Bill Belichick is often asked what statistics are most directly tied to winning and losing in the NFL.
The Hall of Fame coach always emphasizes points as the be-all, end-all, but generally follows that up listing statistics that are most tied in to points. That certainly includes turnovers and success in the red zone on both sides of the ball.
Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh the Patriots came away with a victory in a hard-fought game and Belichick articulated quite concisely in his Monday morning, day-after-game conference call with the New England media that situational football was as important to this latest win as to any.
Belichick's emphasis on the success of his team's red zone defense at Heinz Field was one of number of highlights from the morning conference call that also included a breakdown of the Patriots offensive line play, the pass rush and what might be going into All-Pro kicker Stephen Gostkowski's recent struggles.
The New England Patriots take on the Pittsburgh Steelers in a regular season game at Heinz Field on Sunday, October 23, 2016.
1. "In the end red area was the huge difference":While many media and fans expected the Patriots to roll right over the Ben Roethlisberger-less Steelers, that's far from the game that unfolded Sunday afternoon. New England's sloppiness at times in all three phases had the home team very much in position for a possible upset led by backup quarterback Landry Jones. But, New England success and Pittsburgh failure in the red zone ensured that such an upset never came to fruition. While the Patriots did a perfect job of turning three trips into the red zone into three touchdowns, Pittsburgh came away with seven points just once in its four trips inside the 20. In fact the Patriots turned one of those trips into a turnover on Malcolm Butler's interception, while Pittsburgh missed a field goal.
Certainly there were other factors, but that red zone comparison was in many ways the story of the final 27-16 Patriots escape from Pittsburgh.
"Most all those plays really revolved around team defense," Belichick said of his team's situational success. "Malcolm made a good play on the interception, he kind of used his body to box out [Antonio] Brown and make the play. But it's team defense. You have to stop the run. You have to make the quarterback uncomfortable. You have to get on the receivers, whether it's man or zone. We had our moments. But certainly in the end the red area was a huge difference in the game. In a close game those points amounted to a lot. Again, team defense."
2. Various kicks "part of the position" for kickers:If the red area was one of the clear highs in Pittsburgh, the continued struggles of Gostkowski was one of the obvious lows. The All-Pro kicker missed a PAT for the second straight week, saying after the game, "Right now, I stink."
Gostkowski has now missed three field goals and two PATs this season after missing three field goals all last season and no PATs until a hiccup in the playoffs in Denver.
A theory has been posed this fall that maybe Gostkowski's focus on kickoffs, particularly popping up kickoffs just shy of the goal line under new touchback rules for 2016, might be affecting his stroke on field goals and PATs. While Belichick didn't go so far as to agree with the theory, he did make it clear that there are a variety of techniques a kicker must perform in his job.
"I think they are definitely different, I don't think there is any question about that," Belichick said of kickoffs and place kicks. "It would be like a golfer…you have to be able to hit a sand wedge, you have to be able to hit a 5-iron, you have to be able to drive, you have to be able to putt. That's what kickers and punters do. There are plus-50 punts. There are field goals. There are kickoffs. There are backed up punts. There's punts against a heavy rush. There are punts against a six-man box where the gunners are getting double teamed. Just like golf there are wind conditions and not win conditions and so forth. It's not like standing out there in a driving range and just banging the ball away every time. Especially on place kicks, you are dealing with a center and a holder and timing on the play, so it's not like you are just placing the ball down there on a tee and kicking it like you are a golf ball or a kickoff. So, yeah, they are definitely different and whether it's a punter or a kicker you are talking about they have to master different skills, different kicks, different types of kicks, different things that are specific to their position, just like every other player and every other athlete for the most part has to do. If you are a basketball player you can't just shoot free throws. You have to be able to make some other shots too. That's part of the position is being able to do the things that are required of that position. And they are not all the same. But I don't think they are all the same for anybody."
3. "Lot of good things" in offensive line's performance: Going against an undermanned and banged up Pittsburgh defensive front, New England ran the ball 29 times for 140 yards and a 4.8-yard average against the Steelers, with LeGarrette Blount doing nearly all the damage. The big back seemed to have room to work more often than not. That was a product of impressive run blocking by the New England offensive line. Pass protection, though, didn't seem as consistent. Tom Brady was not sacked and was hit just three times, but the veteran quarterback was under rather consistent if not dominant pressure much of the evening.
As such, Belichick was asked about the work of his offensive line in both the running and passing games in Pittsburgh.
"I think the Steelers are a good defensive team. They give you some different looks. I thought we had our moments," Belichick assessed after having broken down the film. "There were times when we passed blocked well. There were times when we ran the ball well and had good blocking. We also had good running from LeGarrette. We had some run-after-catch plays like the screen pass by James [White] was a good run, but also there were two very good blocks on that play from [Joe] Thuney and [David] Andrews. We had a couple breakdowns in protection where we got called for a penalty or didn't have time to hold the ball. But there were also times where we were able to extend the play. We made our share of plays. They made a few against us. So I think there are a lot of good things there, but not perfect. Still things we can improve on and work on, like there are every week."