Being a rookie on one of the league's best teams is not an easy task. Just ask, 2010 second round pick Rob Gronkowski.
The 6-foot-6 tight end is hard to miss in on the field and has quickly become one of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's favorite targets. Unfortunately during last week's match up against the Cleveland Browns, Gronkowski recorded one of his worst performance so far. Catching only four of the eight passes thrown to him, Gronkowski missed some key opportunities to put the Patriots ahead.
This was not the case as they faced the Pittsburgh Steelers on the road. Rob Gronkowski was stellar, to say the least with five catches for 72 yards and three touchdowns.
"It's just opportunities," Gronkowski said, "When you get the opportunity, you have to step up."
An away game on the road and facing one of the toughest defenses in the league sets the stage to make this a key opportunity game for New England.
The Patriots took full advantage of this opportunity by obliterating the Steelers Sunday Night, 39-26. The win improves the Patriots record to 7-2, tied for the best record in the NFL.
Brady Goes Back to Basics
When Steelers starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger returned from a league suspension after the first 4 games of the season, Pittsburgh was on a winning streak and the defense was doing what they do best: dominating opposing offenses.
That domination, combined with the lackluster performance New England displayed in Cleveland a week earlier was cause for concern. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady knew exactly what had to be done after the surprising loss to the Browns. After that loss Brady spoke about the importance of working on a down-by down basis, finding the open man and making the most of opportunities. Although Brady was limited for practice on Thursday and Friday with an unspecified foot injury, he did not miss a step in reviving the Patriots offense.
Brady had an exceptional game Sunday Night in Pittsburgh, completing 30 of 43 passes for 350 yards, three touchdowns, no sacks and no interceptions. Brady earned a 117.4 quarterback rating for the game and his longest pass was a 45 yard bomb to wide receiver Brandon Tate.
As Steelers' quarterback Ben Roethlisberger confessed, "He looked pretty good to me. It just seemed like he was Tom Brady."
The Patriots have one of the most diverse and talented groups of offensive weapons in the league. Brady exhausted nearly all of his options against the Steelers defense by throwing to eight different receivers and handing off to three different running backs. Variety was the key to success against the Steelers' commanding defense, and variety is what the Steelers saw.
Balance on the Running Attack
Head coach Bill Belichick liked the way the Patriots executed offensively against the number one rated rush defense, "We ran the ball competitively," Belichick expressed, "Made them worry about it."
The Steelers defense rarely worried about any team's running game. In fact, they entered the game with a top ranked rush defense. Although Pittsburgh is noted for stopping nearly all the backs they've faced, the Patriots ball-carriers were able to collect 103 rushing yards against a Steelers defense that normally holds their opponents to 63.2 yard per game.
The Patriots running attack is not noted as being one of the best in the league, but they are productive in their own way. Leading the way was BenJarvus Green-Ellis who ended the game with 18 carries for 87 yards and collecting the most yards of any running back against the Steelers defense this season so far. Danny Woodhead also contributed with four carries for 11 yards. Woodhead did not contribute as notably as a running back but was impressive in blocking and when he was on special teams.
Sammy Morris also saw action for the first time this season with a single carry for two yards.
The dynamic of the running attack for the Patriots will be interesting to watch when a healthy Fred Taylor rejoins the group after recovering from his lingering toe injury.
A Surprisingly Dominating Patriots Defense
Bill Belichick discussed the importance of having a balanced attack on the offense and defense, "..We played better on third down so that gave us an opportunity to get off the field. That combined with our offense moving the ball and having a couple of long drives, it was a very complementary game."
Belichick also stated that although they were impressive, there were a few moments that New England could have done better. Ben Roethlisberger, despite being sacked five times, still managed 30 completed passes out of 49 attempts for 387 yards and three touchdowns and one interception. It was a few two minute drills towards the end of the game that exposed the Patriots' defensive weaknesses. Roethlisberger found wide receiver Mike Wallace 11 times for 136 yards and twice in end zone. Steelers' top receiver Hines Ward missed the final three quarters of the game after suffering a concussion.
Ward's absence considerably impacted the Steelers offense as Roethlisberger struggled to get in sync with his other targets. Roethlisberger expressed his troubles, "...It hurts when you don't have guys out there. You're used to practicing with certain guys and then all of sudden you move guys around."
The return of Patrick Chung could not have been more explosive. After missing two games due to a knee injury, Chung charged onto the field with 10 combined tackles, deflected one pass and even assisted on a special teams tackle. Chung's knee injury is a lingering one and although he had a stellar performance on Sunday, his longevity is still a concern.
Patriots safety James Sanders and defensive end Mike Wright also had outstanding showings during the game as the provided some much needed pass rushing. Sanders recorded the only interception of the night he ran back for a 32 yard touchdown. Mike Wright had three combined tackles and 1.5 sacks for 13.5 yards, which gives the undrafted free agent 5.5 sacks for the year.
Rookie Devin McCourty had one of his most poised games of the year. McCourty kept tight coverage of the Steelers' deep threats and also recorded nine combined tackles with two notable ones of special teams.
The Indianapolis Colts are always a force to be reckoned with and the Patriots are well-aware of this. Leading the offensive front for the Colts is one of the top rated quarterbacks of all time, Peyton Manning. As the Colts have lost their dominance this season, they are still a team with 6-3 record and are sitting at the top spot in the AFC South.
Because of the towering injuries facing the Colts' receivers, Manning has been forced to adapt to new targets in the last five weeks. Wideouts Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon are now Manning's solid targets. This does not mean that this Indianapolis team should be taken for granted come Sunday at Gillette Stadium. Manning still has the third best offense in terms of passing yards and points scored. The Colts are also ranked 27th in rushing yards so this is where the Patriots defense could really utilize the momentum from stopping the Steelers rush attack.
The Colts' rush defense is ranked 29th and after the Patriots conquered in Pittsburgh, look to the continued utilization of the BenJarvus Green-Ellis/Danny Woodhead package. Also, the Patriots' growing pass rush presence will play a major role in the productivity of Peyton Manning.
Overall, the key match ups will be between the Patriots defense and the Manning-led offense. Tom Brady will continue to exhaust all of his offensive options to outplay the struggling Colts' defense. After their success in Pittsburgh, the Patriots should look to have a convincing win at home against the Indianapolis Colts.
The Patriots will face the Indianapolis Colts at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts on Sunday, November 21, 2010. Kickoff is set for 4:15 p.m.
Kisha Tapangan is a contributing writer for PatriotsInsider.com She also maintains her personal blog Necessary Roughness and can be found on Twitter @KishaT. Be sure to check back for regular updates by Kisha