Nov 3, 2013; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the second half at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots defeated the Steelers 55-31. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
The New England Patriots have just past the halfway point of their 2013 season, and they are rewarded with a much needed bye week. The Pats destroyed the Pittsburgh Steelers this past weekend, which gives them a solid 7-2 record as they gear up for the home-stretch. There were a few things that stood out to me in this Patriots win, many of which signaled that this team is prepared for another deep playoff run.
1. When This Offense Clicks, Things Can Get Scary
I may be overreacting a bit to this bashing of the Steelers, but I was incredibly impressed with what the New England offense could do, when things were going well. Receivers found themselves wide open (Troy Polamalu helped in this department), the running game was punishing, and most importantly, Tom Brady looked like Tom Brady. He knew where his receivers were going to be, and he delivered with his trademark pin-point accuracy. It also was apparent that having Rob Gronkowski back in the fold really helped this unit, with his career high nine catch performance. The NFL was reminded on Sunday of how dominant Gronk can be, and when he gets going, there isn’t much that can stop him.
The bottom line in all of this is, if the Pats offense can replicate what they were able to do against the Steelers, they will be a tough out come January. Obviously I am not saying that they will have to put up 55 points throughout the playoffs, but if they can do the simple things, get open versus man coverage, run the football, and protect Brady, New England could find themselves playing through the month of February.
2. Aaron Dobson Will Be A Key Contributor Throughout The Remainder Of This Season
Many football analysts had noticed the rise of rookie Aaron Dobson in the past couple of weeks, but I don’t think that anybody envisioned him putting up 130 yards and two touchdowns against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Dobson’s improving connection with his quarterback allowed him to produce like this, and it is because of this solid rapport with Brady, that I think he will continue to be a key player in this offense throughout the regular season, and the playoffs.
Up until last week’s win over the Dolphins, it appeared that Kenbrell Thompkins was the rookie receiver that would take the majority of the snaps alongside Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman. Thompkins’ precise route running, and instinctive ability to get open, were what set him apart from Dobson, and it looked like that would land him a starting role on this offense. However as I implied, Dobson finally began to show off his impressive athletic talent as the weeks rolled by, and before Thompkins knew it, he had lost his starting job. Thompkins was a healthy scratch on Sunday, forcing him to watch his teammate have a breakout game, and possibly take over Thompkins’ job for good. Personally, I think that as long as Dobson doesn’t morph back into “Dropson”, this move will benefit the Pats in a big way. While Thompkins was certainly a capable outside receiver (23 catches, four touchdowns), Dobson brings an explosive element to the Patriots offense, which Thompkins simply doesn’t have.
3. Talib, Sopoaga Will Help Right Defensive Ship
It is a well known fact among Patriots fans that injuries have played a big role in the performance of the defensive unit thus far in 2013. They have lost three key starters for the season (Wilfork, Mayo, Kelly) and they have been without Aqib Talib, their top cornerback, since their six victory over the Saints. Because of these injuries, the defense has been struggling as of late, possibly putting forth their worst effort of the season versus Pittsburgh. Ben Roethlisberger threw for 400 yards and four touchdowns, as he led the Steelers to 479 total yards, and 31 points. This kind of outing is not going to be proficient come playoff time, but I believe that Talib’s return to the back end, and Sopoaga’s presence in the middle, will get this group back on track.
Up until Talib’s injury against the Saints, he had been playing perhaps the best football of any corner in the league (I’m looking at you Richard Sherman). In three consecutive weeks he was faced with three of the best receiving weapons this league has to offer, in A.J. Green, Julio Jones, and Jimmy Graham. Talib held Graham to zero catches, while allowing only one caught ball versus the Falcons. He also limited Green to five catches for 61 yards, which is a solid outing, although not quite as productive as the other two. Never the less, Talib has proven that he is one of the best cover guys in the NFL, and getting him back will definitely help the Pats defense. As for Sopoaga, he has already made an impact, getting onto the field for 26 snaps in his Patriot debut, and his effectiveness as a blockade in the middle, is already evident. New England stuffed Pittsburgh multiple times in short yardage situations, including a key fourth and one stop, which Sopoaga impacted simply by using his size to control his blocker. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come, as the Pats 30th ranked run defense needs some re-enforcements.