The New England Patriots improved to 6-1 on the year after a hard fought 27-16 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, thanks in large part to the effort of LeGarrette Blount.
It sure wasn’t pretty, but LeGarrette Blount and the Patriots found a way to get the job done.
After New England sprinted out to a 14-0 lead, the Steelers clawed their way back into the game by consistently converting third and long situations (a theme for the afternoon) on drives anchored by the playmaking ability of Le’Veon Bell and (mostly) good decision-making by quarterback Landry Jones, who played admirably in a losing effort.
The close nature of the game was likely a jolt to many in Patriots Nation who thought that Brady and crew would steamroll the Steelers at home.
But they should have known better.
His tendency for backhanded compliments aside, Mike Tomlin is an excellent football coach. Universally respected by his ownership and players, Tomlin’s greatest asset is arguably his ability to get maximum effort from his players in less-than-favorable situations.
Flash back to Week 13 of the 2012 season. With Ben Roethlisberger out of action — and coming off a pitiful effort against the Cleveland Browns — no one gave the Steelers and 37-year-old Charlie Batch much of a chance to leave Baltimore with a win. In what would likely be his last ever NFL start, however, Batch put in one of the all-time gutsy performances in Steelers history and pulled out a victory for a Pittsburgh team that had absolutely no business winning that day.
To expect a Tomlin-coached group to simply roll over without Big Ben would have been a gross underestimation of both coach and team. No. The Steelers were going to give the Patriots all they could handle on Sunday. For those who understand football, there was simply no other scenario that could have taken place.
That’s why Sunday’s win was especially important for the Patriots. It’s tempting to look at the box score and write this one off as a fortunate scenario in which New England got to face a strong team without its seasoned field general. The statistics don’t tell the true story, however. This was a gutty victory against a team that left absolutely everything on the table.
Tomlin had his team ready to play. Pittsburgh’s downfall wasn’t for lack of effort or bad scheme — both were at a high level — but rather its poor execution in the red zone. Matt Patricia’s bend-but-don’t-break defense once again answered the bell with their backs against the wall, but one wonders how long this team can keep giving up 3rd-and-10 conversions to backup quarterbacks without paying the price.
New England’s quick-strike passing offense sputtered most of the afternoon. Pittsburgh defenders made solid tackle after solid tackle, yielding next-to-nothing after the catch. Brady would have to look downfield to Rob Gronkowski to make things happen with his arm. Even then, Brady finished with a downright average effort by his standards (19/26, 222 yards, 2 TDs) after posting back-to-back strong performances against the Browns and Bengals.
With the game in danger of spiraling out of control, the Patriots turned to the legs of LeGarrette Blount to carry them home, and he didn’t disappoint.
Blount’s ability to carry the load in pressure situations is perhaps the most salient point to take away from Sunday’s game. So much is made of the weapons that Brady has at his disposal in the passing game, and rightly so. That said, the Steelers put in the best effort of any team so far this season by holding the passing offense mostly in check, making Blount’s performance all the more vital.
What unfolded yesterday in Pittsburgh was more akin to a January playoff game than an October regular season tilt. The ability to control the clock and give the offensive line a green light to assert its will is the saving grace that turned around an otherwise lackluster performance. While Patriots fans may love the notion of Brady throwing 50 times a game and shredding secondaries, it’s going to be Blount’s ability to run the ball when it matters that will, more likely than not, take this team deep into the playoffs.