…Pittsburgh tipped their hand early – on the first drive, in fact – as to how they were going to approach this game offensively: give the ball to Bell. RB Le'Veon Bell touched the ball on the Steelers' first four plays from scrimmage. It would be a sign of things to come, as Pittsburgh attempted to keep the ball away from New England by using Bell to drain the clock. It nearly worked out for them.
…We've mentioned it plenty of times before here in this column, but it bears repeating just how important TE Rob Gronkowski and FB James Develin are as run-blockers. The tandem paired up again to help RB Rex Burkhead find the end zone at the end of New England's first possession in Pittsburgh.
From 1 yard out, Burkhead took a Tom Brady handoff and headed to the right side of the formation, where Gronk and tackle Cameron Fleming sealed off the edge of the Steelers' d-line. CB Artie Burns then approached the line of scrimmage from that side to try making a play on Burkhead, but Develin swooped in to wall him off. Burkhead snuck in between the small space created by Develin to his right and Gronk/Fleming on the left to plunge over the goal line.
…CB Eric Rowe played his most significant minutes since the start of the season, before he came down with a groin issue that sidelined him for several weeks. In Pittsburgh, Rowe was in the starting defensive lineup as the third cornerback, or "star," as the Patriots call that position.
Rowe wound up making one of the biggest plays of the game, but prior to that, he had moments where he struggled against Steelers rookie WR JuJu Smith-Schuster. One of those was a 3rd-and-10 on which Rowe allowed Smith-Schuster to get a step ahead of him and make a first down with a 13-yard catch-and-run.
The receiver started on the right side of the formation, but motioned toward the middle momentarily to see if Rowe would continue to cover him man-to-man. That's just what he did, and at the snap, Smith-Schuster ran a shallow cross with Rowe tailing him. But along the way, Rowe got obstructed by LB Marquis Flowers and safety Jordan Richards, who were playing up near the line of scrimmage. Smith-Schuster slipped free behind them and Rowe couldn't recover in time to prevent the big gain after the catch.
…Very next play, QB Ben Roethlisberger picked on Rowe again by throwing to his man on that play, WR Eli Rogers, who was lined up in the same spot as Smith-Schuster on the previous play (right slot, closest to the right tackle). Rowe completely missed on his attempt to jam Rogers at the line, which allowed Rogers to slip past Rowe along the right hash marks. Roethlisberger's lob pass made it just over the outstretched arm of Rowe and into Rogers hands as Rowe stumbled to the turf while trying in vain to tackle Rogers. The receiver had a clear route to the end zone and finished the scoring drive.
…Brady was sacked twice by Pittsburgh, the first time coming on 1st-and-10 from their own 35 on their second possession. DE Cameron Heyward simply bulldozed LG Joe Thuney on his way into the backfield. Just an impressive individual display of strength and leverage by Heyward.
…As we discussed earlier, Bell was going to be a key fixture in Pittsburgh's game plan Sunday, but he became even more relevant when WR Antonio Brown left the game entirely with a partially torn left calf muscle early in the 2nd quarter.
…The Patriots sacked Roethlisberger twice, with DEs Trey Flowers and rookie Deatrich Wise combining for the first one. Both men (engaged with the right and left tackles, respectively) used the same tactic: the bull rush. Flowers and Wise drove their would-be blockers backward at precisely the same time to arrive simultaneously at Roethlisberger in a pincer formation and share the takedown credit.
...Gronk, of course, isn't just a run-blocker, although he is one of the best at that, too. He's unrivaled as a pure pass-catching player at his position, and against Pittsburgh, he stacked up the most yards he's ever had in a game as a pro (168, which was six yards better than he previous high). The second catch he made was the first of significant yardage (31). He easily got open down the right hash marks against safety Sean Davis, who was trying to stay with Gronk one-on-one.
…I didn't like seeing Flowers assigned to cover Bell on pass routes on occasion in this game. Bell, as you might expect, got the better of Flowers on those plays. Not sure what the thinking was by New England's coaches in making that decision.
…DT Lawrence Guy's sack of Roethlisberger was even more impressive when you consider that he was being held around the neck at the time and no flag was thrown for the violation.
…It was an up-and-down game for CB Stephon Gilmore, who led the team with eight solid tackles and a nice pass breakup early in the game, but who also gave up several important catches, including a magnificent one-handed TD reception by WR Martavis Bryant just before halftime. Gilmore had as tight a coverage as you could provide without being penalized, but Roethlisberger's throw over his head was precise and Bryant made a tremendous catch for the score.
…One of the biggest plays that didn't get much attention Sunday was New England's decision to go for 4th-and-1 from Pittsburgh's 16-yard line down 17-10 on the first drive of the second half. Historically, the Steelers have played zone defense against the Patriots and it hasn't worked out well for Pittsburgh on the scoreboard.
This past Sunday, they went with much more man coverage in an effort to stop New England, but on this play, at least, it killed them. The undersized and overmatched Burns was alone with Gronkowski on the left side of the formation. No safety help was nearby, which usually means the Patriots are throwing to Gronk. That's exactly what Brady did from the shotgun after Gronk slanted away from Burns toward the middle of the field where there was a huge vacancy. Huge completion to advance the eventual scoring drive.
