Many expected the Patriots (6-1) to roll over the Ben Roethlisberger-less Steelers (4-3) Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh, but it took a full 60-minute fight for New England to pull out the 27-16 victory.
Things got off to an ominous start when Chris Hogan fumbled on the opening play of the opening possession, even if the Patriots avoided the turnover score when Malcolm Butler picked off backup Pittsburgh passer Landry Jones in the end zone.
Still, the Steelers very much hung around in first half, going to the break trailing just 14-10 against a Patriots team that ran the ball 16 time in the opening 30 minutes compared to 18 passes, a surprisingly balanced attack against a Pittsburgh defense with the NFL's 30th ranked pass defense.
In the end it was the faith in LeGarrette Blount and the ground game that led the victory, the big back scoring twice in a 100-yard day. Tom Brady had a quiet 222 yards, under pretty consistent pressure, and a pair of touchdown throws.
Defensively, New England made the plays it needed to in the red zone (Pittsburgh scored one TD in four trips) and on third down – Pittsburgh converted just five of 16 chances -- to get the job done on the road. It also benefited from a pair of missed field goals.
The New England Patriots take on the Pittsburgh Steelers in a regular season game at Heinz Field on Sunday, October 23, 2016.
Things were far from perfect at times in all three phases. Turnovers were too many. The pass rush was too quiet. But as a whole it was enough to win on the road.
"This is a tough place to play," Bill Belichick said to open his postgame press conference. "I have a lot of respect for the Steelers. They're tough. They compete really hard. They have a lot of good players. Gotta give our players a lot of credit. They battled for four quarters. It certainly wasn't easy.
"We'll take it."
For his part, coming off a third straight week completing 70-plus percent of his passes for a another rating well above 100, Brady emphasized the "self-inflicted wounds" on the day, but he also made it clear that it's always "good to get a win" before noting the team can play better.
New England continues to win and continues to sit atop not only the AFC East but also the conference. There are plenty of positives to point to and plenty left to work on. Before moving on to next week's trip to Buffalo to take on Rex Ryan's upstart Bills, here's a look at some of the personnel highs and lows from the latest victory in Pittsburgh.
Malcolm Butler – New England's No. 1 cornerback had a key interception in the end zone on Pittsburgh's opening drive, which came after a Patriots fumble. He was more than competitive against Antonio Brown much of the afternoon, even if the No. 1 receiver had seven catches for 106 yards. Take away an early 51-yarder, and Butler was deceptively solid against maybe the best receiver in the game, chasing him all over the field most of the day. Butler hasn't exactly taken the leap to shutdown cornerback, but he's having a solid year against some solid competition.
LeGarrette Blount/James White – New England's backs were the core of the offense in Pittsburgh. Blount ran the ball early and often, finding plenty of room to work against his former team. The big back finished with 24 carries for a season-high 127 yards, his third 100-yard game of the season, and his best average of the year at 5.3 a carry for the game. While Blount was scoring on the ground, twice to give him a career-high eight for the season, White was putting up points through the air. The passing back hit a 19-yard screen for a touchdown to open the day's scoring, one of his two catches for 32 yards on the day.
Rob Gronkowski –* *With a history of having his way against the Steelers – including seven touchdowns in four games against Pittsburgh – Gronkowksi was at it again to continue the momentum he's built up since reaching full health. The All-Pro scored on a 36-yard touchdown and set up a short Blount touchdown with a 37-yard big play. He tied Stanley Morgan for the Patriots record with 68 touchdowns in his career. He finished with 93 yards on his four catches, on just four targets. Gronkowski is rolling and making big plays to key the offense. He also noted in his postgame press conference that he's very much looking forward to the 69th touchdown of his career.
Chris Hogan – The veteran newcomer had been maximizing his chances this season, turning limited targets into big plays over the early part of the year. Sunday in Pittsburgh he had two catches on two targets for 25 yards, but lost the first of the day for a turnover on New England's opening possession. Though the Steelers returned the favor with a subsequent pick in the end zone, the lost fumble set an early negative tone for a day-long fight at Heinz Field.
Brandon Bolden – Returning from a knee injury that cost him two games, the veteran had a couple key mistakes on both offense and special teams. He missed a sure third-down conversion when he dropped a perfect throw on third-and-7 in the second quarter. Later in the period, the core special teams player failed to down a Ryan Allen punt dropped inside the 10-yard line, allowing the touchback to start a drive to a field goal late in the first half. Bolden is also part of the coverage units that had an uncharacteristic bad day in Pittsburgh.
Stephen Gostkowski/Ryan Allen – New England's specialists, each of whom has won an AFC Special Teams Player of the Week, were far from special in Pittsburgh. Gostkowski missed a PAT for the second straight week after not missing one in 478 previous regular season chances. He had another that was too close for comfort. He acknowledged postgame that he's simply not good enough right now. That's inarguably true. Allen had his own issues with two short punts of, one of 25 yards that went out of bounds at the 47 and a 28 yarder that was downed at the 26, the former off the side of his foot and may have actually ended up in the stands. Allen had a 32.6 net on his five punts, and was not great on a day when Belichick himself noted the importance of situational punting. Gostkowski and Allen need to be better.
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