1. Safety Patrick Chung emerging on defense. After missing two games with a knee injury, Chung returned to the field and his abilities continue to impress me. You can have speed, size and strength, but one thing you can't teach is instincts. Chung has them. He continues to remind me of a young Lawyer Milloy, making plays that a Patriots safety has to make, such as the big hit on Mike Wallace at the end of the first quarter at the first-down sticks. He is a very good open-field tackler, which you saw when he wrapped up running back Rashard Mendenhall. He also had great coverage on receiver Antwaan Randle El, and showed great hustle, going from one side of the field to the other to tackle running back Mewelde Moore. He was all over the field and if he stays healthy, this defense is going to be much better.
I'm starting to see the big three on defense -- along the front line you have Vince Wilfork, at the linebacker level it's Jerod Mayo and at the safety position it's Chung. In this defense it is critical to have a safety who can do it all. Milloy and Rodney Harrison were his predecessors. Chung has big shoes to fill, but I think he's the guy to do it.
2. The enforcer is back for the Patriots -- Logan Mankins. If you spend a lot of time around Mankins, you come to learn that he's a soft-spoken, pleasant guy. But if you play a football game against him, you'd think the opposite. The Patriots' offensive line had been missing that mean streak for the first seven games of the season, but now it's back. Mankins is the one who cleans up the piles. Mankins is the one who, when ball carriers are fighting for an extra yard, is hitting defenders off them with a flying shoulder. He doesn't just push back, he pushes first. When you have that along the offensive line, it resonates with other players. You saw that when Steelers outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley hit Tom Brady late, and Matt Light jumped in, feeding off the attitude of Mankins, who had been engaged in some shoving earlier in the game with safety Troy Polamalu when he felt Polamalu was roughing up Brady after a quarterback sneak for a touchdown. In just two games, Mankins has shown he's back to being his old self as the enforcer of the offense.
3. Emotional Steelers vs. cerebral Patriots? Watching the NBC telecast, there was mention of Steelers coach Mike Tomlin talking about the Steelers being a more emotional team than the Patriots. The point was made that if the Patriots were on a heart rate monitor, they would be more flatliners, while the Steelers would be more up and down. I sort of shook my head when hearing it, because when I played for the Patriots, I always felt we were a very emotional team. Yes, the preparation and knowing the opponent was very important, but that was just one part of it. Once it got to Sundays, you had to play with emotion and passion. When I saw Tom Brady go out and do what he did Sunday night, he sort of proved to me what I was thinking.
It may look like the Patriots are a bunch of thinkers, looking for the next adjustment to make, but there is much more to it than that. It ties in to how players grow in the system. The longer you are in the Bill Belichick system, and the more comfortable you get with what he wants, the more some of the individuality comes out and you can be the person you are on the football field. I think you're starting to see that now, with players like Chung and Mayo. Before, there might have been a lot of thinking going on, and when that's the case, you can't really show your emotion and passion because there is an endless equation going on in your head. Brady's emotion was obvious. Wilfork has done some of the same this year also. As younger players get more comfortable in the Belichick system, look for additional leaders to emerge.
4. What a difference a week makes. The biggest question many are probably asking is how this team could look as bad as it did last week and as good as it did this week. When you have youth and inexperience, sometimes it takes time to realize the importance of preparation and practice. Many players are experiencing on-the-job training, and usually when you have that, it's on special teams. But the bulk of the Patriots' players, many of the major contributors on offense and defense, are still learning how to be professionals. As part of that process, one thing you have to learn is that you can be beaten by anyone. I always believed that the team we were playing was capable of beating us if we didn't prepare accordingly and execute on game day. When you realize that, it puts a sense in your mind that you have to work hard during the week and get it done on Sunday. So last week's thrashing in Cleveland might be the best thing that ever happened to some of these players. I think it helps them realize the old cliché that, "Any given Sunday, any team can be beat." This year in the NFL, that saying is as real as ever.
5. Brilliance of Bill Belichick. The coaching staff, led by Bill Belichick, made some terrific adjustments and tactical decisions in the game. One of them came when they started with Vince Wilfork offset to the left, because the Steelers like to run to the offensive right side. Another example came when they sent inside linebacker Jerod Mayo as a run blitzer instead of Brandon Spikes. Mayo is quicker and more explosive, and you saw that show up with him making plays in the backfield. Later in the game, you saw two players on Steelers receiver Mike Wallace, like you'd see on a gunner on the punt team. These are classic adjustments in the Bill Belichick defense. I look at him and he's coaching this defense as hard as I've ever seen him coach a defensive unit, whether it's on the sidelines, making adjustments during games, or using every young player in the best possible position.
It stood out to me that with 28 seconds left in the game, with a 13-point lead, the game was in hand and he called a timeout to make sure the defense was on the same page. Some might look at it and ask, "What does it matter?" Well, to Coach Belichick, it does matter. He wants to make sure everyone knows what he is supposed to do until the last second ticks off the clock.