PITTSBURGH — You heard him before you saw him.
As the Patriots were walking down the long hallway from the field to their locker room underneath the stands at Heinz Field after garroting the Steelers Sunday night, defensive lineman Gerard Warren’s booming voice rang out happily.
“TAKE THAT!” Warren bellowed.
Take that, indeed. In the wake of the disappointing collapse last week in Cleveland, the Patriots rebounded to put together one of the most satisfying wins of recent memory, dominating the Steelers on the way to a 39-26 win in Pittsburgh (click here for the complete recap). It was a classic case of “the game wasn’t as close as the score would indicate,” as New England took a 23-3 lead and never looked back, winning for the sixth time in the last seven games and reasserting itself as one of the dominant teams in the AFC.
Warren’s postgame proclamation aside, it truly was one of the most emotionally satisfying wins in recent memory for the Patriots for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it removes — at least for the moment — the question marks attached to this team: Can the Patriots beat a quality opponent away from Foxboro? Can they bounce back and show some true resolve after a brutally bad loss? And can they show the requisite toughness — both physical and mental — to face down a team that routinely spends the rest of the season bullying the rest of the AFC?
Yes, yes and yes. Any other questions?
“We haven’t been this happy in a long time,” said quarterback Tom Brady.
While they are not without their flaws in all three phases of the game, even the harshest Patriots critic has to now realize this team should be categorized with the rest of the league’s elite. And in a year in which there are no great teams in the NFL, that might just be good enough.
Pretty good, in fact.
“We’re pretty good when we play and execute the right way, do the right thing, and when everyone’s doing their job,” Brady said. “We got off to a fast start tonight, played from ahead the whole game, and that’s a big difference. Anything can happen each week, and we’re 7-2 with a lot of football left. We’ve got another great opponent coming into our stadium this week. So, like I said, it’s an emotional win. Everyone — especially me — has to get some rest and be ready to come back Wednesday.”
Here are nine other things we learned Sunday night at Heinz Field:
THIS WEEK’S GAME MEANT A LITTLE MORE TO ROB GRONKOWSKI
No one felt the sting of the loss to Cleveland last week more than rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski. The Arizona product committed a bad special teams miscue that led to a turnover, fumbled a ball on the goal line and dropped some catchable balls from Brady. He did have four catches for 47 yards, but other than that, it was a forgettable afternoon for the second-round pick.
But on Sunday, it was clear from the start that the Patriots were interested in getting Gronkowski as involved as possible in the offense. Brady found him on two of the first three plays from scrimmage for New England, and on the Patriots’ opening drive, he accounted for 38 of the 70 yards.
It was sweet redemption for Gronkowski, who ended up with five catches for 72 yards and three touchdowns. (“The last time I had three was a as sophomore in college, and that was Washington State,” he said.) Along the way, he increased his 2010 total to six touchdowns for the season, a record for most touchdown catches by a rookie tight end in Patriots history.
“It definitely feels good,” said Gronkowski, who became the first Patriots player to have three touchdowns in a game since Randy Moss had three vs. Jacksonville on Dec. 27, 2009. “We practiced hard all week as a team I just had to go out there and do my job, and everyone else did their job, and we just played as a team. That’s what we did, and we got the ‘W’ and it feels a lot better.”
“[Gronkowski] played a great game,” Brady told NBC’s Andrea Kramer after the game. “I know it was a tough one for him last week, and he came back and really showed what he’s all about. A great performance by him, by all the tight ends, by all the receivers, by the whole offense, by the whole defense. It was definitely a team win.”
“Last week is over with,” said Gronkowski. “We didn’t feel great going home. It’s great getting the victory, especially on the road with a great team like Pittsburgh. Our whole team is feeling great. Everyone’s feeling great. It was a great win and we have to get back to work this week.”
TOM BRADY HAS NO PROBLEM HOLLERING AT HIS TEAMMATES
The quarterback usually plays it close to the vest, but he certainly let it all hang out in the first half, raging against his teammates after a pair of New England drives stalled out. There was BenJarvus Green-Ellis being called for an illegal chop-block that pushed the Patriots back to the Steelers 27 for a second-and-23. (On that one, the Patriots had to settle for a 31-yard Shayne Graham field goal. Then on the next series, Brady threw the ball twice to Aaron Hernandez, including once when Hernandez wasn't exactly where he was supposed to be on a sideline flare. Throw in a Wes Welker false start and a rare Welker drop late in the second quarter, and Brady had seen enough.)
Brady, who was surgically efficient (30-for-43, 350 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions), said he was just feeding off the emotion of the moment.
“I was exhausted. There’s only one way to play the game, and it’s an emotional game,” said Brady, who ended up with his first 300-plus yard game of the season.
“I think part of being a quarterback is making sure that everyone’s into it and there’s a level of concentration and focus that you need on the road. The crowd gets noisy and there are plenty of plays that we didn’t make, that we probably should have made, especially in the first half. Getting the ball down on the 4-yard line and they call us for a chop block, then not making plays on the next drive, and just not executing great.”
For the most part, the night was vintage Brady. He delivered short, intermediate and long passes with his trademark accuracy. The miscommunication and bad throws that had plagued the New England passing game the week before against the Browns was nowhere to be seen. In addition, he displayed no ill effects from the foot injury that had limited him all week in practice, even plunging forward on a quarterback keeper from three yards out in the third quarter that gave him his first rushing touchdown of the season.
Something about the Steelers always brings out the best in Brady: He’s won 6-of-7 overall against the Steelers and 4-of-5 at Heinz Field, and now has 14 career TD throws and three interceptions against the Steelers.
"I thought Tom did a good job. I thought our offense did a nice job,” Belichick said. “We had a good balance over the ball. The tight ends, the backs, the receivers all ran the ball competitively. We scored in the red areas. The offensive line blocked. They blocked hard. Everybody had their own part in it, and certainly Tom did a nice job."
THE PATRIOTS OFFENSIVE LINE KEEPS ROLLING ALONG
It was another good night for the New England offensive line, which was forced to do a little shuffling after starting right guard Stephen Neal was ruled out with a shoulder injury over the weekend. In his place, the Patriots went with Dan Connolly, who, up until Logan Mankins returned, had been ably manning the left guard spot. Connolly slipped over on Sunday, taking the majority of reps at Neal’s old spot while Mankins held down his old left guard position without a problem.
The retooled line was able to keep Brady upright all night, not yielding a single sack against a Pittsburgh defense — led by the fearsome James Harrison — that was one of the best in the league in that department heading into Sunday’s game. Harrison, LaMarr Woodley and Ziggy Hood did get hits on Brady, but more often than not, the quarterback had plenty of time to deliver the ball as needed.
Of course, this being a Patriots-Steelers game, there was a little chippiness between the Pittsburgh defense and the New England offensive linemen, including one sequence with just over four minutes left in the game when Woodley conked Brady, drawing a roughing the passer penalty and a shove from Matt Light. In addition, after Brady’s touchdown run, there was more pushing and shoving after the whistle, some of which involved Mankins and Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu.
“They did a great job. Our whole offensive line did a good job,” Belichick said. “[The Steelers] bring a lot of inside pressure with [Lawrence] Timmons and [James] Farrior and [Casey] Hampton and Ziggy Hood and all those guys inside, so you just have to step up and block and they did a great job of that. It’s never easy against the Steelers. They are aggressive, they’ve got a lot of good players, and they bring all different combinations of them, Polamalu, all of them. The guys that are blocking, you’ve got to give them the credit.”
“I love those guys,” Brady said of Light, Mankins, Dan Koppen, Connolly and Sebastian Vollmer. “Those are my boys. I’m proud of them, the way they fight.”
HOG-TYING BEN ROETHLISBERGER IS EASIER WHEN HIS OFFENSIVE LINE IS IN SHAMBLES
Belichick acknowledged the fact that the Patriots “were able to hog-tie [Roethlisberger] down a couple of times,” getting to him for an impressive five sacks on the night. Tully Banta-Cain and Mike Wright each finished with 1.5 sacks, while Gary Guyton had one and Shawn Crable and Gerard Warren split a sack. (Guyton, who was celebrating his 25th birthday, did a great job early forcing the action early — in the first half, he batted down a Roethlisberger pass in addition to his sack.)
How much of New England’s success in getting after Roethlisberger was due to New England pressure and how much of that was due to the fact that the Pittsburgh quarterback was missing a sizable chunk of his starting offensive line? (Steelers starting left guard Chris Kemoeatu was inactive for Sunday night's game. In addition, the Steelers also were without left tackle Max Starks, who is out for the season with a neck injury.) Probably some of both, but that doesn’t necessarily change the fact that this was an excellent display of pass defense by the Patriots, who were able to knock Roethlisberger off his spot and force plenty of bad throws. In the end, New England’s five sacks were the most since they had six sacks at Buffalo last Dec. 20.
The quarterback was able to pile up some serious garbage-time yardage — 30-for-49 for 387 yards and three touchdowns — but when it really counted, Roethlisberger and the rest of the Pittsburgh offense was nowhere to be found. On their first 18 plays from scrimmage, the Stellers had 18 total yards. Much-ballyhooed running back Rashard Mendenhall had just three rushing yards in the first quarter, and Roethlisberger was 7-for-20 for 90 yards after two quarters.
”We didn’t finish the game like we wanted to, but we gave the offense a chance and got the win,” said linebacker Jerod Mayo. ”Red zone and third down were huge for us. We were able to get to Ben Roethlisberger, get in his face a little bit and make him make some bad throws.”
BEING PHYSICAL WAS A BIG POINT OF EMPHASIS THIS WEEK, AND THE SECONDARY CERTAINLY DID ITS PART
It’s a hit that will more than likely draw a fine from the NFL, but the extra shot that Patriots veteran safety James Sanders took at Pittsburgh wide receiver Hines Ward in the first half set the tone for a game that would start physical and stay physical.
The Sanders hit on Ward left him sidelined for the rest of the night (Ward later said it was a concussion), but there were several others, including a Pat Chung hit on Steelers speedster Mike Wallace that rattled the receiver. And rookie Devin McCourty was his usual physical presence throughout the night. In all, the Patriots defense — and the secondary in particular — did a good job taking the fight to Pittsburgh, beating the Steelers at their own game.
In the end, four of the five top spots on New England’s tackle chart were taken by defensive backs: Chung had 10 in his return, while McCourty had nine and Brandon Meriweather and Sanders had four each. That’s not to say the Steelers didn’t get in a few shots of their own, but on a night where they knew Pittsburgh was going to try to intimidate them, the Patriots gave as good as they got.
“We came out, we played aggressive, we played hard, we played physical,” Wilfork said. “Playing a Steeler football team, you have to be able to play physical. If you don’t, they’ll basically run you out of the building.”
It was a good night for Sanders, who saw his playing time reduced with the return of Chung but still came away with the only interception of the night, a pick-six in the fourth quarter on a pass meant for Antwaan Randle El but tipped by Chung. Sanders returned it 32 yards for his fist touchdown of the season. It marked the second time in his career that he has returned an interception for a touchdown, and the third interception that was returned for a touchdown by the Patriots in 2010. (Guyton and Chung had the other two.)
IT’S A SMALL SAMPLE SIZE, BUT THE NEW TRIO OF SPECIALISTS WAS (MOSTLY) OK
Thrown together to work for a week, the combination of long snapper Matt Katula, kicker Shayne Graham and punter/holder Zoltan Mesko had a relatively uneventful evening.
Katula delivered clean snaps on all five of Mesko’s punt attempts, as well as all four extra-point attempts and both of Graham’s field goal attempts (from 31 and 36 yards). Mesko averaged 40.2 yards per punt and was able to drop three of them inside the 20, with a long of 53 yards. The only minor glitch belonged to Graham, who missed an extra-point attempt wide right at the end of the third quarter. Other than that, Graham was 2-for-2 on field goal attempts but didn’t put a single ball in the end zone for a touchback.
“It looked like it was all right. I wouldn’t say it was perfect, but we still have work to do. Fortunately, we came out of it with a number of good plays,” Belichick said.
