By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- The Patriots opened up Sunday's game in Pittsburgh looking like the powerhouse they are supposed to be. They executed from the very first minute of the game, with Alan Branch stripping the ball from Le'Veon Bell on the second offensive snap and with Patrick Chung displaying a perfect form tackle short of the sticks on the ensuing third down, thus prompting a quick three-and-out from the Steelers offense.
Despite Chris Hogan's fumble on the Patriots' first play, Malcolm Butler made up for it with an athletic interception in the end zone. Even with the fumble, the Patriots were playing sound football, and they very quickly drove 80 yards for a touchdown. They forced another three-and-out and then drove another 84 yards for another touchdown.
The Patriots were making a statement that they were the best team in the NFL. And then they started to resemble the Bills. Or the Bengals. Or any other team that's become synonymous with ineptitude and comical failure over the past several years.
Brandon Bolden treated a football like a live grenade on a pass that exploded off his chest on a would-be third-down conversion. Julian Edelman dropped another easy one on a third down, and though it would've been called back for holding, the drop forced the Patriots to punt instead of getting another shot at a third-down conversion. Bolden batted a Ryan Allen punt from the 5-yard line into the end zone for no good reason. Allen, too, managed to make the list by shanking a punt just 25 yards. The defense seemed to have lost track of Bell, the Steelers' lethal weapon, letting him pick up 39 yards on three receptions to lead to a Pittsburgh field goal before halftime. Edelman fumbled a punt return when his team was up 11 point with less than 11 minutes to play.
After that point, they more resembled a top NFL team, albeit with the help of a curious Mike Tomlin decision that led to a missed 54-yard field goal for Pittsburgh. The defense did enough to hold the lead the rest of the way, but the compounding issues in the middle quarters of the game should raise some concerns about the Patriots' ability to play 60 minutes of football.
Of course, relative to the rest of the NFL, it's a nice problem to have. But the Patriots have high standards and championship aspirations, and so their ugly halves of football do stand out. In the second half against Miami, after going up 24-3, they were outscored 21-7 in the second half and needed an end-zone interception in the final minute to avoid overtime. Against an inferior Bengals team, the Patriots struggled in the first half, taking a 10-7 lead into halftime. And after seizing control of the game and taking the home crowd out of it in Pittsburgh, the Patriots couldn't stop from tripping over their own feet for 30 minutes, relying on the shakiness of Steelers kicker Chris Boswell to keep the lead somewhat comfortable.
In all of those games, the Patriots remained calm and eventually regained their footing. That's why they're 6-1. They're a good football team. But those temporary lapses don't go unnoticed, and it gives Bill Belichick some real meat to chew on when going through the film with his team this week.
With that, let's take a good old Scrooge McDuck dive into some of the leftover thoughts from the Patriots' up-and-down 27-16 victory over the Steelers.
--The stark contrast in the start of the game, to the middle of the game, to the end of the game made it seem like Belichick had just gone into the pause menu and upped the difficulty from "Rookie" to "All-Madden." Perhaps he went to some veterans and said, "Hey, we need to work through some adversity here. Start screwing up."
Obviously, he didn't do that. But just like my pondering of whether the Patriots lost to the Bills somewhat on purpose, I'm left to wonder if Belichick continues to hurl figurative tackling pads at his players on Sundays to see how they'll respond. Again, I don't believe that's actually what's happening, but it speaks to the level of play that the Patriots have maintained for so long that whenever things go slightly off track, we're left to scramble for explanations beyond "they didn't play well for a little while."
--I, for one, appreciated Malcolm Butler's imitation of Antonio Brown's little touchdown dance. For my money, there's nothing better than mocking another team's star simply by doing his silly celebration. Ten years ago, that type of behavior set the entire Chargers organization backward about 15 years. There's just no coming back from that. LaDainian is probably still stewing.
--Remember when Tom Brady used to never run at all? Back when his juke on Brian Urlacher stood out as his only feat with his feet? Then he added some wise mobility to his game in 2014 (thanks to his leash man) and he added another dimension to how he can frustrate the ever-loving heck out of opposing defenses. And he did that on Sunday, running for two yards on a second-and-1 and scampering for five big ones on a third-and-2. He's now rushed for four first downs in his first three games of the year, and he's rushed for 29 yards. His past four seasons have ended with 53, 57, 18 and 32 rushing yards.
