By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
Um, yeah so we have to do this, eh? OK, fine. Let’s get on with it, as quickly and painlessly as is possible, as opposed to Sunday’s Pats/Steelers game, which was like a long, strange, inhuman, piece of torture porn. Sure, the Pats lost by just eight points, 25-17, and were within one score of the lead until the final seconds. But anyone who believes that this game was at all that close has either never watched a football game before or is trying to sell you something. This was a massacre, plain and simple, and coming off a bye week, no less. It was so ugly that on Monday, some post-game scuttlebutt was even focused on whether or not coach Bill Belichick is washed up. The Patriots may be 5-2, tied for first place in their division and still a likely shoo-in for the playoffs. But their defense, as has been mentioned in this space before, is so putrid, so inconsistent, so patently incapable of even some of the most basic tenets of defensive football, that it’s hard to imagine this team winning its first playoff game since 2007.
As has been the case for most of the year (and as evidenced by their ranking dead last in pass defense in the entire league) the Pats were shredded by an opposing quarterback, with Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger completing a whopping 36-of-50 passes for a season-high 365 yards and two TDs. Every time the Steelers needed a play, they threw, the receiver was wide open and the pass was completed. The Pats could not get off the field on defense all day, playing a season-high 80 snaps on that side of the ball and forcing zero punts until there were just 28 seconds left in the game. Again, likely due to the lack of talent and ability on the part of their secondary and linebacking corps, they gave the Steelers a 15-20 yard cushion in the middle of the field from sideline to sideline and allowed themselves to be nickel-and-dimed up and down the field all day long, with the time of possession (39:22-20:38 in favor of the home team) one of the most damning stats of the day. Offensively, the Pats never got a in a rhythm, mostly because the offensive line collectively had its worst game of the year and couldn’t handle the Steelers pressure, forcing Tom Brady to throw early for most of the day. The special teams were atrocious (missed field goal, botched onside kick, mediocre returns yet again). And the coaching, both during the game and leading up to it, was as bad up and down the line as we’ve seen in a long, long time (hence the sentiment questioning Belichick from yesterday). Yep, it was a total failure on every level. Hopefully, the Pats will figure it out fast; prior to the bye week, it looked like the defense had turned a bit of a corner, which made Sunday’s horrid performance all the more alarming. We’ll find out on Sunday, when the Giants come to town. So with that, let’s reluctantly get to this week’s report card. Apologies in advance for any typos – I may have to hold my nose.
Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat – Tom Brady was not the problem on Sunday. He didn’t play that well; his performance wasn’t as lousy as against Buffalo or Dallas, nor was it as good as against Miami, San Diego or the Jets. It was somewhere in the middle. Most weeks, completing two-thirds of your passes for 200 yards and a couple of TDs will suffice just fine. The Steelers defense gummed up the timing of the Pats attack to the point where Brady was throwing much earlier than he wanted to for most of the day and was unable to take many shots downfield. Pittsburgh’s defending of Wes Welker and Deion Branch made the team’s lack of an outside receiving threat all the more glaring. The coaches abandonment of any semblance of a running game pretty much from the Pats first possession severely curtailed the offense’s ability to dictate the tempo of the game. And the O-line’s struggles protecting didn’t allow Brady the kind of time he’s used to. There were still some bad throws when he had time (a fourth quarter bomb to a wide open Taylor Price was so underthrown, Steelers corner Ike Taylor had enough time to make up at least five strides and break up the play) and there were more than a couple of occasions in which he made the wrong read. But getting the offense back to where it was three weeks ago, before the lackluster performances of Sunday and in Week 6 against Dallas lies elsewhere.
Running Backs: C
This grade may seem like it should be a lot worse, though again, it’s not BenJarvus Green-Ellis’s fault he only had five carries on the day. But the fact that’s it a bit better than maybe it should be is reflective of old friend Kevin Faulk, who played for the first time since Week 2 of last season and, other than Rob Gronkowski, was the team’s most productive offensive player. Faulk played 39 of 58 offensive snaps and responded with 52 total yards (six carries for 32 yards, five catches for 20 yards), It was great to see Faulk back and productive and his pedigree will serve the team extremely well going forward. Faulk is a winner through and through. Other than that, what else is there? The Pats had 12 carries for 43 yards as a team. Danny Woodhead played just four snaps and didn’t touch the ball. Stevan Ridley, arguably the most explosive back on the team, dressed but didn’t play. BJGE never got a chance to do anything; like in the Buffalo game, he was completely forgotten after a couple of short gains early. The lack of anything happening in the running game is not these guys’ faults, it’s the coaching staff’s. Thus, a grade that’s right down the middle and represents basically nothing.