“I know we had a couple — [we] definitely had to deal with a couple of punt rushes there around midfield with some fourth-and-long situations, which is kind of a set up for the Steelers to rush us, and we handled those,” Belichick added. “[But] it looked like the snapping and the kicking and the holding was OK, for the most part.”
THE PATRIOTS’ RED-ZONE DEFENSE ISN’T GOING TO LOOK A GIFT HORSE IN THE MOUTH
The Steelers entered Sunday’s game the worst team in the AFC when it came to converting touchdowns in the red zone — they were coming away with touchdowns just 41 percent of the time. They certainly didn’t help their cause on Sunday night, when they stalled out twice on key moments in the New England red zone, coming away with just three points on two possessions when the game was still in doubt.
The first big stop came with just over five minutes left in the second quarter. The Steelers had crossed into the New England red zone for the first time all night, maneuvering the ball down to the Patriots’ 4-yard line after a defensive offside penalty on New England linebacker Jermaine Cunningham. But a third-down pass attempt for Randle El was off the mark thanks to some impressive pass defense, and the Steelers had to settle for a 22-yard field goal from Jeff Reed to make it 10-3.
The second big stop came with just under four minutes remaining in the third quarter. With New England holding a 17-3 lead, Pittsburgh had gotten down to the Patriots’ eight and had a first-and-goal. But Rashard Mendenhall was stopped for no gain, and Roethlisberger passes for Heath Miller and Emmanuel Sanders went incomplete. Reed came on for another field goal attempt — this one from 26 — but was wide right.
Two key trips into the red zone, and only three points to show for it. On the night, the Patriots held the Steelers to 2-for-5 in the red zone (mostly in garbage time), a good evening for a New England team that allowed Cleveland to go 3-for-4 in the same area last week.
“We have to capitalize when we get down there,” Roethlisberger said. “We left some plays out there.”
“Every day we work on red area. That’s one of the areas we work on, and we work hard at it,” Wilfork said. “Some times it shows, some times it doesn’t. But today, it showed pretty good for us. We played well down there.”
THE ROAD TO REDEMPTION STARTED WITH A GOOD WEEK OF PRACTICE
In the wake of last Sunday’s ugly loss to the Browns, the days couldn’t come off the calendar fast enough. After a defeat like that one, the feeling is that the quicker you get back out on the field, the quicker you get a chance to put that last one behind you.
Wilfork said that the return to dominance began with a good week of practice.
“We just wanted this game to hurry up and get here,” said Wilfork, who finished with a pair of tackles. “We got off to a good start this week in practice, and it showed today. I think we prepared well this week. I think everybody’s focus was on the Steelers starting in practice, and we showed it today.”
When asked about the difference between this past week of practice and the week the Patriots had in the days leading up to the Cleveland loss, Belichick didn’t mince words.
“[This week] was definitely better,” he said with a small smile. “That wouldn’t take much.”
“I think everybody did a real good job of coming to work and putting the Cleveland game behind us and focusing on the Steelers,” Wilfork added. “And we did well. We prepared well. Guys came to work ready to work. We were just ready to get to this game and get this game started just because we could get the bad taste out of our mouths from last week. It worked well for us today.”
NOT ALL THE CHEERING COMING OUT OF THE PATRIOTS LOCKER ROOM AT THE END OF THE GAME WAS BECAUSE OF THE WIN
The Patriots were given Monday off for their efforts — a victory Monday, in NFL vernacular — but preparation figures to start immediately for the Colts, who will come to Foxboro on Sunday with a 6-3 record, a game behind New England in the overall playoff picture.
For so many years, the Patriots, Steelers and Colts have ruled the AFC. Eight of the last nine seasons, one of the three teams has been the conference representative at the Super Bowl, and even with the transitory nature that has permeated so much of the first half of the pro football season, there’s a greater and great feeling that at least one of these three will be there when the AFC championship is played at the end of January. That makes this two-week stretch for the Patriots all the more important, and New England has already gotten off on the right foot with a win over the Steelers. Beat the Colts, and suddenly, the possibility of home-field advantage through the AFC playoffs is a distinct possibility.
“It’s good to win, get back on track here. Of course, we’ve got a big challenge coming up on Sunday against [the Colts],” Belichick said. “We’ll enjoy this one for a while, and then move on.”