…On the very next play, Burkhead suffered what looked like a right knee injury while being tackled carrying the football. Media reports Monday suggest that it's not as serious as it looked, even though Burkhead had to leave the game. He's said to be undergoing an MRI today to confirm that it was just a sprain and a bruise, and that he could be back on the field for the playoffs. The Patriots can't afford to be without him for too long, as he's become a valuable member of not only the offense, but also New England's special teams units.
…Two plays later, Brady found WR Brandin Cooks cutting across the back of the end zone, having beaten his man by a half-step. The Steelers brought a blitz that Brady tried to avoid by stepping up in the pocket and appearing to run for the end zone himself, but at the last moment, he flicked the ball to Cooks for the score. Zone, man, it doesn't matter how the Steelers defend New England's receivers, Brady can find them.
…Kicker Stephen Gostkowski's ensuing extra point sailed just slightly wide left from the left hash because it appeared long snapper Joe Cardona's delivery to holder Ryan Allen arrived a bit short and wide. This delayed Allen's placement of the ball and forced him to rush getting it in position before Gostkowski could strike it. The laces of the football weren't out in front, which is ideally where kickers want them, but to the side. A slight miscue like that can sometimes alter the flight of the football.
…It'd been 12 years since TB12 threw a pick against the Steelers, but that impressive streak was snapped in the 3rd quarter. Facing a routine 4-man pressure, Brady was trying to find an open Gronk cutting across the field to his right, but as he unloaded the ball, RG Shaq Mason couldn't stop his man, DT Javon Hargrave, from penetrating and diving at Brady's legs, which altered the QB's throw significantly. Brady couldn't step into the throw properly and unloaded the ball as he was falling to the turf. The poorly underthrown wobbler was easily picked off by an underneath linebacker, Vince Williams, who would otherwise have had no chance at the ball.
...LB Elandon Roberts allowed a big running play last Monday night in Miami when he missed a tackle on a run blitz, and that's exactly what happened on Bell's touchdown run in the late 3rd quarter. Roberts timed his blitz nicely, but overshot Bell in the backfield. What should have been a three-yard loss resulted in a three-yard TD run.
…Even though he was penalized for illegal touching after stepping out of bounds prior to making the grab, Cooks' 37-yard reception down inside the Pittsburgh 5 was a magnificent catch.
…RT Cameron Fleming had a solid game yet again in place of injured LaAdrian Waddle, but he was badly beaten by LB Bud Dupree on the second sack of Brady. That's how the four-man rush again resulted in a Brady takedown in a crucial spot (third down).
…Great play call by OC Josh McDaniels, who dialed up a run with RB Dion Lewis down at the Pittsburgh 8 when the Steelers were in a defense that looked like they were expecting a pass from New England. Lewis got some great blocks along the way from Gronk and TE Dwayne Allen to shoot into the end zone and give the Patriots the lead for what turned out to be good.
…Gronk then got wide open on the ensuing two-point conversion catch by using a deft head-fake on Davis, the safety. Gronkowski, one-on-one alone with Davis, feinted like he was going inside with his route at the snap, but then snapped to the outside shoulder of Davis, who was caught flat-footed.
…On Pittsburgh's next play from scrimmage, Smith-Schuster pulled away from Rowe on a shallow crossing route because Rowe got held up momentarily by Bryant, who was running a designed pick. It worked, and Smith-Schuster made the catch a couple of steps ahead of Rowe before turning upfield. Rowe gave chase, but safety Devin McCourty had the next best chance to stop him. However, McCourty for some reason held up instead of heading full-speed the receiver, perhaps because he thought Smith-Schuster was planning on heading out of bounds. He didn't, and continued up the sideline. Rowe continued to pursue, but his diving tackle attempt failed.
…Say what you will about the rule that requires NFL receivers to maintain control of the football when crossing the goal line, but as written, the proper ruling was made in overturning TE Jesse James' touchdown. Perhaps the league will revisit this wording in the offseason, but that won't be any consolation to the Steelers.
…New England DC Matt Patricia made a calculated gamble when he called for a blitz of Roethlisberger on the next play, and it nearly resulted in a sack, but the QB wiggled free of oncoming DE Eric Lee. He unloaded the all to WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, but CB Malcolm Butler, who was otherwise quiet all game, made a phenomenal tackle to keep the crossing Heyward-Bey in bounds as Butler brought him to the ground. That kept the clock ticking while Pittsburgh was out of timeouts. Crucial play by Butler.
…On the final play, the Roethlisberger fake spike, it looked like he was expecting his receiver to run a fade to the back right corner of the end zone, but Rogers instead ran an in. Roethlisberger held onto the ball, but was feeling pressure and delivered into a crowded middle of the end zone, where Rowe was covering Rogers perfectly to reach around and deflect the pass. Safety Duron Harmon, as he so often is, was in the right place at the right time to seal the win with an INT. Classic game that lived up to the hype.