--He also introduced a new way to break someone's ankles. While running up the gut late in the first, he offered a little pump fake over the middle.
That footage should go immediately to Tom Brady's AND1 Mixtape. (The mixtape is roughly 21 seconds long.)
--That play ended with William Gay going Full Rodney™ on Brady.
Seemed like a hit with purpose on a quarterback who had slid, but what do I know?
--Both fumbles -- Hogan's and Edelman's -- were somewhat concerning, mostly for the lack of awareness. Hogan looked like a young man who had briefly become unaware that he was on a football field, as he stared three Steelers defenders in the face while another came from his backside and walloped him.
With Edelman, it's probably difficult for a player like that to just flick off the switch that makes him who he is, which is to say it's difficult for him to not fight for every last inch. But in that spot, up 11, the only thing that matters is securing the football.
And when you're going against a Landry Jones-led offense, pretty much the only way you can lose is if you give him short fields on turnovers.
--James White has very quickly turned into a vitally important member of the offense. Obviously, The Garrette remains the primary ball carrier, but White has Brady's trust and has made the most of his pass-catching opportunities. White was in perfect position on the right sideline to help a scrambling Brady convert a third-and-9 on the Patriots' first scoring drive, and then he deftly navigated the open field to turn a simple third-and-2 screen pass into a 19-yard touchdown.
The blocking by Joe Thuney, David Andrews and Malcolm Mitchell shouldn't go unnoticed, but neither should White's quickness and elusiveness in the open field.
Those were White's only receptions of the game, so statistically he barely makes a mark. But those were two big ones.
--The 15-yard penalty on Dont'a Hightower was a complete and utter joke. The hit came at the same time as the whistle, and the penalty was called, essentially, because Bell had stopped fighting and given up on the play. Realistically, in terms of common sense, the NFL should stand firmly against a ball carrier getting held up by one linebacker and absolutely smoked in the face by another 250-pound linebacker. But for all the rules to protect quarterbacks and defenseless receivers, the poor running back has been left behind. There's no rule against that. But, you know, player safety is a chief priority for the league.
Anyway, that call stunk, but it perhaps made up for what probably should have been a 15-yard penalty on Hightower for a hit to the head of a defenseless receiver late in the first quarter, when he did this to David Johnson over the middle:
--Of all the things I appreciated from Rob Gronkowski on Sunday, his nonchalant, downright cavalier reaction to a loose ball was at the top of the list.
He was, quite obviously, down. But that didn't stop Mike Tomlin from following through on his commitment to throw the red challenge flag no matter what.
Lots of folks on the old internet wondered who in the world told Tomlin through the headset that that play should be challenged. To them I say: Wait, you think Tomlin's headset is actually connected to other coaches? You think it was an accident that his headset was getting Socci and Zo last year?
That thing is just a prop, folks. The proof is in the tape.
--The Patriots generated no pass rush whatsoever, likely by design, as they were content to force Landry Jones to beat them. But I was still impressed with Chris Long on one play in particular, when he shed his block and then ran stride-for-stride with Bell to force him to the boundary and limit him to a 1-yard gain on a second-and-5.
It was a play that didn't end up making a huge impact, as Jones threw a touchdown to Darrius Heyward-Bey on the next snap. But it's just the latest example of Long making impressive plays without getting anything on the stat sheet to show it.
--Another one for the "Belichick Employs Smart Football Players" file: With 2:30 left in the game, Hightower was able to reel in Bell, stop his momentum from going toward the sideline, and bring him down in the field of play, thus keeping that clock ticking.
Sometimes, it's the little things. You know? (Also, I'm willing to bet you money that Dont'a Hightower lifts weights in his free time.)
--If you can take out the implications and your likely frustration from it, Brandon Bolden's drop was really spectacular. I mean, if I had enough time (and the rights), I think I could make a pretty compelling 20-second video of the drop, with the "1812 Overture" providing the musical backing.
That's the smile of a man who knows that William Belichick (and Thomas Brady, for that matter) is going to be quite unhappy with him.
--Tom Brady leads the league in yards per attempt at 9.94. He's completed 75.2 percent of his passes, which also leads the league. Despite giving the field a four-game head start, he's tied with Eli Manning, Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, Brock Osweiler, Case Keenum and Carson Wentz for 14th in the NFL with eight touchdown passes. And among quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts, only Brady and Brian Hoyer have thrown zero interceptions.
