FOXBOROUGH — After dropping more than 600 yards on the Pittsburgh Steelers before heading into the bye week, the Patriots can rest easy knowing that the improvements they’ve sought and the crisp execution they’ve hoped to attain are very much within the team’s grasp.
Next up, consistency.
Here’s my five takeaways from the Patriots’ 55-31 win over the Steelers:
1. Tom Brady — Brady once again showed himself to be resilient. Somehow, some way he makes all those silly worries about hand injuries and shoulder soreness go away with a dominant performance. Throwing for 432 yards and four touchdowns, he erased a couple of key worries by displaying good velocity on his throws and connecting with his receivers on deep passes, including an 81-yard bomb to Aaron Dobson and a 57-yard throw to Danny Amendola. Somehow, some way everything came together as three Patriots had more than 100-yard receiving days.
“When Gronk [Rob Gronkowski] plays like that and can produce like that and Danny [Amendola] does that and Aaron [Dobson] does that and the backs do that and the line blocks, it’s a good way to play football,” Brady said. “There were a lot of guys that played really well and that’s what it’s going to take, I think, as the season goes. We have to keep getting better. It’s been a process for us, but at the bye week, 7-2 is not bad. Hopefully our best football is ahead of us.”
The one person he didn’t mention was himself. When he does what he did, showing off the accuracy that has been the hallmark of his career, it doesn’t matter who his receivers are. The Patriots are dominant with that Tom Brady at the helm.
2. It matters who runs the ball and why — Stevan Ridley was the featured running back for the Patriots Sunday and that’s a good thing. As much as Bill Belichick says he appreciates the hard running from both Ridley and LeGarrette Blount, it’s Ridley who moves the chains and makes things happen. With a season-high 115 yards rushing and two touchdowns, it makes you wonder what the fascination is with Blount, particularly when the big back is featured more than the explosive one.
On Sunday, it made more sense than ever to feed Ridley the ball given Pittsburgh has the 29th-ranked rushing defense. Belichick was asked about Ridley, who had a season-high 26 carries, but also asked about the decision to run the ball more.
“No, we made a conscious effort to win,” he said. “That’s what we try to do every week is win. That’s what we’re here for, is to win. We’re not here to produce stats or do any of that stuff. We’re here to win. That’s what our job is, to win.”
Again, it should be noted that it is no secret that the Steelers’ run defense stinks. The Patriots compiled 197 yards, another season-high, on what was an obvious weakness for Pittsburgh. So when Belichick says the team “made a conscious effort to win,” it only makes sense when you look at the rushing numbers.
3. More injuries to worry about — It must have been quite a scare to see defensive end Rob Ninkovich leave the game with a knee injury. While he returned to the sideline, in the second half, he didn’t finish the game. Afterward, he said he’ll be alright, but you can’t help but worry about his health regardless.
Given the season-ending injuries to Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, losing Ninkovich would be brutal for a defensive line that’s already had to trade for one player and utilize two rookies.
And lest we forget, Kelly’s final words in the locker room were that he was going to be OK as well.
Steve Gregory also suffered a thumb injury and had to leave the field with his hand covered by a towel. Along with Devin McCourty, he’s been a stable force for the Patriots back deep. But his departure has allowed for rookie Duron Harmon to step in and do well.
4. First impression — Isaac Sopoaga made his debut for the Patriots starting at defensive tackle. It was just less than a week after he had been traded to the team from the Philadelphia Eagles. But he was able to record a pass defensed in his first game as a Patriot, almost turning it into an interception.
For him, what one would normally characterize as a whirlwind week has been something he almost relishes. He was asked about being thrown into the fire so quickly.
“It is all in your mind and in your heart,” Sopoaga said. “It’s your choice. If you really want it, you have to do it. There is no other chance. And then I’m so honored and so blessed for coach Bill [Belichick] to trust me. And then for myself, I got to repay that respect back. It’s a good thing, good feeling.
Asked about what it’s like after his first game in New England while wearing a throwback Philadelphia 76ers jersey (Moses Malone), he said he feels good.
“I feel … I feel … I feel like a winner.”
5. Aaron Dobson — Over the past few weeks, Dobson has played markedly better. The work he has done to improve really stood on Sunday, as he exploded for 130 yards on five receptions, catching an 81-yard bomb that embarrassed the Steelers’ defense. Brady had sought to connect with Dobson on deep passes before, but there was always something that threw a wrench in the play, whether it was a good defensive play, a drop, or an errant throw. Not this time.
“It feels good, all the hard work and to have an outcome in a game like that, you know is big and it feels good to have the confidence going into the bye week,” said Dobson.
Dobson’s play was phenomenal and it represents what the Patriots have done up until this point of the season — inconsistent and erratic before becoming settled and now explosive. And like Dobson, there’s an increased optimism what’s in store.