For the past decade, the Steelers and Patriots have been the class of the AFC.
Their excellent coaching, personnel management and quarterback play have led to a combined seven Super Bowl appearances since 2001.
When it came to the head-to-head matchup, however, the Pats clearly had the edge.
But with a ferocious pass rush and a game plan that left Tom Brady watching from the sidelines, the Steelers snapped their losing streak against the Pats en route to a 25-17 victory.
There weren’t many bright spots for the Patriots, particularly in the coaching department, so let’s take a look at this week’s risers and fallers.
1. Rob Gronkowski: The team’s top tight end was an early-season star, racking up five touchdowns in his first three games. However, he only caught five passes for 46 yards against the Raiders and Jets. With fellow sophomore sensation Aaron Hernandez back in the lineup, Gronk has responded with 14 catches for 168 yards over the past two games and remains a matchup nightmare. He’s simply too big for defensive backs and has enough speed to separate from most linebackers. While he failed to find the end zone for the fourth straight game, Gronkowski was Brady’s most reliable target on a day where those were hard to find.
2. Andre Carter: When the Pats picked up the former first rounder, I said he had the chance to be the biggest impact signing of the entire offseason. So far, the veteran defensive end has proven me correct. Carter was a pass rushing force, registering two sacks and another QB hit while providing his signature strong run defense. With 4.5 sacks through seven games, Carter is tied with Mark Anderson for the team lead and has been invaluable considering the continually weak production in the pass rush department.
1. Offensive tackles: Whether it was Sebastian Vollmer, Nate Solder or Matt Light, the guys in charge of protecting the edges did not perform well Sunday. Steelers linebacker Lamarr Woodley was dominating with two sacks before he left with a hamstring injury, and Vollmer simply looked rusty and unathletic in his return from a back injury. Although they didn’t run the ball much, the offensive line did a poor job opening holes as the team averaged only 3.6 yards against a struggling Steelers run defense that was missing stud linebackers James Farrior and James Harrison.
2. Secondary: Will this unit ever be competent? I’m starting to think the secondary might just be a lost cause at this point. The team has invested at least a second-round pick at cornerback for four straight seasons and the unit still can’t cover anybody. Devin McCourty is officially in a sophomore slump and Antwaun Molden showed why the Texans, who had the league’s worst pass defense in 2010, cut him. Pat Chung’s talent is lost in the back end because of the weak safety rotation next to him. While the scheme has certainly been a cause of the problems (the secondary gives way too much cushion), talent, or the lack of, is also a major factor.
3. Tom Brady: Throw out the games against the Bills and Cowboys, and Brady has been pretty much flawless. While his 101.8 passer rating and 2:0 TD to interception ratio look pretty on paper, the game tape showed a much different version other than Tom Terrific. The reigning MVP didn’t look comfortable in the pocket, and struggled to find receivers open downfield (credit the Steelers press coverage). Brady finished with an uncharacteristically low yards-per-attempt, 5.66, and his longest throw was only for 23 yards. When he’s under pressure, Brady can look very ordinary. The offensive line has to give him time to throw and the receivers need to do a better job getting off the line.
4. Bill Belichick: Bill can’t cover Mike Wallace on a fly route. He can’t block Troy Polamalu on a zone blitz. Hell, he can’t execute an onside kick. But he is capable, but not lately, of finding the right players for his defense. The Steelers have one of the best young receiving corps in the league, and the Pats have the worst secondary. Yet, Belichick decided to cut one of his top corners, Leigh Bodden, and place the 33rd overall pick, Ras-I Dowling, on injured reserve. Ben Roethlisberger must have taken Bill out for a few drinks earlier in the week because these moves made no sense at the time and certainly didn’t endear fans after the beatdown. Belichick has struck out big time on drafting for his secondary, not to mention at the receiver spot. The Steelers have a homegrown receiving corps that features Wallace and mid-rounders Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. Meanwhile, the Pats struck out on Bethel Johnson, Chad Jackson, Brandon Tate and Taylor Price has rarely seen the field. It’s time to question Belichick’s personnel moves that have left the team simply below average at several spots.