Josh McDaniels hurries excitedly over to Bellicheck, eager to ask his boss if the timing was right to dial up the throw-back bomb on Anthony Smith.
McDaniels: Can we coach? Can we, can we, can we?
Bellicheck: Settle down son, Smith's not in the game. Next time he's in, let's bury him.
So is the story of the 2007 Patriots. Challenge them, doubt them, hate them, whatever it is - rub them the wrong way and you're in for an embarassing and long day. Mr. Smith will learn, and although he had a very big hand in yesterday's loss - with his play that is, not his mouth - there were other culprits, as well as several positive aspects to the game. Let's get to it:
- First a word on the Patriots' offensive gameplan, as I saw it. Ineffective first series leads to a Steelers FG. On NE's second drive, Lawrence Maroney saw more action than he would on any other drive in the game. If you'll rememeber that 10 yard run of his when his offensive line blew us off the ball, pushing the pile for what seemed like the most humiliating 10 yard run in the history of the NFL. Better cheat up safetys, nobody runs on the Steelers right?
- Right. Except not many teams have the chutzpah and the talent to make you pay for bringing more than 7 in the box. It was painful watching An. Smith overzealously biting on Brady's convincing play-fake when he had to have been told all week long by LeBeau to not cheat up on the run. All it took was a few successful running plays for him to lose focus, and I'd bet that succession of plays on drives 2 and 3 were drawn up earlier in the week with Mr. Smith in mind. Then, with Smith and Carter falling back, the Patriots dissected us with the short stuff, only to go back to a deep gadget play after we start creeping up again. Take notice Arians. That's how you punch, counter-punch, then counter-counter-punch. I like our offense, but I'm not sure we have a clear understanding of how we want to approach different phases of the game.
- Not sure why Willie Colon was given the nod over Max Starks. The offensive line played pretty darn well guys. Two of the three sacks were a product of Colon's inability to move his feet. All in all though, our line gave our offense a chance to win. There was room to run, and Big Ben had ample time to make plays from the pocket. It wasn't perfect...Big Ben had to elude the first pass rusher several times, but in general I was pleased with the play of the line, especially in the running game.
- Speaking of the running game, I thought we left them off the hook a bit by not running it more. Much better job by Bruce Arians calling running plays that had a modicum of creativity. Anybody else like seeing those 'stretch' runs off-tackle that the Colts run so effectively? (Feel free to inform me of the proper nomenclature please) I liked our balance yesterday, though Roethlisberger did seem to get rattled a bit in the second half. For the most part though, and especially during the 2nd quarter, I thought our offense played crisper and better than it had in quite some time.
- One problem though. We didn't finish off drives. You fail to put the ball in the endzone against the Patriots, you might as well not show up. Twice we had to settle for first half FGs. The opening drive in particular was disappointing in hindisght. We had forced a 3-and-out, then marched down the field all the way to their 6 yard line before failing to capitalize. At that point I'd imagine all of us were so pleased by the start that we didn't see it as an auspicious omen. 4 of our 5 drives into NE territory netted a combined 6 points. That's not going to get it done.
- Kudos to Tomlin for going for it twice on 4th down on our final drive of the st half. As one of you astutely noted in the diaries this week, smart of Tomlin to try to gain momentum before half and to leave Brady on the sidelines as long as possible. And it worked, both times.
However, I think we missed out on a golden opportunity to really take control of the game by kicking a FG on our third 4th down of the drive. 4th and 2 from the NE 26. 2:30 left in the half. Our offense is moving at will on New England, and if you remember, our 3rd down incompletion was a misfortunate error on Hines Ward when he failed to keep moving and Ben threw it in front of him for an incompletion despite the lack of Patriots defenders in the way. If we do go for it and score a TD, there's probably not enough time for NE to proceed down the field. Who knows what happens if it's 17-14 Pittsburgh instead of 17-13 New England. Perhaps nothing, but I would have liked to see Tomlin contextualize that scenario differently. If we were truly playing to win, no holds barred, we go for it there. There was no stopping us that drive, and I for one, was disappointed we stood in our own way from finshing off what was a very solid and exciting first half of football.
- Jeff Reed's back to his old ways of failing to kick the ball into the endzone. When New England returned that short kick to midfield following our FG, I distinctly remember thinking, 'uh-oh'. Return coverage wasn't a problem the rest of the afternoon, but again, when you're playing the Patriots on the road, you can't gift-wrap any cheap opportunities. We did it three times in the first half: on the kick coverage, on the deep bomb to Moss, and on the punt that went off William Gay's leg. That was unlucky and the defense did a remarkable job holding them to 0 there. Just goes to show you how well we played in the first half outside of those errors.
- Paging Lawrence Timmons? Timmons? Where were you yesterday? Anybody else know why he wasn't out there more, especially in the 2nd half when they were clearly picking us apart with their short passing game?
- Not LeBeau's finest hour as a coach. The credit belongs to New England for executing, but it was a bit pathetic watching us blitz time and time again in the second half with nothing to show for it. Sure we got a few hits in on Brady, but we left ourself exposed repeatedly by sending so many guys so often. I would have liked to see us do more of what we did against Seattle - sacrifice some pressure for extra coverage - once it was evident that their line was having no problem with our blitz packages. 0 sacks on the afternoon on 46 Tom Brady pass attempts. Ouch.
- This Patriots team can still be had. Their defense, against the run in particular, remains vulnerable. Our offensive line, which hadn't been able to move a thing in the past month, opened holes for Parker all day. You're going to need to score TDs though and get at least one break (we got none) to beat this Patriots squad. They're that good. Not untouchable though.
What else guys? No time to sulk at Steelers' headquarers. Our biggest game of the season might be next week. As much as we all wanted to win this one - and if you go through the comments in the open thread, you'll see I was pretty amped up and out of control hoping we'd win - the truth is that this was a tall order. I saw enough to convince me that we could beat this team if everything fell the right way, but at this point, we've got to get back to work and find a way to both move the ball against a stout Jaguars defense and correct the defensive issues that killed us yesterday. With the Browns winning yesterday (New York totally let them off the hook), our lead in the North has shrunk to one. It's really a 2 game lead because of our victories over them, but two of our final three are on the road, with the lone home game against a complete Jacksonville team.
To Week 15 we go, with neither our pride, nor a playoff berth in our back pocket.