Report Card Time and tattoo this please behind your eyelids and remember it the next time an opponent converts a third-and-13 or another QB puts up a 100 passer rating against this Patriots defense and you very much want to forever strip the HC of the NEP of genius status:
Bill Belichick the GM has failed Bill Belichick the head coach.
We've seen it a million times. Do you think Terry Francona suddenly was handed The Secret when he took over the Red Sox in 2004? Did Doc Rivers figure something out in 2008 that had been eluding him during his previous eight years as a coach?
Coaches get a lot smarter when their teams are loaded with talent. That's about as simple as it gets, but it's true. If Francona didn't get the Red Sox job eight years ago and wound up in Pittsburgh or Kansas City he'd probably be a career bench by now and no one would know or care about his many strengths and weaknesses as a manager. And if the Celtics had drafted Greg Oden in 2007 Rivers would be making a nice career talking to Mike Breen.
And so it goes with Bill Belichick. I have no doubt that he's as good a coach in 2011 as he was in 2001, 2003 and 2004. The difference, of course, is the level of talent on the defensive side of the ball. Long gone are the days of Law, Bruschi, Seymour, McGinest, Vrabel, Harrison and Samuel. This Patriots defense has one player -- Vince Wilfork -- at the established level of those guys, and that's it. No one else is close, and that includes Jerod Mayo, who can't stay healthy and has been just OK when on the field this season.
Belichick the GM (or whatever his title is) simply hasn't given Belichick the coach a chance to succeed (this is written with the understanding that success, or failure, I suppose, is relative here -- the Patriots are, after all, 19-4 since the start of the 2010 season). Being the subject of all the breathless documentaries and books in the world isn't going to make Gary Guyton into a good football player. James Ihedigbo and Antwaun Molden were available for a reason. And if you stick a Molden or Ihedigbo into a defense with the talent of the 2004 Patriots, guess what? You've got Hank Poteat, a flawed but serviceable hand on a championship team.
And what, exactly, is a coach supposed to do with this?
Le Kevin Smith
This represents all the defensive players drafted by the Patriots from 2006-10. Of the 23 players, seven are still with the Patriots (with four of those from the 2010 class, and raise your hand if you have any confidence that Brandon Deaderick or Jermaine Cunningham will be with the Patriots two years from today) and nine are out of the NFL. Five years worth of drafts -- five drafts that needed to hit, with the core of the 2003-04 title teams departing -- and all that remains of any value is Mayo, Chung and McCourty.
Lousy drafting plus lousy free-agent acquisitions (with Leigh Bodden as just the latest example) has been a Belichick staple for the last half-decade, and it is the main reason why you see a defense that is nowhere near good enough to win a Super Bowl.
Belichick the coach knows that, of course.
And he has only his GM to blame.
To the report card we go ...
QUARTERBACK -- C
Why Passer Rating Is An OK But Ultimately Flawed Measure Of How A QB Plays, No. 123,668: Tom Brady on Sunday had a 101.8 passer rating, Ben Roethlisberger had a 97.5 rating. You watched all 60 minutes. Who played better? But Roethlisberger -- unlike Brady -- had an INT (a lousy throw). And passer rating doesn't allow for factors such as prevent defense TDs, which Brady picked up on the Patriots' final drive (and his other TD came on an 8-yard drive). The reality is Brady wasn't terrible on Sunday, he just never made an impact on the game when it mattered. After the Steelers' opening-drive TD, Shaun Suisham sent the kickoff out of bounds. Brady gets the ball at the 40, primo real estate to start a drive to answer Roethlisberger. Instead it's a three-and-out. Brady never made a killer mistake in the game, but he never made that play when the Patriots needed it. And he had his chances. He also continues to struggle with the deep ball, badly underthrowing an open Taylor Price in the fourth quarter.
RUNNING BACKS -- C+
Help me out here: Last season BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushed for 87 yards on 18 carries against the Steelers. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is (I'm assuming -- maybe the toe is an issue?) healthy. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is, by any statistical measure, the lead back on this team and is having a fine season. So why did BenJarvus Green-Ellis carry the ball just five times on Sunday? Head-scratching stuff. He wasn't even in on the goal-line stuff on that final drive until the actual TD pass to Hernandez.
