It wasn't always pretty and at times the Patriots were on their heels but ultimately New England escaped Pittsburgh with a hard-fought 27-16 victory. At 6-1 the Patriots remain atop the AFC East and in control of the conference as the No. 1 overall seed.
Here are some random thoughts from the victory.
Putting it Blountly – The running game has been rather dormant in recent weeks but not so in Pittsburgh on Sunday. LeGarrette Blount turned in his best performance of the season and it came during a game in which the passing game wasn't clicking on all cylinders. Blount finished with 24 carries for 127 yards and two touchdowns, and that production was not the result of one or two big runs. Instead Blount consistently churned out efficient runs, picking up 4 yards or more on 15 of his attempts. His long carry resulted in a 25-yard pick up on a third quarter touchdown drive. When the offense seemed to be stagnating during the second and third quarters, it was Blount who jumpstarted things with back-to-back runs that resulted in first downs and soon the Patriots were back on the scoreboard.
Spike in production – Rob Gronkowski has been on fire in recent weeks, following up back-to-back 100-yard games with a four catch, 93-yard effort in Pittsburgh. Gronkowski had catches of 37 and 36 yards, the latter resulting in his 68th career touchdown, with tied him with Stanley Morgan for the most touchdowns in Patriots history. The affable tight end was asked about matching Morgan and took the opportunity to joke about it in a manner in which only he can. "One more and I have 69 touchdowns if you know what I mean," a smiling Gronkowski added after the game.
Third concerns – The third corner spot has been an ongoing concern for the Patriots throughout the season and that remains the case after Sunday. After Justin Coleman and Cyrus Jones each got a chance, Eric Rowe stepped into the role last week against Cincinnati and held his own against A.J. Green. He actually got the start in place of Logan Ryan but wasn't quite as fortunate against the Steelers, particularly in the first half. Darrius Heyward-Bey had his way with Rowe, catching a touchdown in the second and breaking free for another that was called back for a holding penalty. Heyward-Bey also ran past Rowe deep down the sideline but Landry Jones' pass was underthrown and the receiver wound up getting called for pass interference while trying to come back for the ball. Rowe seemed to have trouble running with the receiver and was often caught chasing. Coleman was covering Heyward-Bey for a while in the second half, perhaps an indication that the coaches felt Rowe couldn't handle the matchup.
Third improvements – The Patriots also came into the game ranked 27th in the league in third down defense but saw their numbers rise after allowing Pittsburgh to convert just two of its six third downs in the first half. Red zone defense was also a problem heading in but New England improved in that area as well. The Steelers had four trips inside the Patriots 20 in the first half and came away with just one touchdown. The three other trips ended with an interception in the end zone, and missed Chris Boswell field goal and finally a Boswell field goal to close the half. Pittsburgh was forced to boot another field goal from the red zone in the second half and the Steelers didn't improve much on third down either, ultimately finished 5 of 16 on third down, giving the Patriots defense something to build on.
Early miscues – With Ben Roethlisberger missing the game with a knee injury the Patriots entered the game as heavy favorites despite playing on the road at Heinz Field. But some early sloppy plays by the visitors allowed Pittsburgh to stay close heading to the break. Chris Hogan caught a short pass on the first drive and was drilled by Jarvis Jones immediately. He fumbled and gave the Steelers possession at the 45. Later when the Patriots led 14-0, Brandon Bolden dropped an easy third-down conversion and allowed the Steelers to start a comeback. Later in the half another drop on third down, this one by Julian Edelman, stopped another drive. That miscue was exacerbated when Bolden failed to down a punt inside the Steelers 10 and knocked the ball into the end zone. That allowed Pittsburgh to start a late drive that ended in a field goal. Had the ball been properly downed at the 6 the Steelers likely would have played it more conservatively.
The New England Patriots take on the Pittsburgh Steelers in a regular season game at Heinz Field on Sunday, October 23, 2016.
Kick in the pants – One of the Patriots true growing concerns is the kicking of Stephen Gostkowski. For the second straight week he missed a PAT, and had another that snuck just inside the right upright. He's now missed five kicks on the year – three field goals and two PATs – and he is really starting to show some frustration. On the kickoff following the missed PAT, he shot down the field in coverage and appeared like he was looking to deliver a big hit. "Right now I just stink. I have to find a way to get better," Gostkowski said after the game.
Under cover – Kickoff coverage has been a real strength for the Patriots this season but that was not the case in Pittsburgh. Gostkowski sent three kickoffs shy of the end zone and all three were returned beyond the 25-yard line, which is the spot of the new touchback rule. Fitz Toussaint handled the first two kicks, the first at the 8 that he took back to the 28 and the second at the 2 that he brought out to the 29. Justin Gilbert returned the third kick from the goal line and brought it back to the 32, nearly breaking it for a bigger gain. The coverage has generally smothers those short, high kicks and effectively hemmed in the opposition but the Steelers blocking was solid and the coverage failed to make any big plays.
Butler did it – Malcolm Butler was asked to watch Antonio Brown for large stretches of the game and the corner engaged in a tough battle with one of the best in the business. Brown finished with seven catches (on 11 targets) for 106 yards, including a 51-yarder that kick-started the Steelers comeback attempt from a 14-0 deficit. Butler came up with an early pick in the end zone on a play in which Landry Jones underthrew the receiver to keep some points off the board. Butler struggled at times but Brown was forced to leave the game for a short time with a quad injury and from that point on he seemed to control things much better. It was a bit of a flashback to last season when Butler was routinely matched up with top receivers and it was good to see his feistiness on display.
Fumble problems – Chris Hogan gave the Steelers a lift early when he fumbled following a 12-yard reception on the Patriots first offensive play of the evening. Hogan caught a shot pass and was tackled from behind by Jarvis Jones, who recovered the fumble at the Patriots 42. Hogan was not in the lineup for the rest of the first half, replaced by rookie Malcolm Mitchell. Hogan returned in the second half but finished with just a pair of receptions for 25 yards. Later in the game Julian Edelman lost the ball on a punt return in which the ball was barely touched, giving the Steelers possession in Patriots territory once again. But as was the case on the first turnover, Pittsburgh failed to put points on the board after missing a field goal. This time Bill Belichick replaced Edelman with Danny Amendola for the final punt return of the game.
Extra points – James White picked up his third touchdown in the last three games when he found the end zone on a 19-yard screen to open the scoring. Joe Thuney had a terrific cut block to help spring White on the play. … Tom Brady improved to 9-2 all-time against Pittsburgh and now has 26 touchdowns against just three interceptions. … For the seventh straight game the Patriots did not throw an interception, which is the longest streak without a pick to open the season in team history. … The two rushing touchdowns for Blount gave him eight on the season, which is a career high. … Patrick Chung had a strong overall game and led the team with 10 tackles.