Sunday's performance was pretty impressive against Pittsburgh and I was fortunate enough to be there, although it delayed this morning's column after we didn't arrive back here in New Hampshire until well after midnight, so I got off to a little bit of a later start this morning.
It was certainly worth it as it was the first ever regular season game at Gillette Stadium I've ever attended in the over 10-years I've been running this site. I've wanted to take my son for a while now and yesterday ended up being a perfect opportunity that gave me the chance to for us to go together, and it was a lot of fun being there live to witness what ended up being a breakout day for the Patriots' offense.
With that out of the way, let's get started.
It's hard to say that Sunday's win over the Steelers will completely cure a lot of the problems the Patriots have experienced over the first eight weeks of the season, but if nothing else it shows them the potential of what they can do when they're hitting on all cylinders and executing the way they were as they piled up 55 points against Pittsburgh.
One of the key points of yesterday's match-up was how big of an effect a healthy and acclimated Rob Gronkowski can have on the offense. Sitting up in the 300 section yesterday, the vantage point on the field showed how much spacing opened up for both Aaron Dobson and Danny Amendola as Pittsburgh's safeties cheated up to try and help out some of the mismatches New England created with Gronkowski against their linebackers, and as a result both receivers were able to do plenty of damage.
For Amendola, he finished with four receptions on four targets, and had 122 yards receiving. He also hauled in a 34-yard touchdown reception, which at the time got New England's scoring started and put them up 7-0 in the first quarter.
Meanwhile, Aaron Dobson finished with his highest receiving total as a pro, catching five passes for 130 yards and two touchdowns, including an 81-yard touchdown. That play was somewhat critical because it came just after the Steelers had cut the lead to 10 at 41-31 with 6:20 to go in the game after Ben Roethlisberger connected on a 6 yard touchdown to Jericho Cotchery.
But two plays later Brady hit Dobson and he was off to the races, and that one play clearly deflated Pittsbugh. At that point with the Patriots up 48-31, you could tell they knew the game was over.
One other big improvement on Sunday was New England's performance on third down, which saw them finish the afternoon 7-of-12 (58%) while Brady was 7-of-8 passing with six passing first downs. Players who were part of that total were Gronkowski (4 targets, 4 receptions, 57 receiving yards and 3 first downs), Dobson (3 targets, 2 receptions, 26 receiving yards, 2 first downs), and Amendola (1 target, 1 reception, 10 receiving yards, 1 first down). Stevan Ridley also carried once for a two yard gain that picked up a first down.
The key part of that total was the fact New England spent the entire game in manageable situations, facing 3rd-and-8 or more just twice. Otherwise they were in 3rd-and-6 or less on 8 of their 12 attempts with 6 conversions.
They also made more big plays on Sunday than they have all season, finishing with four passing plays of 30 yards or more, including two of over 50. Prior to Sunday's game the Patriots hadn't had a pass play of beyond 50 yards all season.
The ground game also finished with a season high 197 combined rushing yards and three touchdowns. Stevan Ridley carried the football 26 times for 115 yards and two touchdowns, while LeGarrette Blount finished with 5 carries for 47 yards and a touchdown. Brandon Bolden carried 3 times for 36 yards.
Overall the Patriots running backs rushed for eight carries of 10 or more yards this season, their highest total so far.
Needless to say it was quite a performance and it's hard not to feel a little excited about what the future holds after a performance like this one. However, if nothing else hopefully it helps some of these younger guys see what they're capable of in the weeks to come because it's clear this offense has the potential to be so much more than they had been prior to Sunday's showing.
INJURY UPDATES - NINKOVICH APPEARS TO BE OK:
Following yesterday's game, the Patriots seemingly saw injuries to three defensive players, with Steve Gregory (thumb), Rob Ninkovich (foot) and Alfonzo Dennard (leg) being the ones who got nicked up. Gregory appears to have taken the biggest brunt after trainers attended to his hand following a hit in the third quarter and was immediately escorted to the locker room and didn't return. He was spotted by media members after the game wearing a cast. Ninkovich left the field and went to the locker room but he ultimately returned, giving a "thumbs up" to his teammates after he came back out. However, he didn't play for the remainder of the game.
As for Dennard, he reportedly "tweaked" his leg in the fourth quarter but was reported by the Herald to be fine after the game.
On the offensive side of the ball the Patriots saw newly acquired Austin Collie suffer a knee injury in the first half and he didn't return after being ruled "out". Collie got the start yesterday and his presence ended up seeing Kenbrell Thompkins end up inactive for the first time all season as a healthy scratch.
Also banged up was running back Brandon Bolden, but according to several reports his injury isn't believed to be serious. Rob Gronkowski also took a shot yesterday and came off the field briefly late in the game after taking a hit that he later joked to reporters that was to his groin, but he appears to be fine.
SOPOAGA HAS A GOOD DEBUT:
Newly acquired Isaac Sopoaga seemed to have a good debut. From what we saw he did a good job inside tying up blockers which allowed guys around him to make plays. Of their 20 carries on Sunday the Steelers were held to either no gain or a loss five times (excluding kneeldowns), and only the Patriots defense only gave up two rushes of over 10 yards. He was only in on 26 snaps but it's going to be interesting to see if he can become a bigger presence in this defense in the weeks to come.
STRONG SHOWING BY STEELERS FANS SUNDAY:
There were a surprising amount of Steelers fans at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, with plenty of black and gold to be seen as you looked across the field. One interesting thing to note was there was also quite a few couples where one or the other was a Steelers fan, while the other was a Patriots fan. Even more surprising was the fact there were families where siblings wore opposing jerseys, as did their parents. Definitely a dynamic that you wouldn't expect, but for the most part everyone seemed to be in good spirits on both sides, although quite a few of those Steelers fans could be seen leaving early in the fourth quarter once it was clear this one was over.