Kevin Faulk was the clear No. 1 back on Sunday and looked exactly like the Kevin Faulk we've always seen -- making guys miss and converting third-and-8 plays into first downs. Faulk is not the best running back in franchise history -- that line starts at Sam Cunningham and Curtis Martin -- but he might be the most valuable. We saw it again on Sunday. Faulk was a factor in the first two scores, picking up a Ryan Mundy blitz to allow Brady time to make the TD pass to Deion Branch, and his third-down direct snap rush put the Patriots in position for Gostkowski’s 46-yard field goal. Even with some rust, the Faulk we saw on Sunday is simply a better running back than the 2011 Danny Woodhead (no carries). Not even close.
RECEIVERS -- C-
The Steelers -- really Ike Taylor, with help from Ryan Clark -- took Wes Welker (six catches, 39 yards) completely out of the game. Welker never had any separation, never had an opportunity to make a significant play. Welker -- who also had a third-quarter drop -- has "just" 17 catches in the last three games (he had 40 in the first four). Deion Branch sure looked to have a favorable matchup with William Gay, picking up a pass interference and a TD against the cornerback in the first half, but he was invisible for most of the game, finishing with four catches for 36 yards. Aaron Hernandez had the late TD, but caught just one other pass (nine yards total).
Rob Gronkowski was the only consistent receiving option for Brady, catching the two longest pass plays of the game for the Patriots (23, 19 yards -- the 23-yarder an over-the-middle job with Troy Polamalu literally on his back) and leading all New England players with seven catches for 94 yards (should have been seven for 95 and a TD -- we'll get to the blown non-challenge later). Chad Ochocinco was targeted on a deep ball in the fourth quarter but wasn't close to making that (or any other) play. And the last leap -- from punchline to total irrelevance -- appears to be complete.
OFFENSIVE LINE -- C-
Logan Mankins is being paid as a franchise lineman and hasn't come close to earning that very pricey keep so far this season, submitting another subpar outing on Sunday. A pair of first-half false starts put the brakes on promising drives (particularly the first penalty, which put the Patriots, in Pittsburgh territory at the time, in a first-and-15 hole on their second drive, which would eventually end in a punt). Mankins also was to blame on LaMarr Woodley's first sack, missing badly on a block attempt. It's swell and all that Mankins is always the first guy to protect a teammate or step in the middle of a fracas -- he'd be a natural fit at the Double Deuce -- but probably he'd be of more use to the Patriots right now as an All-Pro guard. Sebastian Vollmer gave up the other Woodley sack (he and Nate Solder shared snaps at right tackle and were terrorized by Woodley throughout) and was flagged for a false start at the Pittsburgh 3-yard line in the fourth quarter. There were five false starts for the O-line overall, including a third-quarter Matt Light penalty on the series that ended with the 42-yard missed Stephen Gostkowski field goal.
DEFENSIVE LINE -- B-
As close to a bright spot (Faulk also, I guess) as the Patriots could offer in the loss. It seems you'll always get a decent pass rush against Roethlisberger, but understanding that it was still a decent effort from this group. There were two more sacks (and a forced fumble) from Andre Carter, who manhandled Max Stars in their matchup. Vince Wilfork had a sack (thanks largely to pressure from Mark Anderson) and six solo tackles, including one on Melwede Moore inside the New England 10-yard line. And Kyle Love was active, forcing a Roethlisberger incomplete pass with pressure and tackling Mendenhall for a one-yard loss on the same second-quarter drive. Look, the Steelers put up 29 first downs, 427 yards of offense and had the ball for 39:22. The defensive line isn't exempt from blame in all of that, but their play was at least semi-encouraging at times, which is more than can be said for the linebackers and secondary. Albert Haynesworth did nothing to remove himself from bust status.
