FOXBOROUGH - One-dimensional is usually a prescription for disaster for an offense, but the Patriots went that route by choice yesterday. The decision ultimately turned a 4-point halftime lead into a second-half blowout.
If there was a revealing statistic that stood out from the Patriots' performance, it was this: The offense dropped back to throw on its first 26 snaps of the second half, turning a 17-13 halftime score into a 34-13 blowout.
Considering the Steelers entered the day as the NFL's top-ranked pass defense, it was a decision that yielded a strength-on-strength matchup.
Score this one a decisive knockout for the Patriots' passing attack.
"Right now we're a throwing offense - pass, then run when we need to," left guard Logan Mankins said. "When you have great receivers and a great quarterback, you have to take advantage of what you have. Coaches must have seen something where they knew we could throw it and they just kept dialing up the throws. It was working; we were just going down the field."
In terms of the tactical second-half approach, the Patriots had quarterback Tom Brady in the shotgun for 21 of the first 26 snaps, mixed in some no-huddle at times to maintain the desired tempo, and flooded the field with receivers.
Of the 26 straight pass plays, they ran their four-receiver package on 16 second-half snaps, which included a holding penalty drawn by receiver Randy Moss. Their three-receiver package was in for the other 10. At times, the team went with an "empty" package, with running back Kevin Faulk lining up as a receiver.
By spreading the field, it allowed Brady to isolate the man-to-man matchups he liked against Steelers defenders.
As coach Bill Belichick has noted often in the past, production in the passing game is a coordinated effort. It doesn't matter if you put talented receivers like Moss, Wes Welker, Donte' Stallworth, and Jabar Gaffney on the field if you can't pass protect. Or have a quarterback to deliver the ball where it needs to go.
The Patriots had all their parts working in concert yesterday, and it started with pass protection. Mankins estimated the Steelers blitzed around 75 percent of the time, yet they most often met a strong wall of resistance. Brady was not sacked and in-game statisticians had him absorbing just four hits.
To Mankins, the performance was reflective of the attitude of the entire offensive unit. While it's easy to call a grind-it-out running team like the Steelers a smash-mouth unit, Mankins pointed to the physical play up front as a sign that passing teams can play with bite as well.
"If you watch a lot of pass blocking, it's smash-mouth," he said. "If someone is standing there, they're getting cleared out. You can still hit people even when you throw the ball."
Steelers linebacker Larry Foote agreed the Patriots' ability to handle the blitz was a key to the game. He felt the quick deliveries of Brady to his "hot route" rendered the pressure meaningless. Foote noted Brady "knew that blitz was coming, so he was throwing into it." Defensive end Brett Keisel added that "there is no way to get pressure on him."
In some ways, the Patriots' all-pass approach in the second half caught the Steelers off guard.
"It was a little weird at first," Pittsburgh linebacker James Farrior said. "I thought they would try to run when they had the lead on us, but they kept throwing the ball. Brady is good at reading defenses and our disguise wasn't good enough. He picked up most of our blitzes."
By day's end, the Patriots had both Moss (135) and Gaffney (122) in triple-digits in receiving yards. Welker led the way with nine catches.
In all, the Patriots threw 46 passes, and only rushed nine times. The Steelers might have come with the blitz often, but it was the Patriots who blitzed them through the air.
"It was the No. 1 ranked defense and I thought we went out there and moved the ball and scored points; most of it was throwing," Belichick said. "We felt like that was a good matchup for us, and I would say that it was."
Mike Reiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.