Picked-up pieces from first-quarter review of the Patriots’ 55-31 victory over the Steelers:
1. The defense continues to be more multiple, switching between 4-3 and 3-4 alignments. To open the game, it was a 3-4 with Isaac Sopoaga on the nose, Joe Vellano and Chris Jones at end, with Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones standing up as outside linebackers and Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower at inside linebacker. From a pure body-type perspective, Chandler Jones conjures up some memories of Willie McGinest with his 6-foot-5, 265-pound frame and long arms as a stand-up linebacker. He dropped into coverage on the first play of the game (6-yard pass to Antonio Brown), as well as the second, which reflects his athleticism. We often think of Jones as more of a straight-ahead player, but the more you watch, you see him doing much more than that.
2. That wasn’t the only look the Patriots showed in the 3-4. On the Steelers’ second drive, veteran Andre Carter came on as the right end for the first snap and Chris Jones moved to the nose over Isaac Sopoaga. Just an example of how the Patriots are mixing and matching with some different combinations.
3. On the Rob Ninkovich sack of Ben Roethlisberger that ended the Steelers’ first drive, on a third-and-2 play, it was a good combination of rush and coverage. We’d give an assist to linebacker Brandon Spikes, who faked a blitz, then backed out to help in coverage on running back Felix Jones over the middle. That was Roethlisberger’s first read, but when he spotted Spikes, he held on to the ball longer than he wanted to and by that point the rush arrived. It might not always look pretty, but just as he did against the Bengals on Oct. 6 with an interception, Spikes showed he can compete at times in pass coverage.
4. While in the process of giving Spikes an assist, let’s hand him another one for a nice up-the-middle pressure on Roethlisberger’s interception with 4:12 remaining in the quarter, as Roethlisberger heaved the ball up the left sideline from his own end zone as Spikes surged through the right side of the line to speed up the decision-making process.
5. While on the subject of "linebacker assists," Dont’a Hightower also gets one for his coverage on running back Felix Jones out of the right slot, which helped produce Chandler Jones’ late first-quarter sack. That was another situation in which Roethlisberger had to hold the ball longer than desired because the first read wasn’t there. Overall, it was a good first quarter in coverage for the bigger Patriots linebackers, which has been a trouble spot at times this year.
6. Likewise on the first sack of Tom Brady, on the Patriots’ opening possession, the Steelers’ coverage seemed just as responsible for the sack (third-and-4). The Steelers blitzed, backing out two linebackers and sending safety Troy Polamalu and cornerback Cortez Allen as fourth and fifth rushers, but Brady had time if the first read was available. Yet linebacker Lawrence Timmons appeared to have good coverage on tight end Rob Gronkowski, who was releasing off the right side of the line, forcing Brady to hold on to the ball longer than desired.
7. If the Patriots are going to be without safety Steve Gregory, who left the game in the third quarter with a right thumb/wrist injury, the Steelers’ second drive was a good reminder of what they’d miss in terms of what Gregory does well. It started with a nice run force to team with defensive end/outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich in dropping Le’Veon Bell for a 1-yard loss. Then on third-and-6, Gregory was quick to break on an underneath pass to Bell and stop him short of the sticks for a 5-yard gain to force a punt. Gregory has played at a higher level on a more consistent basis this season, his second with the team. The Patriots will miss his smarts and solid tackling if he’s out.
8. On the opening kickoff, which Felix Jones returned 40 yards (longest surrendered by the Patriots this season), it was a left return and Marquice Cole (5-10, 195) was easily blocked by defensive end Al Woods (6-4, 307) in the wedge and Nate Ebner (6-0, 210) was held up by linebacker Vince Williams (6-1, 250) to create the initial opening. In addition to the size advantage, the Steelers had a 6-on-4 numbers edge as Jones picked up a head of steam (which made us wonder if the Patriots' spacing was an issue) as the Patriots just couldn’t get off 1-on-1 blocks. Linebacker Chris White came from the backside of the play to make a nice tackle.
9. Reminder to self: The next time I might be inclined to write that the best way to rattle Brady is to get to him early, remember this game. The Steelers had a sack to end the opening drive, and then Lawrence Timmons got a good hit on him on the third play of the second drive when he rushed up the middle and wasn’t picked up as Brady fired incomplete. Those plays can sometimes set a tone. Not so on this day.
10. Two of the Patriots’ best early-down passing plays – a 27-yard Brady-to-Gronkowski strike over the middle on first-and-10 with 5:41 remaining in the quarter and the 81-yard Brady-to-Dobson touchdown strike in the fourth quarter -- came out of a three-tight end package that would most often tip off a run. This highlighted one theme that cropped up over parts of the game – the Patriots had success throwing against the Steelers’ base defense, and ran well against their dime defense. They took advantage of those matchups nicely, which from our view, highlighted the value of the tight end position.
11. On the fourth-and-goal run from the half-yard line in which Stevan Ridley was stopped, it looked like center Ryan Wendell and right guard Dan Connolly were turned too easily at the snap by the combination of defensive end Cameron Heyward and nose tackle Steve McLendon, with the Steelers gaining too much penetration. That forced Ridley to take the run out wider than he desired, giving the Steelers’ pursuit a chance to close in, with safety Troy Polamalu fighting off fullback James Develin.
12. We’re not a quarterback guru, but after hearing all about Tom Brady’s mechanics and if they are where they needed to be as he struggled at times this year, we’d guess that his 34-yard touchdown to Danny Amendola with 4:06 remaining in the quarter would make him a leading candidate for the All-Mechanics Team. Part of why Amendola was so open on the play was because Brady dropped back and initially looked to his right, had a slight pump to hold the safety, before smoothly turning his body and head and delivering a dart to Amendola up the left side. It hasn’t looked easy for Brady and Co. for long stretches of the year, but it did on that play. No questions for Brady on his mechanics this week.
13. On the third-and-30 play in which the Steelers picked up 29.5 yards, it looked like a busted coverage. The Patriots were in their dime defense, which has been run by linebacker Dane Fletcher the last two weeks. The breakdown appeared to be at the linebacker level with Fletcher and Logan Ryan, as they both broke to the opposite side of the field with receiver Jerricho Cotchery, leaving too much open real estate for Le’Veon Bell on a short pass. Rookie safety Duron Harmon also had a chance to make a tackle about 15 yards past the line of scrimmage, but Bell got the best of him in the open field.