LINEBACKERS -- D
To be fair, Gary Guyton had an interception that led to the first New England touchdown. He was in the right spot (looks like he bluffed with a blitz first and then fell back into coverage over the middle), took advantage of a poor throw, all that stuff. But that was it on the positive side of the ledger for the linebackers. Guyton continues to be mostly lost in coverage, failing to find Heath Miller on a pair of catches on the opening drive (a drive that saw the Steelers attack the middle of the New England defense, throwing on nine of the 11 plays) and taking the wrong angle on back-to-back Mendenhall rushes in the third quarter. Guyton has been a massive liability all season, and frankly it's borderline alarming that apparently no one on the defensive staff has realized this.
Brandon Spikes followed up his best game of the season with perhaps his worst, missing a chance to tackle Mendenhall on that second third-quarter run and then whiffing on Antonio Brown just two plays later, turning a short gain into a first down. Spikes also lost the Miller battle, getting dusted for a 13-yard gain on third-and-3 in the first quarter (didn't see a dance after the play). And on and on it went in a duel of ineptitude. Rob Ninkovich also missed on several tackle opportunities against Mendenhall and was fooled by Roethlisberger play-action on the first play after the botched onside kick, allowing David Johnson to pick up seven crucial yards (another example of an aggressive play call from the Steelers).
SECONDARY -- D
Devin McCourty neither distinguished nor embarrassed himself, which sadly counts for progress at this point for the second-year cornerback. McCourty had a pair of tackles for losses in the first quarter, but later missed a tackle on Antonio Brown and was beaten by Brown on a 15-yard catch on a third-and-13 following a Carter sack. The truth is that if the Devin McCourty we've seen this season were just some random free-agent pickup he'd be looked at as another swing and miss. And maybe it's as simple as a sophomore slump, but McCourty was expected to be a game-changer in the secondary and has instead by just another guy, frankly no better in 2011 than the recently whacked Leigh Bodden.
The combination of James Ihedigbo and Antwaun Molden was at fault on two TD passes, failing to communicate on Melwede Moore's first-quarter TD catch and Antonio Brown's second-quarter score. Ihedigbo still isn't nearly ready for prime time, getting smoked by Miller on a couple of early catches and falling down on an Emmanuel Sanders 26-yard grab. Molden also looks a lot like a guy who couldn't stick on a Texans roster that isn't exactly overflowing with All-Pro cornerbacks, blowing coverage on Sanders on a third-and-15 conversion in the third quarter, keeping alive a drive that would eventually end in a Pittsburgh field goal. Scrapheap guys playing like scrapheap guys.
SPECIAL TEAMS -- C-
We can debate whether or not Belichick made the right call in going with the onside kick -- and both sides I think have a solid case -- but we can all get together and agree that it's not too much to ask Stephen Gostkowski to kick the ball 10 yards, right? That's kind of his job, isn't it? Gostkowski also made a 46-yard field goal (no small feat at Heinz Field) but also missed a 42-yarder. Zoltan Mesko averaged 42 yards on four punts, and Danny Woodhead wasn't an upgrade over Julian Edelman as a kick returner. Antonio Brown returned the opening kick 34 yards to the Steelers' 34, giving Roethlisberger solid field position on the TD drive.
COACHING -- D
No problem with Belichick electing to go for the onside kick. Why? Same reason I eventually came around on fourth-and-2 vs. the Colts -- if you don't think your defense can get a stop, what other choice do you have? It's of course a searing indictment of the defense Belichick put together and coaches, but that's reality when you have a mediocre defense. If this was 2004, Belichick is kicking and taking his chances with three timeouts and the two-minute warning.
But Belichick -- along with Bill O'Brien, Matt Patricia and the rest of the staff -- was unable to make any adjustments to what the Steelers were doing on either side of the ball. And the decision not to challenge the Gronkowski catch cost the Patriots at the end -- there was 4:12 left when Gronkowski caught the ball (and it seemed clear that he was in) and 2:35 left when Hernandez made the TD reception. There was no sense of urgency from Brady and the offense during that 1:37 stretch, who took forever to run the third-down pass to Faulk.