintage Brady game, with perfect precision and savvy veteran decisions. Polamalu is going to have nightmares after watching this game film.
TE Rob Gronkowski: Simply couldn’t be stopped. The Patriots are 10 of 14 in the red zone since he returned.
LT Nate Solder and LG Logan Mankins: Overpowered the Steelers’ defensive front and helped pave the way for 197 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
S Devin McCourty: Why didn’t the Patriots move him to free safety before this year? He’s playing at a Pro Bowl level.Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin