PHOTO: New England Patriots running back Corey Dillon breaks away from Pittsburgh Steelers safety Chris Hope, left, and safety Troy Polamalu for a 25-yard touchdown during the third quarter of the AFC Championship game in Pittsburgh Sunday, Jan. 23, 2005. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)
Scout Report: Patriots-Steelers Report Card
REPORT CARD VS. STEELERS
PASSING OFFENSE: A -- The Patriots did a marvelous job making big plays in the passing game to score or set up scores. But they also completed some big third down conversions in the fourth quarter to keep the ball and keep the clock moving while unable to get much going on the ground and trying to protect a lead. The pass protection was solid all day and did a nice job against the Steelers blitzes. Brady was sacked twice but had plenty of room to step up nicely on some of his longer throws, including a 60-yard touchdown pass to Deion Branch and a 45-yarder, also to Branch, that set up a 9-yard scoring throw to David Givens. Brady completed passes to seven different receivers and finished 14-for-21 for 207 yards with two TDs and no interceptions. He was terrific in the face of the NFL's top defense and his receivers and pass protection stepped up as well.
RUSHING OFFENSE: C -- The Patriots get credit for trying here. The Steelers defense clearly won this battle, but New England was able to pound away for 126 yards on 32 carries, numbers that were boosted by a 28-yard Corey Dillon touchdown run among his 24 attempts for 73 yards and two Branch end arounds that netted 37 yards, 23 of which came on a late touchdown run. Kevin Faulk chipped in with two productive carries, one a 17-yard gain that set up a field goal and the other a 1-yard run on a fourth-and-one that set up Branch's TD run. Pittsburgh controlled the line of scrimmage in the running game, but the Patriots made their plays in spots and it was enough for an average mark.
PASS DEFENSE: B-plus -- New England intercepted rookie Ben Roethlisberger three times and dropped at least three other picks. They did a great job of dropping defenders into coverage and giving Roethlisberger no place to go with the football. He scrambled out of the pocket on several instances and while he connected for a 30-yard touchdown pass on one such play, he also floated some balls into coverage. Rodney Harrison made a terrific interception that he returned 87 yards for a touchdown while Eugene Wilson's two interceptions simply came on unforced poor throws by Roethlisberger. The Patriots sacked him only once and did not put a ton of pressure on him, but Roethlisberger was baffled by some of the coverages and found few open receivers on his initial read. While New England's defense didn't force too many of the rookie's bad throws, it did take advantage of enough of them. He completed 14-of-24 passes for 226 yards with two TDs and three interceptions for a 78.1 passer rating.
RUSH DEFENSE: A-minus -- The numbers aren't indicative of the effort here. Pittsburgh ran 37 times for 163 yards, but their plan was to pound away at New England with Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley and the Patriots were up to the challenge. Bettis carried 17 times for 64 yards while Staley added 10 runs for just 26 yards. Bettis also lost a fumble on a fourth-and-one play in the first quarter in which New England stuffed him for no gain and set the physical tone for the game. Bettis did score on a 5-yard run later, but early in the fourth quarter, he gained only 2 yards on two carries from inside the 5-yard line, before Pittsburgh settled for a field goal. New England's front seven was excellent in the game, especially in those big spots. Ted Johnson, Tedy Bruschi, Ty Warren, Mike Vrabel and Jarvis Green simply buckled up their chin straps and hit people. The result was a solid effort against the run, Pittsburgh's bread and butter.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B - Adam Vinatieri hit both of his field goals, including a 48-yarder that tied for the longest kick made at Heinz Field since it opened in 2001. The kickoff coverage team was solid for most of the day as was the kickoff return team, which was held inside its 30 only once on six attempts. The Patriots did nothing on two punt returns and struggled in punt coverage. Josh Miller shanked one punt for 27 yards while Antwaan Randle El averaged 13.3 yards per return on three attempts. Miller had one punt downed inside the 20.
COACHING: A-plus -- The Patriots coaches continue to get it done. After holding the NFL's No. 1 ranked offense to three points a week earlier, the Patriots came out and hung 34 offensive points on the league's No. 1ranked defense. The game plan was brilliant on both sides of the ball and the players executed it quite well with few mistakes. Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis picked his spots to take shots and generally hit them with Pittsburgh in the coverage New England was looking for in particular situations. Defensively, the Patriots were able to stop the run while still dropping bodies into the secondary in pass defense. Their decision to go with more coverage than pressure against Roethlisberger was brilliant and was made more so when New England stopped the Bus. Bill Belichick had his team ready and it showed.
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