Wide Receivers: C-
The Steelers bracketed Welker for most of the day and rendered him as ineffective as he’s been since last year’s playoff loss to the Jets. He finished with just six catches for 39 yards and three of those came in the fourth quarter. It’s tough to imagine Welker being more invisible than he was on Sunday. Branch caught a TD on a perfectly executed quick out route but was otherwise unable to take advantage of the fact that he was left in single coverage most of the game thanks to the attention paid to Welker and the tight ends. Some of this was the Steelers pass rush and the timing of their blitzes but if he’s going to be singled up as much as he was on Sunday, Branch has to find a little bit more explosiveness than four catches for 36 yards. And that’s it. Once again, Chad Ochocinco may as well have stayed home; he was in for 11 plays all day and thrown to once. Guess what happened? It was a lousy, lazy route that gave Brady no chance to complete the pass and had the QB once again barking at him. What a wonderful $6 million spent on this has-been, eh? There is no one on the roster more inconsequential than Ochocinco, who still seems unable to grasp the offense despite having had now three and a half months to learn it. Welker is a superstar and Branch is still very effective a lot of the time. But there’s nothing there after those two and when they’re slowed down the way they were on Sunday, that fact is more than apparent. Blah.
Tight Ends: B
The lone bright spot. Gronk was the man again, catching seven passes for 94 yards and again proving nearly impossible to cover for the majority of the game. He also reaped the benefits of the Steelers choosing to double-team Aaron Hernandez (two catches, nine yards, TD) for most of the afternoon. Gronk should have had a TD; Brady hit him just inside the goal line late but the officials didn’t give him forward progress and Belichick inexplicably didn’t toss the challenge flag (more on that later). And again, he played wire to wire, though it’s tough to gauge his impact on the running game since there wasn’t one. And A-Herb, never really noted for his blocking prowess, did well in that department, including an absolute crusher on a third quarter pass to Gronk, springing the big guy for a good chunk of extra yards. The tight ends are what make the Pats offense go, for the most part. Every week, the vast majority of the snaps include multiple tight end sets. But when one of the Gronk/A-Herb duo isn’t as effective as usual or is taken out of his comfort zone, it trickles down. Such was the case on Sunday.
Offensive Line: D
Welcome back, Sebastian Vollmer. The monstrous, third-year man played in just his second game of the year on Sunday and to say he looked rusty would be more than kind. Vollmer was a human turnstile for the majority of the day, getting dominated by Steelers pass rushing demon LaMarr Woodley on multiple occasions. It wasn’t much better for rookie Nate Solder, who split time with Vollmer on the right side, or Matt Light on the left; both were eaten alive more than once and although only Vollmer gave up sacks, this trio’s inability to consistently slow down outside blitzes both forced Brady to throw early numerous times and got him drilled after getting rid of the ball a handful more. Vollmer and Light also racked a false start penalty each, which put them one shy of Logan Mankins, who had two. Mankins was also much softer than anyone might have expected in protection as well, as a good portion of the Steelers pressure came up the middle left. It’s hard to say whether or not the Pats would have had more success on Sunday if the line had even played an average game. It’s likely though. This group must get better and get better fast.
Defensive Line: C
If there was anything resembling a bright spot on defense in this game, it was the line, which somehow managed to get to Roethlisberger five times, though given the results and the fact that the Steelers had five drives of 10 plays or more, they were all mostly inconsequential. It’s nice to see Andre Carter work as hard as he does; his motor is constantly running and he’s a maximum effort guy at all times. His two sacks were more of the coverage variety than anything else as Roethlisberger tends to hold on to the ball for a great deal of time but he sets a good example for everyone else with his work ethic. Vince Wilfork had another solid game, playing both in the base defense and most of the sub schemes, and registered seven tackles, two for a loss and a sack. Mark Anderson also had another sack and again, showed that he should be playing more than a quarter of the team’s defensive snaps given his ability to get to the quarterback and the fact that the Steelers threw all day long. After that, there wasn’t much. Shaun Ellis left with a rib injury and will likely have as much impact in the training room as he has on the field at any point all year long. Brandon Deaderick saw his first time of the year in Ellis’s stead and, in keeping with Ellis’s style, did nothing. And Albert Haynesworth, the defense’s edition of Ochocinco, had yet another completely useless, ineffectual, mostly invisible game. Oh and also, the Steelers only ran the ball 23 times but still managed to gain over four yards per carry. You know it was a lousy day when the best performance by any group on your defense was basically mediocre. Pretty much sums up the whole year for the Pats D.