Oh, and in terms of passer rating, Brady's at 132.6, which is the best in the league. The next closest QB is Matt Ryan at 113.6.
It's not surprising, but it is nevertheless remarkable, as Brady continues to dominate the league at age 39. It's all starting to make sense really. Brady has publicly kept his energy very focused on whatever task is at hand, refusing to comment on things outside of football, and even stating that he'd be doing fewer interviews in order to conserve his energy.
It sounded silly, hearing him say that, but when you see how laser-focused he is on being efficient on the field, it's clearly an extension of the way he treats everything off the field. It helps explain how the 39-year-old has wasted no energy in his three games thus far this year. Everything he's done has been done with a purpose.
--The offensive line kept Brady clean, for the most part. But the penalties really added up. At least they're distributing the penalties evenly, though. Including penalties that were declined, we saw two holding penalties on Nate Solder, a false start on Thuney, a holding penalty on Andrews and a holding penalty on Shaq Mason.
None came in particularly painful scenarios for the Patriots, and really, considering some of the ills of the lines of the past few years, an occasional flag is something Dante Scarnecchia and Belichick will probably accept over the alternative.
--That brings us to this very, very encouraging result: The Patriots' ability to run all over a nickel defense. Obviously, when the 20-foot-tall duo of Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett are on the field, and when Julian Edelman is running crossing patterns, and when Tom Brady is handling shotgun snaps, the task of playing defense is quite difficult. To help in that battle, defenses are going to bring in smaller, quicker, more athletic defenders to cover the tight ends and hopefully limit their production.
If the Patriots aren't able to run against these smaller packages, then everything offensively becomes much more difficult.
So credit goes to the O-line and to LeGarrette Blount for racking up 127 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries.
It was, by my memory, the best game Blount's ever played in a Patriots uniform. He's had higher yardage and touchdown totals before, but never in a game like this, when the game was even and when the defense knew he'd be getting the ball. He took advantage of every opening, ran hard with his punishing style, and sprung for extra yardage whenever he got the chance outside the tackles in the open field.
--Blount also was kind enough to give us all a "Ferocious Juke" to enjoy:
Blount's ferocious jukes come with an asterisk, because unlike Edelman and Amendola, defensive players want nothing to do with tackling that monster.
--One fringe benefit of Brady's four-game suspension: It led to a Week 4 loss to Buffalo, which in turn saved us all from dealing with "Can the Patriots go 16-0???" talk this fall. So, in a weird way, thank you Roger Goodell. Your work has finally resulted in a positive.
--I'm not sure if the folks in the Patriots' media relations department are regular listeners of the Felger & Massarotti program, but I did notice that their second note in the postgame sheet was about the team's record on the road. Last week, Michael and Anthony got on some tangent about Brady being a bad road quarterback, or something like that? I'm not entirely sure. But I know the Patriots were happy to inform the world that the Patriots are the best road team in the NFL since 1994, owning a 109-70 record and .609 winning percentage. The Steelers are second-best at 97-82 (.542).
--Rob Gronkowski is going to set the franchise record most touchdowns next week with No. 69, in his hometown. Yes, this Rob Gronkowski:
Yes, that Rob Gronkowski:
And yes, this Rob Gronkowski:
I'm just going to tell you now: You're going to need to shield your children's eyes as soon as that ball is caught in the end zone. OK? Just trust me. You can thank me later.
--Gronkowski ended up with 96 yards and a touchdown on Sunday. Not bad for someone who was "Lost in Pittsburgh."
--Steve Gostkowksi's postgame talk with the media was painful to watch, because the guy's clearly killing himself mentally over his misses. What I did like, however, was how he was unwilling to get into the explanation of how and why he is missing kicks. When asked about it, Gostkowski just said, "I don't really talk about reasons why I make or miss a kick. No one knows nor cares to understand, so ... I stink right now. That's the bottom line."
It's the right approach for Gostkowksi. If he started to get into the footing or the angles or the hold or the snap or any aspect of the process, it'd end up getting over-analyzed and picked apart by too many folks who have never put Puma to pigskin in their lives. Just like anything else involving the Patriots, Steve G. is giving out no information and keeping it all internal.
That being said, this quote was still a painful one: "It'd be nice to be able to enjoy these wins a little more with the team."
Poor Steve. Guy needs the bye week in a bad way.
This pass was beautiful.
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