Patriots

27 thoughts on the Patriots’ imperfect yet impressive victory over the Steelers

LeGarrette Blount carries a major load for the offense -- just as we always expected, right?

Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount (ran over and through the Steelers defense on Sunday. (AP Photo/Jared Wickerham) Jared Wickerham / AP

COMMENTARY

1. LeGarette Blount, who ran for 127 yards and two touchdowns in the Patriots’ 27-16 win over the Steelers Sunday, might be the Patriots’ offensive MVP so far, which I think is something we all predicted before the season, yes? We should probably start pretending none of us – ahem — thought of him as a candidate for the annual Surprising Training Camp Cut.

2. Blount now has 566 rushing yards through 7 games – just one fine Sunday away from surpassing last season’s total of 703 rushing yards – and his eight touchdowns are a career-high and have him tied for the NFL lead with Arizona’s David Johnson and San Diego’s Melvin Gordon. I’m starting to think trading Jeff Demps for him is going to work out.

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3. I often compare Blount and his hammer-dropping running style to Antowain Smith, who was essential on the ’01 Pats and still helpful in ’03 despite being something less than a stylish runner. But this year, a more agile (and perhaps healthier) Blount has mixed in the occasionally Corey Dillon-style highlight, and the ’04 version of Dillon is the best back the Patriots have had in the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era.

4. I mean, of course I know the Patriots have more valuable players than Blount, or will in the long haul. Rob Gronkowski changes the game more than any tight end to ever play the game. Tom Brady is their most valuable player as long he remains upright, though he can’t be their MVP at this point if he’s played just 42 percent of the games, right?

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5. But Blount’s reliability has been critical in the Patriots’ 6-1 start – and especially during their 3-1 start when Brady was serving his railroading. He’s been their most dependable offensive player, especially in context of what the expectation was for him. That’s close enough to most valuable to me.

6. As for how the game played out, first and foremost, I don’t think you ever complain about a road victory against a traditionally excellent team, even if that team is without some of its key players (quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, most notably, but also defensive lineman Cam Heyward and backup running back D’Angelo Williams).

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7. The Patriots were sloppy at times, with a couple of uncharacteristic dropped passes, a pair of lost fumbles, some coverage issues on special teams, and a pass-rush that was something less than relentless. Oh, and Stephen Gostkowski missed another extra point. There’s stuff to yowl about if that’s how you prefer to spend your Monday after a win.

8. You also wonder how differently the game might have gone had Roethlisberger been able to go. But in the end, an 11-point win in Pittsburgh is something to appreciate, no matter how frustrating it was a certain points. The Steelers are a team the Patriots will meet again this year.

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9. It’s not like Steelers quarterback Landry Jones was terrible as Roethlisberger’s understudy. Sure, he looks like a driver on some fringe NASCAR circuit whose claim to fame is that he once bounced Jeff Gordon off a wall, but he can play football a little. He went 29 of 47 for 281 yards, with one touchdown and an interception, and looked fairly accurate throwing the ball downfield.

10. The interception was bad – an underthrown ball the great Antonio Brown that Malcolm Butler picked off in the end zone. But for the most part he didn’t make many mistakes, and the Patriots defense seemed designed to bait him into impatience.

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11. Jones is no Jimmy Garoppolo when it comes to backup quarterbacks, and certainly wouldn’t bring a similar haul in a trade. But he looked better than probably half the starters in the league on Sunday. What the Jets would give for someone as competent as he looked Sunday.

12. I don’t know why anyone – other than someone required to fill a four-hour radio program with the requisite amount of hot-takes, I suppose — would complain about the Patriots’ defensive performance. For one, they were better on third down (the Steelers converted 5 of 12) than they’ve been recently, and that was a point of emphasis for Belichick this week. It’s called progress.

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13. The bend-but-don’t break thing can be frustrating, especially when they’re playing the long game and trying to wait out a mistake by the opposing quarterback rather than forcing one with a higher-risk tactic.

14. But it’s not like this is anything new – they’ve done this going back to the early days of the dynasty. It worked with Tedy Bruschi and Willie McGinest, and it works with Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower. This team will be able to get after the quarterback when they have to.

15. Even with some terrific athletes on defense, they’re not about to sell out to get to the quarterback if it means giving Antonio Brown (7 catches, 106 yards) a shot at a couple more big plays. They realized Jones was not leading a string of sustained drives against them, and made the Steelers work for their 16 points. In case you haven’t noticed, they’re second only to the Vikings in points allowed per game. Isn’t that what counts?

16. Tell me again how Brown lasted until the 195th pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. He’s the best receiver in the NFL right now, and somehow he was drafted 45 picks after Zoltan Mesko.

17. Considering what he’s capable of, I thought Malcolm Butler had one of his better games of the season Sunday, if not his career. (Super Bowls excepted, of course.) He was often in single coverage – and won his share – against a receiver who routinely tears up double-coverage.

18. I’m fascinated by Bill Belichick’s relationship with Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. Belichick clearly respects him – his “I could scout for the Steelers” comment earlier this week was said in admiration for their consistency – and even took a few extra moments to chat with him after the game. But Tomlin has whined about the Patriots before, which has put other opponents in Belichick’s inescapable Dead-To-Me status. Otherwise known as Eric Mangini’s permanent residence, I believe.

19. That’s my longwinded way of saying I have no idea if Tomlin is genuinely a good coach or not. Though I suppose being one of just seven active head coaches to have won a Super Bowl suggests he knows what he’s doing. Then again, Pete Carroll won a Super Bowl, and he’s a gum-chomping buffoon.

20. The Patriots just need to ride it out with the struggling Stephen Gostkowski. He’s in a rut that dates back to last season, and it’s troubling that extra-points have suddenly become must-watch. But unless the Colts are going to loan Adam Vinatieri back to the Patriots for the rest of the season, there’s nothing close to an upgrade available, especially when his value on kickoffs is considered.

21. The next time you’re tempted to put any stock in any team’s grade in the immediate aftermath of the NFL Draft, keep this in mind. In 2013, the top 10 picks included Dee Milliner, Barkevious Mingo, Dion Jordan, and Jonathan Cooper.

22. Meanwhile, the 48th pick was Le’Veon Bell, and Jamie Collins went four picks later. No one knows how it’s going to go. No one.

23. Dont’a Hightower’s unnecessary roughness penalty on Bell in the first half was missing something that usually draws a flag on a similar play: actual roughness. Then again, the Patriots caught a break when the Steelers had a touchdown called back on a dubious penalty on tackle Chris Hubbard, so I suppose it all evens out.

24. I love that the Patriots are basically flipping Rob Gronkowski’s turbo mode switch only when they really need him. He was targeted just four times Sunday, but he caught all four passes for 93 yards, including 36- and 37-yard receptions.

25. His fourth-quarter touchdown catch – which put them up, 27-16 — capped a six-play, 75-yard drive that offered a glimpse of what the Patriots will look like when they really step on the throttle. You know, after Brady shakes off the rust.

26. Gronk tied the criminally underrated Stanley Morgan – who averaged 19.4 yards per catch over 13 years here! — for the franchise record with his 68th career touchdown. It took Morgan 177 games to do it. Gronk did it in 85.

27. Good lord, the 14-year-old in me cannot wait until the time comes and Mike Reiss sighs, then fulfills his duty to ask Gronk what it was like to catch his 69th touchdown pass. I’ll give you 2-1 odds Gronk thinks Porky’s was a documentary.

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