When the Patriots ran:
The Patriots ground game has been less-than-overwhelming this season but on Sunday in Pittsburgh LeGarrette Blount and the boys up front got the job done. Blount finished with 127 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries for an impressive 5.3-yard average, and although it was his third 100-yard effort of the year it was the first that didn't include any huge runs or late yards after the game was settled. Instead it was Blount who jumpstarted the offense after some stagnant series in the middle of the game. After Pittsburgh pulled within a point at 14-13, Blount opened a touchdown drive with his two best runs of the game, resulting in gains of 11 and 25 yards. Three plays later the Patriots were in the end zone. Blount had 15 efficient runs (gains of 4 yards or more, first down or touchdown) in his 24 attempts and consistently found space between the tackles. Tom Brady was quietly effective scrambling for 14 yards on four attempts (excluding a kneel down), picking up three first downs with his legs. Overall New England piled up 140 yards on the ground on 29 carries and that production was instrumental to the victory.
When the Patriots passed:
This matchup was much more competitive than anyone felt it would be heading in. The Steelers secondary has been awful and the guys up front haven't applied any pressure on the passer. Neither was evident at Heinz Field on Sunday but the brilliance of Rob Gronkowski turned things in the visitors' favor anyway. Brady was under heavy pressure much of the evening despite not being sacked. He was forced to scramble away from rushers four times and threw the ball away on a number of others. Pittsburgh two-deep zone kept the Patriots in front of them and Brady dumped the ball off often to Julian Edelman but the slot receiver was unable to make any plays. Edelman finished with nine receptions but those resulted in just 60 yards for a pathetic 6.7-yard average. The Steelers were content to give up the underneath stuff and prevent the big plays that Brady has feasted on the last two weeks. It almost worked, especially when Chris Hogan fumbled after one of those short completions, but Gronkowski got free twice for gains of 36 and 37 yards, the former resulting in a touchdown and the latter setting up Blount's second score. Gronkowski finished with four catches for 93 yards, but aside from James White's brilliant 19-yard touchdown on a screen that was it for the passing game. Brady completed 19 of 26 passes for just 222 yards, although he was victimized by some untimely drops. The two big plays to Gronk were enough to get the win.
When the Steelers ran:
Le'Veon Bell came into the game having drawn some serious admiration from Bill Belichick and watching the patient runner maximize his opportunities it was easy to see why. Bell never got a huge hole to run through but still picked his way to 81 yards on 21 carries (3.9-yard average) against a physical Patriots front. He was impressive but he needed to be because the Patriots front seven did a great job of containing him, limiting him to a long run of 12 yards and often forcing him to change direction before hitting the line of scrimmage. Against gifted runners like Bell it's difficult to perform much better than Alan Branch and Malcom Brown did Sunday, and once the fourth quarter rolled around the Patriots had a big enough lead to prevent Bell from many more carries. It wasn't a perfect performance but considering the caliber of opponent it was certainly noteworthy. Antonio Brown added a 13-yard run on a reverse so Pittsburgh finished with 94 yards on 22 carries, which translates to a solid 4.3-yard average, but Bell never took the game over because the Patriots front never allowed that to happen. Credit also to Patrick Chung (10 tackles) who once again was an active force near the line of scrimmage in run support.
When the Steelers passed:
Quarterback Landry Jones wasn't the only backup who was pressed into duty for the Steelers passing game. Wideouts Markus Wheaton (inactive), Sammie Coates (hand injury, limited to seven plays) and Brown (quad injury forced him out for a brief period) all missed time. Still, Jones found plenty of open receivers and moved the ball effectively throughout the game between the 20s. Jones finished 29 of 47 for 281 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Brown had his way with Malcolm Butler, catching seven passes for 106 yards including a 51-yarder that got the Steelers comeback started. Butler got the better of Brown as well, picking off a pass in front of the wideout in the end zone on a badly underthrown ball, and again late after brown returned from his injury. But Cobi Hamilton (three catches, 36 yards) and Darrius Heyward-Bey (three catches, 30 yards) both got loose at times against logan Ryan and Eric Rowe. Rowe was beaten badly by Heyward-Bey for a touchdown, and was fortunate a second score was wiped out on a holding call. The front also got no pressure on the young passer, allowing him to get comfortable despite dealing with mostly backups.
This was a matchup that neither team seemed interested in winning. Both teams struggled in the kicking game but the Patriots were just a little bit worse. It started with the kickoff coverage, which allowed the Steelers to cross the 25-yard line three times in three chances including one out to the 32. Stephen Gostkowski also missed another PAT, his second in as many weeks. And punter Ryan Allen was awful, turning in kicks of 25 and 28 yards among his five attempts. One other was knocked into the end zone by Brandon Bolden, who mishandled the ball at the 6. Pittsburgh did a nice covering Jordan Berry's four punts and even caused an Edelman fumble, but the Steelers experienced their own problems in the kicking game as well. Chris Boswell recorded touchbacks on all four kickoffs but he missed a pair of field goals, although one was from 54 yards. Those misses proved costly in a tight game and could have affected the way the final minutes played out. But the visitors' uncharacteristic sloppiness allowed Pittsburgh to get the nod anyway.