Patriots offense improving, but defense needs work after 55-31 win
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, left, speaks to Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin after an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 3, 2013, in Foxborough, Mass. The Patriots won 55-31. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
New England Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington, right, tackles Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (88) in the fourth quarter of an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 3, 2013, in Foxborough, Mass. The Patriots won 55-31. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, left, speaks to New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, right, after an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 3, 2013, in Foxborough, Mass. The Patriots won 55-31. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown, right, makes a touchdown catch in front of New England Patriots cornerback Alfonzo Dennard (37) in the second quarter of an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 3, 2013, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Scoring 55 points is a sure sign that Tom Brady and the New England offense are rolling again.
Allowing 31 points shows that the injury-battered defense needs to get better.
“It was good to put some points on the board and be more efficient offensively than what we’ve been the last couple weeks,” Coach Bill Belichick said yesterday. “But defensively, we gave up 31 points and most weeks that won’t get it done. There’s certainly a lot of room for improvement on that side of the ball.”
So after Sunday’s 55-31 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, New England’s bye week comes at a good time; the next game is Nov. 18 at Carolina.
The Patriots (7-2) lead the AFC East by two games despite an ever-changing cast on defense. Three of their best starters, tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly and linebacker Jerod Mayo, are on season-ending injured reserve.
Their best cornerback, Aqib Talib, missed the last three games with a hip injury. On Sunday, two other defensive starters were knocked out: end Rob Ninkovich with a foot injury and safety Steve Gregory with a thumb injury. At least they have extra time to recover.
“We’re going to take a good look at everything we’re doing and areas that we need to improve on,” defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. “It’s really important for us to have this time to reflect a little bit.”
Rookie defensive tackles Chris Jones and Joe Vellano can use the time to rest from their unexpected heavy workload as replacements for Wilfork, a five-time Pro Bowler, and Kelly, in his first year with the Patriots after nine with the Oakland Raiders.
Veteran linemen Andre Carter and Isaac Sopoaga can immerse themselves in the playbook. Carter, who spent the 2011 season with the Patriots, was re-signed and played in the past two games. Sopoaga, in his 10th season, was obtained in a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles last week and started at defensive tackle Sunday to provide run defense that had suffered without Wilfork and Kelly.
Carter played 45 snaps and had one sack. Sopoaga was on the field for 27 snaps with no tackles.
“There are a lot of things they can do better,” Belichick said. “They showed up, made a few plays for us. Andre had a couple good pass rushes, hit the quarterback. Isaac was a factor on those short-yardage plays, short-yardage stops, knocked down a screen pass. But overall, there’s still, I think, a lot of work and improvement they can have.
“I think we’re headed in the right direction but, of course, they’re not at the point they’d be at if they’d been here all year. So we’ll have to try to close that gap.”
The secondary had a subpar game, allowing Ben Roethlisberger to throw for 400 yards and four touchdowns. But that was an anomaly in a strong season in which Patriots defensive backs have 11 interceptions and have provided tight coverage that has helped produce sacks.
The Patriots had two interceptions against Roethlisberger by Devin McCourty and rookie Duron Harmon, who replaced Gregory.
“We were able to make some key plays in the game that were big for us defensively,” McCourty said, “and the offense took care of their part.”
The Patriots were just 18th in yards gained entering the game after leading the NFL last year. And Brady was having his worst statistical season as a starter.
But the 55 points tied for the fifth-highest scoring game in Patriots history. The 610 total yards and Brady’s 432 yards passing were both the third most by the team. And the 197 yards rushing were the most by the Patriots in 22 games, including the postseason.
Stevan Ridley rushed for 115 yards and two touchdowns. He even stayed in the game after losing a fumble, a problem that led to his benching several times in his career. But Belichick blamed this one on a good play by safety Troy Polamalu.
There also were plus-100-yard receiving performances by Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Dobson and Danny Amendola. And Brady threw a season-high four touchdown passes.
“We definitely went in with the mindset to allow all of our guys, our skill players, the opportunity to contribute in the game,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “I think that played out pretty well.”