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The first half of this season has been an amazing coaching job by Bill Belichick and his staff. The offseason was highlighted by Aaron Hernandez going to jail on a murder charge, as well as the fact that the Patriots let Wes Welker go to the conference rival Denver Broncos. This season itself has been highlighted by rookie wide receivers adapting to the NFL and the New England offense, as well as a slew of injuries to major players. Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Sebastian Vollmer, and Tommy Kelly are all on injured reserve and done for the year, and in their place are young and unproven players. With all of that, the Patriots are still 7-2 and in first place in the AFC East heading into their bye week.
- It’s been far too long since a nice “they’re running up the score” game. Tom Brady finally looked sharp and on the same page as his receivers. His biggest issue this year has been missing his targets with inaccurate passes. Yesterday looked like the old Tom Brady. He finished the day 23-of-33 for 432 yards and four touchdowns, the first of which came on a pass up the seam to Danny Amendola. Brady sold the play perfectly with a look and a pump fake to the right to get Troy Polamalu to bite, which left Amendola wide open. Brady did not miss, and it set the stage for the rest of the game.
- After the spike that was called back last week, Rob Gronkowski finally found the end zone for the first time this season. This may have been Brady’s best pass of the day. Gronk was just about double covered with the safety Polamalu coming in late. Brady saw he had the height advantage and threw to Gronkowski’s back shoulder where only he could get it. The tight end made a great catch and tumbled into the end zone.
- I noted last week that it seems like Kenbrell Thompkins is the odd man out with the wide receivers when everyone is healthy. His snaps and looks declined over the past few weeks. He only had 2 catches for 16 yards against the Jets, and he had no catches last week against Miami. This week he was inactive. They opted for a little more bulk by keeping three tight ends and a fullback active. Of course this could have been a game plan move, but it’s never a good sign when you steadily decline over the course of three weeks. He’ll need to have a very impressive bye week in order to renew that confidence, but as long as Amendola, Dobson, Edelman, and Collie are healthy, there isn’t much room for the undrafted rookie.
- While Thompkins slides, Aaron Dobson has been on the rise. He now has three touchdowns in the last two weeks, and he continues to show progression. His first touchdown was on the same route they ran the past two weeks. It started as a go route before Dobson stopped to come back to the ball on his back shoulder. It didn’t work against the Jets in overtime as he overran the route, but the past two weeks it has worked perfectly, this week for a touchdown. While he still drops one here and there, he has shown drastic improvement over the course of the season. His second touchdown was another pass that Brady had been overthrowing this season, but he hit it perfectly yesterday. Dobson just flat outran the cornerback and safety, and Brady put the ball right where it had to be. Dobson caught it in stride and then turned it up a notch to outrun the defense into the end zone. Dobson has the size and the skill set to be a serious downfield threat, and the past few weeks are showing that he’s putting it together.
- Stevan Ridley had another outstanding game. He ran the ball 26 times for 115 yards and 2 touchdowns. He did have a fumble, only his second fumble lost this season. Brady attempted to avoid a pass rush and found Ridley at the last minute for a checkdown, but Polamalu reached in and ripped it out. It didn’t seem as though he had possession long enough to warrant a fumble, but it was reviewed and upheld.
- The start of the second half brought back memories of the Jets game a few weeks ago. They came out with a 14-point lead, gave the ball up on a turnover, then went three-and-out on the next drive. Just like that the Steelers were back in it and it was 24-24. However, unlike the Jets game, the Patriots turned it on again and left the Steelers wondering what happened.
- Defensively the game started off great. They were getting pressure on the Ben Roethlisberger and Rob Ninkovich recorded a strip sack on the first drive. Devin McCourty had a great interception on a route he read perfectly. Alfonzo Dennard had great coverage underneath on Antonio Brown which forced Roethlisberger to throw it high. McCourty jumped the route and grabbed the ball. McCourty is having a very strong year playing safety, and continues to show he may be one of the best safeties in the league.
- Injuries continue to be a thorn in the Patriots side as Ninkovich left the game with a foot injury, and Steve Gregory left with a thumb injury. Not bringing them back in could have very well been a precaution knowing the bye is next week. I believe Gregory is replaceable with Duron Harmon. Gregory has blown more than a few assignments in coverage, and while Harmon may be a rookie, he has shown intelligence when he is on the field. Harmon nabbed his second interception of the season late in the game yesterday. Ninkovich would be a huge loss, though. He has been all over the place and a key player in the absence of Wilfork and Kelly on the defensive line. Here’s hoping his injury is nothing serious.
- Speaking of stepping up on the defensive line, Chandler Jones once again had two sacks yesterday to bring his total to 8.5 on the season. Everyone was calling for Jones to step up and have a big role as the pass rusher this season and he has lived up to the challenge. Considering the defensive line has lost its best player, what Jones is doing in only his second season is impressive. Opposing offenses know Jones can get to the backfield, yet they can’t stop him as he continues to get through offensive lines. There is still another half of the season to play, but there is no reason to believe Jones can’t continue this level of play.
- Newcomer Isaac Sopoaga made his presence felt with a swat at the line of a Roethlisberger pass. He was eased into the team as it was still mostly a tandem of Chris Jones and Joe Vellano, but Sopoaga is a nice addition for the second half of the season. He gives them a veteran presence behind the two rookies. While the idea of replacing Wilfork seemed impossible, Belichick has done a strong job of piecing together a multiple person replacement, as he said he would have to do.
- There are two big issues with this defense. As I talked about last week, the inability to get off the field on third down is troubling. Yesterday they had the Steelers at 3rd-and-30 and they gave up 29 and 3/4 yards for a 4th-and-inches that the Steelers converted. There is no excuse to almost give up a first down on 3rd-and-30, especially when the offense runs a screen to get the yards. This has been going on all season and it is something worth keeping an eye on. The run defense has been struggling in the absence of Wilfork. They just don’t have the bulk up the middle with Jones and Vellano. The hope is that Sopoaga can be that run stopper while Jones and Vellano act as pass rushers. Sopoaga is still adjusting to the team so it wasn’t surprising he wasn’t out there all that much. With the bye week coming up there will be plenty of time to get Sopoaga ready, and I think we see much more of him in Week 11.
- Injuries have piled up, Brady’s been off his game, but the Patriots are 7-2 heading into the bye. Shane Vereen is scheduled to be back in Week 11, Gronk has looked strong since his return, and Brady finally had a game where he looked like vintage Tom Brady. I like their chances.
Tags: Aaron Dobson, alfonzo dennard, Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger, Bill Belichick, Chandler Jones, Danny Amendola, Devin McCourty, Isaac Sopoaga, Kenbrell Thompkins, Patriots, Rob Gronkowski, Rob Ninkovich, Steelers, Stevan Ridley, Tom Brady, Vince Wilfork