Throughout the offseason, and especially after the first weekend of the season when they got hammered in Baltimore, the Steelers have heard the media call their defense too old, too slow and too past its prime. This past week, they had to listen to everyone say Tom Brady and the Patriots had their number. Tomlin used these words to motivate, focus and improve his team. The "us-against-the-world" routine still works well.
Four weeks ago, after getting beat in Houston in Week 4, the Steelers practiced in pads two days in a row. The result was a blowout win against the Titans. Since that point, the Steelers have improved their pad level and physical intensity and have won four games in a row. Before they played the Patriots, Tomlin once again had the team in pads, getting them ready to handle the challenge that awaited them in Brady and the Pats' potent offense. The Steelers once again responded and dominated the Patriots.
From the first snap, the Steelers were in complete control. Behind the arm of Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers executed their passing game with precision. Fearing the big play, the Patriots tried to zone blitz, but it never bothered Roethlisberger. The Steelers are an explosive passing team with three receivers who can run -- Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. That trio -- Brown has really emerged as a big-play receiver and is an excellent route runner -- with Roethlisberger at the helm, have turned the Steelers into an offense with as much speed as the Eagles.
When the Steelers' defense took the field, the unit changed its style from a zone concept and borrowed a page from the Jets' playbook, locking onto the Patriots' receivers man-to-man. With Ike Taylor following Wes Welker on every snap, the Steelers' secondary was the determining factor in the game. Brady was unable to make big plays; his longest completion was just 23 yards.
When the Patriots cannot grab early control of the game with their offense, they struggle to win. As much as the Steelers' offense dominated the Patriots' defense, Pittsburgh's defense dominated New England's high-powered offense. And, in essence, Pittsburgh beat New England at its own game -- letting the offense dictate the pace.
So much for all that talk about the Steelers being old and slow. They might be old, but they are still talented and tough. Now, after four straight wins, they have their swagger back. And Tomlin hopes everyone keeps writing his team off. It makes his job a little easier.
Things I loved
» I love how Eli Manning has been playing all season, especially Sunday. He took a pounding, but kept getting up and making great throw after great throw. He was near perfect, throwing for 349 yards as he led the Giants to their comeback win against the Dolphins. Manning said in training camp that he believes he is an elite quarterback, and has gone out and played like one in leading the Giants to four wins in five games. Manning has been able to make the deep throw to a variety of receivers, while cutting down on interceptions and fumbles in the pocket. He has been the glue to the offense, which has had injuries at running back, wide receiver, tight end and has had to shuffle offensive linemen all over. Bottom line: Manning is elite.
» I loved how Steven Jackson competed to lead the Rams to their first win against the Saints. Jackson is a top-five back but is playing on a bottom-five team, so it is not often that he can run the ball throughout the game. The Rams are last in the NFL in second-half point differential, which means that Jackson is limited in how much he can impact the game. Jackson is so talented -- he has incredible size, speed, toughness and the ability to make plays in the passing game. His hands are soft, he is capable of running excellent routes and, if he had a little more help, he is capable of doing even more. With Brandon Lloyd at receiver and Jackson at tailback, the Rams finally had two legitimate NFL playmakers on the field at the same time. And even without injured QB Sam Bradford, the Rams ran the ball with Jackson having his best day of the season.
» I loved watching the Eagles' offense destroy the Cowboys. It reminded me of those great Lakers teams of the 1980s when they had their fast break going. With Michael Vick as the point guard and LeSean McCoy as the best loose play runner in the league right now, the Eagles finally look like a "Dream Team." When they protect the football, and don't make the stupid mistakes, the offense is the fastest in the league. Vick makes it all go, in part because he can take a bad play and turn it into a 10-yard gain. That's especially true when teams blitz like the Cowboys did Sunday. Vick was accurate and made great decisions of when to run and when to pass. With three teams in the NFC East at 3-4 -- Washington, Dallas and Philadelphia -- the Eagles look like the best of the bunch.
Things I hated
» I hated watching the Redskins' offense against Buffalo. If you can't have any success against Buffalo's defense, which has given up a ton of yards, then there is little hope of ever having success. Let's put this horrendous performance in prospective. The Bills had allowed at least 400 yards of offense the past five games, but the 'Skins could barely reach 180 and had just 10 first downs. The 'Skins are bad on offense right now. Mike Shanahan came to Washington to fix its offensive woes, but his choice of John Beck at quarterback is going to be his downfall this season. Shanahan believes his coaching can overcome a quarterback's lack of talent, but that has not been the case so far. Maybe being shut out for the first time in his career will alter Shanahan's view of what he needs at quarterback. After the past few weeks, he might want to rethink that; just like I am seriously rethinking picking the 'Skins to win the NFC East.
» I hated the way the Cardinals played in the second half against the Ravens. Arizona could not protect the passer, as Kevin Kolb was getting hit on every play. Most of the damage came from Terrell Suggs, who consistently came screaming off the edge. The Cardinals took a 24-3 lead into halftime, but the game turned completely in the Ravens' favor as they exposed Arizona's weaknesses. Arizona has a really bad offensive line. From left tackle to right tackle, the Cardinals struggle to get movement in the run game and really have problems in protection, where they have allowed 11 sacks on second down and rank 24th overall in sacks allowed. They also have a poor secondary. After Patrick Peterson, the Cards have no other real cover man. It was clearly noticeable as they had no one to cover Anquan Boldin down the field. But the biggest personnel problem is Kolb, who never seems to get the offense in the right protection or make the right read. He clearly is not the answer at quarterback. The silver lining is at 1-6, they look like players in the Andrew Luck sweepstakes.
» I hated watching Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow struggle against the Lions. He was sacked seven times -- some his fault for holding the ball too long, some the fault of his offensive line. Tebow lead the Broncos to three points to start the game, but the next nine drives never had more than five plays total. Tebow will have to prove that he is capable of making quick decisions and throwing the ball from the pocket. The Lions were the worst matchup possible for Tebow, as they took away all the naked and boot leg plays and prevented him from getting outside the pocket to make throws on the move. Tebow is not a pocket passer, not now and maybe ever. Concerns about Tebow being an NFL passer will continue. However, the blowout goes beyond Tebow, as the Broncos' defense failed to slow down the Lions.
Things on my mind
» The Cowboys are going to watch the tape and realize how many tackles they missed -- some because the Eagles are too fast, and some because they did not tackle. Once linebacker Sean Lee went down, Dallas lost its best second-level defender and it was painful to watch an older, slower Keith Brooking try to play.
» Giants coach Tom Coughlin is right -- the Dolphins play hard and they compete. But they are just not good enough to close out games. Once the initial game plan has been executed, Miami does not have enough talent to make adjustments. Coach Tony Sparano will get fired at the end of the year, if not sooner, but he is still competing and getting the players to respond. Considering the circumstances, you have to admire his professional approach.
» Every road win the Bengals get, the more confidence they gain as a young team. Winning in Seattle was nice, not because the Seahawks are a good team but because the Bengals were able to win in a tough environment. The AFC North is a legitimate three-team race between the Steelers, Ravens and Bengals.
» Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin was getting deep all day and making plays. Never thought I would type that in this column, but Boldin was the reason the Ravens were able to get back in the game against the Cardinals. The Ravens displayed toughness, competitiveness and resolve in their comeback, but they also showed their offense is still a concern.