As the intricate patterns of the offense unfolded in this game, I thought to myself, it is a good thing that Tom Brady and his receivers are so familiar with one another through both practice and in-game experience given the seemingly infinite spectrum of plays they're expected to execute on command. It is also a good thing that the Patriots got used to playing full-tilt for the entire game; it seems from some of the player comments I've heard that Bill Belichick has put an extra emphasis on conditioning this year from training camp on.
In other words, it is a good thing that earlier this season, Tom Brady wasn't pulled from games at halftime, and a good thing that the Patriots didn't face their tougher opponents with no clue how the first-string offense could perform together in the fourth quarter.
To beat the Patriots, you must be as good as they are. It sounds silly and obvious, but when you really think about it, there are many facets and permutations to that, because if the Patriots are one thing above all others, they are thorough. You must be as good as they are at more things than just defense and offense. You must be as good as they are at filling the inevitable holes due to injury. You must also be as good as they are mentally and physically through a full 60 minutes of football.
That was the first reason that Pittsburgh lost. It seemed at first that Pittsburgh had given New England the predicted run for their money. They had succumbed to a big play, Brady to a wide open Randy Moss, after the most beautiful play-action fake I've ever seen, by Lawrence Maroney, to make it 14-3 in the first half, but came back under the leadership of Roethlisberger to make it 14-13 as the final minutes of the half ticked down. The Patriots' offense stalled and they only managed to tack on another 3 points before the half, and it seemed the Steelers might be able to continue the comeback when things got back under way in the third quarter.
But then, they were victimized by another big play--this time a wobbly but successfully executed flea-flicker from Brady to Moss to Brady and then 65 yards in the air to Jabar Gaffney for a much more comfortable score of 24-13. And after that, it seemed as if the first half had been about as long as the Steelers could stay with the Patriots, physically or mentally.
By the time it was 31-13 with just under four minutes to go in the third quarter, the Steelers defense was showing the time-honored sign of football frustration: getting into fights between plays. On the play that scored the Patriots touchdown, Logan Mankins laid a pile-driver on his opponent that quickly became a tangle of blue and yellow uniforms as more got in on the extracurriculars. Mankins' actions were questionable, but it felt like it was the Steelers who were coming apart.
However, mental fatigue and frustration were not the only reasons the Steelers failed to break the Patriots' streak today. There was also an important issue with the Steelers defense which I overlooked when previewing the game yesterday: the absence of Troy Polamalu.
Without the Pro Bowl safety to guide and cover for them, Polamalu's junior counterparts, Anthony Smith and Ike Taylor, were completely exposed by Tom Brady and the Patriots offense, on the big plays and indeed most of the little ones in between. The Patriots had--do not attempt to adjust your sets--22 net yards rushing to 399 net yards passing* on the game. They picked away at Smith and Taylor both physically (through sheer exhaustion) and mentally (Brady kicked off the inter-play debates with Smith in the first quarter), and by the third quarter, the exhausted duo broke (Smith probably kicking himself all the while about his pregame comments guaranteeing a Steelers win in the press). The hapless safeties were also the goats on the big plays, both times forgetting a cardinal rule of defending the Patriots: never come up.
Also not to be overlooked, however, is the Patriots' own defense, who by the looks of it spent the week in a crucible of drills designed to whip them into better shape than they've been all season. This was easily the best defensive game of the year for New England, the crown jewel of which was the goal-line stand in the fourth quarter to preserve the second-half shutout.
Yep, you read that right, second-half shutout. The 13th point scored in the first-half comeback would be the last one Pittsburgh would put on the board. In the end, the Patriots defense held the Steelers to just one touchdown and two field goals for the entire game.
The Pittsburgh defense did make a dent in the Patriots offense, who were a less-than-their-usual-stella-selves 2 for 4 in the red zone and 2 for 3 in goal-to-go situations. There was also the matter of the missed field goal by Gostowski in the second quarter. But over on their side of the ball, the Patriots defense was simply spectacular: the Steelers were oh-fer in red zone and goal-to-go efficiency for the game. The Patriots were stymied at times, but the Steelers put up goose eggs.
The two standout defensive players for me were Mike Vrabel, who seemed to be the designated pass rusher tonight, and came for Roethlisberger on a dizzying number of plays like a bat out of hell; and Rodney Harrison, who was playing under his favorite conditions: as a member of an underestimated (or, perhaps more accurately, critically assessed) defensive unit. Thankfully, Rodney did most of his talking between the lines tonight.