Anyone find it a coincidence that this defense played its two best games of the season without Jerod Mayo yet reverted back to its league-worst form when he returned on Sunday? Me neither. Mayo was eased back into things, not starting and playing just 31 snaps. The “glue/best playmaker/leader” on the Pats D according to most of his teammates when he went down in Oakland in Week 4, had one tackle and it came at the end of an eight-yard run. If anyone can think of a player on this team more overrated than Mayo, please speak up. It’s hard to imagine him starting for any team with even an average defense. Gary Guyton had an interception on a throw right to him by Roethlisberger and otherwise provided another afternoon of missed tackles, bad reads and slow reactions. Brandon Spikes played the Mayo role pretty much all day (74 or 80 snaps) and while he had 12 tackles and broke up one throw, he is still woefully incapable of covering the pass, as evidenced by the near-career day put forth by Steelers tight end Heath Miller, who seemed to make all of his seven catches with Spikes standing a few yards away and watching. And Rob Ninkovich looked mostly invisible yet again. The Pats have consciously chosen for the majority of the past three years to play deep zones, not give up big plays and keep everything in front of them. If any of their linebackers could make plays or rush the passer or cover anyone or do anything of consequence, this philosophy might make more sense. But none of, no one, can do any of those things. As a group, the Pats linebackers are terrible. And they aren’t even the worst thing about this defense. That honor goes to the…
So Leigh Bodden wasn’t with the program even though the team handed him $10 million guaranteed and a possible $22 million over four years following the 2009 season. Great, why not cut him two days before playing a team with two-time Super Bowl winning QB? Look, there’s no way to know whether or not the secondary would have played any better on Sunday if Bodden had been there (and given how bad he and it has been all year to this point, it probably wouldn’t have mattered). But the fact that with his release, the Pats had to rely on someone named Antuan Molden (torched all day, benched in the third quarter) and another scrub named Phillip Adams (cut and re-signed three times already this year), speaks volumes. The Pats already had the league’s worst pass defense before Sunday’s debacle; now they’re even further buried in that department. There were a couple of occasions in which the Steelers had the ball in the red zone and had to settle for field goals, an actual strength of this defense all year, thanks to some decent coverage. But for the most part, every time Roethlisberger completed a pass, the receiver was better covered by a fan than anyone wearing a white jersey. Again, Roethlisberger completed 36 passes. He completed them to nine different receivers. Three of those nine receivers caught at least seven passes. Seven of them posted long gains of at least 13 yards. I could go on. Or I could say that Devin McCourty distinguished himself by not getting humiliated, yet went another week without even approaching making a play. Or I could point out that McCourty and Patrick Chung were two of the team’s three leading tacklers once again and that when defensive backs make as many tackles as these two do on a weekly basis, something is very wrong. Or I could mention that James Ihedigbo is the slowest safety ever to play football. Or I could just say that this group sucks, that I’d rather have any other secondary in the NFL, that it is the chief culprit for the Pats defensive misery, that there are undrafted free agents and practice squad castoffs all over the place because the drafting has been so abysmal over the past few years and that as long as this group is constituted as such and the coaching staff can’t find a way to put it in better position to be successful (and given the low, low talent level, that possibility is highly unlikely) there will be more days like Sunday throughout the rest of the season. If the rest of the teams on the Pats schedule this season have even a pea-sized brain in their collective heads, they will do to these bums exactly what the Steelers did on Sunday and probably gain in excess of 450 yards. Absolutely, positively, completely and totally pathetic.
Special Teams: F
One of the worst games of Stephen Gostkowski’s career. His 42-yard field goal try in the third quarter that would have made it a one-score game clanged off the left upright. He chunked his onside kick attempt with 2:35 left, the ball barely going five yards. And after a late-game safety, he tried an onside drop kick (????) and practically put the ball in the fourth row. In other familiar news, the kick return game netted the Pats their usual 17-19 yards per runback, none of them getting beyond the 22-yard line. The next time anyone breaks a kick return for the Pats (and when I say breaks a kick return, I’m not asking for a 97-yard TD, I’d just like to see someone cross the 30) will be one of the, if not the, first time this season. This is a recording. Even our man Zoltan had a tough day, averaging just over 40 yards per punt. When it rains, it fucking pours.
One of the worst days of Belichick’s Pats career, the horrendousness began on Friday when Bodden was cut, and was followed up the next afternoon with the news that rookie Ras-I Dowling, most likely depended on to step up in the aftermath of that roster move, went on injured reserve. It continued into the game, with no adjustments being made to the Steelers throwing the ball into the massive swaths of dead space given up by the Pats on every single play at any point (on Pittsburgh’s first quarter TD drive, Roethlisberger completed four passes, including three in a row, to Miller, all in the middle of the field, all for between 11 and 19 yards and all completely wide open). The running game was all but abandoned by the second time the Pats had the ball, an impossible to understand decision. The non-challenge on the TD to Gronk that wasn’t called not only made no sense (even Jim Nantz and Phil Simms on CBS were screaming for it, it was so obvious) but cost the Pats over two minutes of clock time. And the onside kick, down six points with 2:35 left and all three timeouts plus the two-minute warning remaining, was senseless, as well as an ostensible admission by Belichick that he knew his hideous defense had no chance to hold the Steelers. Belichick the coach has been massively let down by Belichick the GM over the past few years; the drafting on defense has been awful as has been a good sized chunk of the free agent moves. The Pats have been lucky that his superior coaching ability, despite the fact that he can’t seem to fix the defense, has allowed them to overcome these personnel decision failures, at least in the regular season. But days like Sunday, on which he’s the second best coach on the field and it isn’t even close, magnify the shortcomings in the front office. Belichick doesn’t have many days as bad as Sunday in Pittsburgh and for that, Pats fans should be grateful. And no, he’s not washed up, at least in the coaching department. He’ll probably shore things up by this Sunday in time for the Giants. His track record practically guarantees it. But weeks like this one, when the bad moves and decisions start well before the opening kickoff and continue throughout the game, are enough to give even the most avid Belichick supporters pause.