Picked-up pieces from second-quarter review of the Patriots’ 55-31 victory over the Steelers:
1. Newly acquired nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga played 26 snaps and two of the best came on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 to end the Steelers’ fourth drive of the game. On the third-down play, Sopoaga got his hands into right guard Guy Whimper and knocked him into the offensive backfield, impeding the path of running back Le’Veon Bell for no gain. That was a good snapshot of Sopoaga’s power. He did the same thing to center Fernando Velasco on the next play, winning at the line as Bell was dropped for a loss of 1 yard to turn the ball over. At 6-foot-2 and 330 pounds, Sopoaga gives the Patriots a powerful nose tackle that they didn’t otherwise have on the active roster. Based on those two plays, it sure looks like he still has something to offer.
2. There were a few other plays in the game where Sopoaga had trouble maintaining his balance and was blocked rather easily (e.g. Bell run, 9:38 remaining in first quarter), so this isn’t to say he is a space-eater who is dominating on every snap. But he gives the Patriots something they didn’t otherwise have – a bigger body to help win those short-yardage situations while also taking some pressure off rookies Chris Jones and Joe Vellano while rotating in on early downs.
3. It didn’t produce the desired result, as Le’Veon Bell gained 1 yard on fourth-and-1 on the first play of the quarter, but it might have been defensive lineman Chris Jones’ most impressive snap of the game. He almost single-handedly blew up the play by winning at the line of scrimmage in splitting the left guard and tackle. The Steelers barely picked up the first down and Jones continues to be a surprising player on defense.
4. We hardly heard from third-year right tackle Marcus Cannon, which meant he did his job well while most often matched up against LaMarr Woodley. One play caught our attention and it was Stevan Ridley’s 13-yard run with 12:10 remaining in the quarter. The line slid to the left and while center Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly were at the heart of clearing a path for Ridley on a cutback run, if Cannon doesn’t do his part to cut down Cameron Heyward the play doesn’t go anywhere. That’s a tough block to execute and Cannon did it well.
5. The Steelers’ defense can sometimes be victimized by over-pursuit, as was evidenced the week before when Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor scored on a 93-yard run off play-action. The Patriots obviously saw that and implemented some play-action into their plan, which worked effectively at times, perhaps no more so than on tight end Michael Hoomanawanui’s 17-yard catch-and run with 11:41 remaining in the quarter. The Patriots were in their two-TE grouping and eight Steelers committed hard to the play-action off the right side, which allowed Hoomanawanui to sneak off the right side of the line and cross the field, where he was wide open because linebacker Lawrence Timmons was chasing the play-action.
6. Note to self: By the end of the film review, make a note of the play-action passing statistics. The Patriots seemed to feast in that area (e.g. Danny Amendola 57-yard catch to set up a 20-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal also came off play-action).
7. Picking up on a theme mentioned in the first quarter, Rob Gronkowski’s 19-yard touchdown catch came out of a grouping with one receiver, two tight ends, one fullback and one running back. That would normally indicate run, but as was the case through a good part of the game, the Patriots had success passing in those run-based packages. The matchup against the Steelers’ base defense, in the passing game, tilted in their favor. From our view, that highlights the value of the tight end position in dictating matchups.
8. Similar to last week against the Dolphins, when we were impressed by 2010 first-round pick Jared Odrick, Steelers 2011 first-rounder Cameron Heyward caught our eye with strong play. His sack of quarterback Tom Brady at the Steelers’ 9 forced the Patriots to ultimately settle for a field goal later in the quarter. While there was a coverage element to the sack, Heyward still showed solid athleticism to loop around left guard Logan Mankins after shaking free of right guard Dan Connolly. Heyward is the bigger-type defensive tackle that the Patriots haven’t selected in recent years (e.g. Muhammad Wilkerson), which has forced them to look elsewhere for depth this year as injuries have hit.
9. On Jonathan Dwyer’s 30-yard run that preceded Ben Roethlisberger’s 27-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown, it was just bad run defense. The initial opening came between right end Chandler Jones and tackle Chris Jones, who were both turned and/or blocked. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower and safety Steve Gregory either were late to fill or took a bad angle and that’s all it took to spring Dwyer. Not the way they drew it up, but overall, the run defense seemed to be improved compared to recent weeks.