SOME NUMBERS YOU MAY NOT HAVE KNOWN:
- Rob Gronkowski's 27 yard reception with 6:23 to go in the first quarter was his 200th career reception for the Patriots. At the time it was his third catch of the game, giving him three catches for 72 yards along with three first downs.
- Gronkowski's 2nd quarter 19-yard touchdown put him over 100 yards, giving him his 11th career 100-yard game, extending his Patriots record for a tight end.
- Brady's 21 yard completion in the 3rd quarter to Danny Amendola at the time helped him reach the 300 yard passing mark (he was at 313-yards), which was the 55th time he's accomplished that milestone and it's the 5th most all-time.
- Gronkowski's 3rd down reception for 8 yards early in the fourth quarter was his ninth catch of the game, which was a new career high for the veteran tight end. It moved the chains and extended the drive, and ultimately led to Stevan Ridley's five yard touchdown run.
- Stevan Ridley's 7 yard run following Gronkowski's reception (mentioned above) gave Ridley 104 yards on the afternoon, which was his fifth career 100-yard game. He wasn't done on that drive, following it up with a carry of six yards, and then another for his aforementioned 5-yard touchdown.
- Aaron Dobson's 81 yard touchdown reception was the longest receiving play of the year for New England, and their longest since Shane Vereen's 83 yard touchdown reception in Week 11 last season against the New York Jets. It also put Dobson over 100 yards receiving for the first time in his career.
- Dobson's 81 yard reception also put Brady over 400-yards passing, his 3rd career 400-yard game. It also - at the time - put him at 47,062 career yards passing, passing Fran Tarkenton for 7th in NFL history. It was also Brady's 37th career game with three or more touchdown passes without an interception, passing Brett Favre for 2nd most all time (Denver Broncos QB Peyton Manning currently holds the lead with 41).
- It was also Brady's 19th career game with four or more touchdown passes, which is 5th most all-time, and it was his 15th career game with four or more touchdown passes without an interception, which is the most all-time.
ON TO THIS MORNING'S LINKS:
Tom Brady: 'To get to 7-2 at this point, it's pretty cool' - Jeff Howe - Howe has comments from Brady, who was happy with yesterday's performance.
Steve Gregory and others join Patriots' growing list of injuries - Jeff Howe - Howe files his notebook this morning with a note on the Patriots' injuries, which included the fact that Steve Gregory may have been dealt the hardest blow during Sunday's victory.
Patriots' Aaron Dobson taking turn for better - Dan Ventura - Ventura has a good article on Aaron Dobson, who made a tremendous back shoulder touchdown pass late in yesterday's game.
Borges: Rob Gronkowski opens door for Patriots offensive explosion - Ron Borges - Borges has a good article on the fact he feels that Gronkowski can't be stopped, or ignored.
Run game carries offense - Mark Daniels - Daniels has a good read on the ground game for the Patriots, who piled up a season high 197 yards and three touchdowns on Sunday.
Drive chart: Patriots 55, Steelers 31 - The Globe has a game report with drive charts from Sunday's contest.
Rob Ninkovich hurt, but it doesn't appear serious - Michael Whitmer - Whitmer files his notebook this morning which leads off with notes on Ninkovich, and while he was one of three Patriots who left the game yesterday with a foot injury, it doesn't appear to be serious.
Humiliated Steelers are all done now - Ron Cook - Cook gives a view from the other side from a Steelers' standpoint, and he believes their season is over.
Tom Brady, Patriots pummel the Steelers - Shalise Manza Young - Manza Young has her game story from Sunday's game, with Belichick wondering if his team got inspiration from the Red Sox after they presented the World Series trophy to the crowd prior to the game.
Tom Brady, receivers finally find harmony - Michael Whitmer - Whitmer has an article on the terrific day the Patriots receivers had with Brady and the offense.
Gronkowski's value to Patriots indisputable - Mike Reiss - Reiss has a good article on yesterday's game, highlighting the importance of Rob Gronkowski to New England's offense.
Upon Further Review: Patriots Week 9 - Mike Reiss - Reiss has some additional thoughts following Sunday's win, with Bill Belichick rewarding his players with six straight days off.
Snaps: Sopoaga chips in with 26 - Mike Reiss - Reiss has a breakdown of yesterday's defensive snaps, which saw Sopoaga get eased into the line-up.
What pundits were saying about Patriots on Sunday - Christopher Price - Price has some comments from some of the television analysts on New England's performance yesterday.
Chandler Jones', Andre Carter's Impressive Pass-Rushing Performances Among Five Takeaways From Patriots-Steelers - Doug Kyed - Kyed has a good look at the Patriots pass rushing performance in addition to his other takeaways.
After Further Review: Steelers-Patriots - Erik Scalavino - Scalavino has his analysis on what happened yesterday.
Patriots get passing grade in Steelers rout - Jennifer Toland - Toland has her thoughts from Sunday's game, which saw the absence of Brady's abnormally low completion percentage in a much improved performance against Pittsburgh.
NBC SPORTS (PROFOOTBALLTALK.COM):
NFL morning after: Tom Brady is back - Michael David Smith - Smith has an article on Brady's performance on Sunday,which he declares Brady is "back" after his big day against Pittsburgh.
SOUTH COAST TODAY:
Patriots: 5 Things We Learned from Sunday's Game - Brendan Kurie - Kurie looks at five things we learned from Sunday's win, including the fact that the reports of Brady's demise were greatly exaggerated.