Report Card time and a shocking return to the written lap dance.
How can it not be? Simply a dominant performance on Sunday night (I'm still stunned), and the grades have to reflect that. So the red pen goes on hiatus and everyone gets the "GREAT JOB!" sticker.
To the card we go …
QUARTERBACK -- A
Has to be the best game Tom Brady has played since the 2007 season, right? Total command from the opening drive, which saw him complete five-of-six passes for 52 yards and a bullet to Rob Gronkowski for that 19-yard TD. Each of the three TD passes to Gronkowski highlighted a strength of Brady. The first? How hard he can throw the ball when he needs to put it in a spot. The second? Play-action ability that allowed Gronkowski to get wide-open at the nine-yard line and walk into the end zone (play action worked all night -- kind of a surprise against the best rushing D in the league. Brady and Tate's 45-yard third-quarter was set up by a play action fake that Polamalu bought). And the final TD pass showed Brady's touch, as he lofted a perfect ball over William Gay to hit Gronkowski in stride.
I thought Al Michaels nailed it at the end of the broadcast: Two guys threw for well over 300 yards on Sunday night. One (Brady) was great, the other (Roethlisberger) put up garbage-time numbers. Roethlisberger just did not show up when the game was in any kind of doubt. He was 7-of-20 for 90 yards in the first half and was 16-33 for 186 yards after throwing the James Sanders pick -- a pass that was way behind Randle-El -- that pretty much put the game on ice. So he hit a couple of three-run homers down nine runs. Doesn't mean he a good game. The quietest 387 yards passing I can remember.
RUNNING BACKS -- A-
The Steelers entered the game as the league's top rushing defense, allowing just 58 yards per game. Plenty of the NFL's top backs have had a shot at the Steelers this season, and none have been able to put up any kind of serious production:
Michael Turner: 19 carries, 42 yards
Chris Johnson: 16 carries, 34 yards
Peyton Hillis (hey, he belongs): 12 carries, 41 yards
Ray Rice: Eight carries, 20 yards
Ronnie Brown: Nine carries, 14 yards
There you go. Before Sunday night the Steelers had allowed just 2.6 yards per carry. But BenJarvus Green-Ellis nearly doubled that average in his 18 carries, finishing with 87 yards on the ground, the highest total posted by a back against the Steelers in 2010. His first carry of the game was good for 17 yards and is the longest rush vs. Pittsburgh this season. And Green-Ellis showed some value as a pass-catcher -- which has been a weakness -- on Sunday night, doubling his previous 2010 total with four grabs for 36 yards. Danny Woodhead was quiet on the field -- and really quiet on the sideline as he sat next to Brady during the QB's verbal beatdown of the offense in the second quarter -- rushing just four times for 11 yards and catching just a pair of passes. Both Woodhead and Green-Ellis did nice work picking up blitzes in the backfield, part of a nearly perfect day of protection for Brady (and yet still he screams).
RECEIVERS -- A-
Wes Welker and Deion Branch finally looked like Wes Welker and Deion Branch, the first time since the second half of the Ravens game (Oct. 17) that both really were factors in the game. Welker finished with eight catches for 89 yards in his most productive game of the season. He converted key third-downs (it was his 3rd-and-9 catch for 11 yards that put the Pats into FG range on the second drive -- nice block by Woodhead on a blitz as well on the play), was able to get open downfield (26-yard catch in the second quarter -- and didn't it seem that Welker was open more Sunday night than the previous four games w/out Moss put together?) and picked up yards after the catch, which he just hasn't done this season. As for Branch, he sure did not look at all limited by a hamstring injury, pulling in seven passes (on eight targets) for 71 yards. No problem for Branch to get separation from the Steelers corners, and it was evident how important it to this offense when he is healthy and producing.
The one throw Brady would probably like a mulligan on was a deep ball to Brandon Tate (two catches, 50 yards) in the first quarter. He had plenty of time to make the throw off of a double fake reverse and Tate had a couple of steps on the cornerback, but it was pretty severely underthrown. The two did connect on the aforementioned 45-yarder later on in the game. Tate also had another drop in the second quarter, which has been a problem over the last couple of weeks.
Sort of lost in the Gronkowski heroics was the quiet night for Aaron Hernandez. No catches on just two targets, and he heard an earful from Brady after a failed screen pass. That's at least the third time in the last three games Brady has gone after Hernandez, and I have to wonder if his decreased playing time over the last couple of weeks is in part due to communication problems with his QB.
OFFENSIVE LINE -- A+
Where do you start? The first team in the league to pick up over 100 yards vs. the Steelers is impressive enough but when you look at the incredible pass protection afforded to Brady all night long it's clear that this was as good a performance as you'll ever see from an O-line. Matt Light (who has been up and down this year) was nearly flawless against James Harrison (who did get a semi-scary and more than semi-dirty hit on Brady's knee) and Sebastian Vollmer dominated LaMarr Woodley. Logan Mankins was huge on run-blocking (it was he and Crumpler who sprung Green-Ellis on the 17-yard rush and Brady followed Mankins into the end-zone on his TD rush) and also had his QB's back, going after Troy Polamalu after the safety took a cheap shot on Brady in the pile after the TD run. Brady was untouched (and barely even pressured) until midway through the third quarter. Not even another switch on the line (Dan Connolly moved over to right guard in place of Stephen Neal) could slow down this group, who have absolutely exceeded any reasonable level of expectation this season.
DEFENSIVE LINE -- B+
Tells you a lot about this game when a B+ feels like it might be too low. Mike Wright finished with a sack and a half, and also had a nice backfield tackle on Mendenhall on a delayed carry. Vince Wilfork was credited with just a single solo tackle, but it was the double-team coverage he commanded that allowed Wright to get to Roethlisberger in the second quarter. Gerard Warren shared a sack with Shawn Crable and Jermaine Cunningham was able to force Roethlisberger out of the pocket on two occasions, though he did pick up a dopey offside penalty at the Patriots eight-yard line that could have been costly had Patrick Chung not stepped up and made a play on Randle-El in the end zone on third down to force a FG.
LINEBACKERS -- B+
Gary Guyton made the first impact play of the game defensively, knocking down a Roethlisberger pass attempt on the opening drive. He picked up a sack on the second drive and later did a terrific job on end-zone coverage on Heath Miller in a drive that ended with a missed 26-yard FG by Jeff Reed. Tully Banta-Cain finished with a sack and a half, and it was his 3rd-and-10 takedown of Roethlisberger at the Pittsburgh 47 that stopped a decent drive in the second quarter (nice spin move by TBC on Jon Scott). Jerod Mayo was part of the relentless blitz packages, getting a hit on Roethlisberger and collecting a backfield tackle on Mewelde Moore. He finished with nine more tackles. Not a great night for Brandon Spikes, who had just a single solo tackle and was pancaked by Heath Miller on a 34-yard run by Mendenhall.
SECONDARY -- B
Again, I'm not putting a whole lot of stock in Ben Roethlisberger's final numbers, but I'll knock this group down a notch for allowing 23 points and over 200 yards passing in the final quarter. I guess that's fair.
Think Pat Chung might've helped against Peyton Hillis? Chung was all over the field Sunday. I know he doesn't have long hair and hasn't been in any commercials, but he was the best safety on the field by a mile. Perfect illustration of how Chung laid came in the second quarter on a Moore run -- Chung came from all the way across the field to chase him down and make the tackle. He had monster hits (just a massive -- and clean -- belt on Mike Wallace in the first quarter), helped out on run defense and did his job in coverage, breaking up the Randle-El end zone play and deflecting a Roethlisberger pass into the hands of Sanders for the 32-yard INT TD return.
Devin McCourty had nine tackles (season high) and pitched in on run coverage, stopping Mendenhall on the edge on a first-and-goal rush in the third quarter. He also got a hand on Mendenhall in the backfield but was unable to make the stop on the 34-yard second-quarter run. Kyle Arrington had a chance to wrap up Moore but failed do so at the end of the first half, allowing the back to pick up 29 yards on a short pass over the middle. But Arrington did a solid job in coverage and has established himself as a pretty solid No. 2 cornerback (Darius Butler was inactive and it appears he was a healthy scratch).
I thought it was a shaky at best pass interference call on Brandon Meriweather on the third-quarter deep ball to Mike Wallace -- not sure why he isn't entitled to that spot on the field. It didn't seem to me that Wallace had to go through Meriweather to get to the ball.
SPECIAL TEAMS -- B-
Shayne Graham missed an extra point, true, but he did make both his field goals in a building that might be the most difficult for kickers in the NFL. His kickoffs were not Gostkowskian in distance or hang time, but were at least acceptable efforts. And I think Matt Katula's snap on the missed extra point was a little high and might have thrown off the timing a bit. No excuse for a missed PAT, however.
Zoltan Mesko was outstanding, locking the Steelers inside their own red zone on three of his five punts, including a 53-yard kick that pinned Pittsburgh at the seven-yard line.
The Patriots onside kick group came through at the end, as Alge Crumpler cleanly handled a Jeff Reed attempt (getting room thanks to a nice block from Mayo).
The kickoff coverage was spotty, as Emmanuel Sanders averaged 26.0 yards on six returns. He nearly broke one on the kick following the Brady rushing TD, but Kyle Arrington was able to make an open-field tackle to save what could have been a game-changing kind of play.
COACHING -- A
Fine. For this week I'll leave Jason Garrett off the Mount Rushmore of NFL coaches and keep Belichick on. What a job by Belichick to have the Pats ready after the embarrassing performance in Cleveland. Just an aggressive game plan on both offense (lots of no-huddle and throwing the ball all game long) and defense (endless blitzing to keep Roethlisberger uncomfortable for the first three quarters).
Three from the Moron File …
(1) As much as the some in the media is running with the idea that Brady's speech to the troops turned things around for the offense it just ain't so. The very next drive? Five plays, seven yards.
(2) A C- to the refs, by the way. Tons of holding calls missed on both sides -- with Jon Scott as the most frequent offender. And why did it take 20 minutes to figure out that Hines Ward dropped that pass? Wasn't that clear from the first time you saw the replay?
(3) Enjoy Manning/Brady on Sunday. Not sure how many more times you'll see these two guys off as the two best quarterbacks in the NFL. As close to Bird/Magic as we'll probably see again.