FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- NFL wins are like babies, they are each unique and beautiful in their own way.
From wide receiver Chris Hogan's lost fumble on the first offensive play of the day through Stephen Gostkowski's second missed PAT in as many weeks, New England (6-1) got by at Heinz Field more than it rolled to victory.
With backup Landry Jones at quarterback, Pittsburgh actually had more total yards than the Tom Brady-led Patriots, and were it not for Pittsburgh's pair of missed field goals and struggles in the red zone, New England could have very well found itself on an even bigger upset alert.
LeGarrette Blount churned out a season-high 127 yards and a pair of touchdowns on the ground while tight end Rob Gronkowski added a 36-yard score and a 37-yard big play to set up one of the rushing scores to allow the Patriots to return to Foxborough looking to fix plenty of mistakes coming off an ugly win.
"They've got a great team. It was hard to win," left tackle Nate Solder said. "We didn't do everything we wanted to do, but we're going to continue to improve and we're glad we got this win against a good team."
Riding the balance of Blount's production, New England had a relatively quiet day passing. Brady three for just 222 yards and a pair of touchdowns, topping 70 percent completions and a 124-plus passer rating for the third straight week since returning from his four-game Deflategate suspension.
But Brady knows it was far from his team's best day, including turnovers, dropped passes on third down and many other correctable mistakes.
"They certainly made it tough on us," Brady said while noting that his team's mistakes were "self-inflicted wounds."
Defensively, the Patriots were far from perfect against Pittsburgh but what is now the NFL's Ho. 1 unit in points allowed got the job done when it mattered most. The Steelers came away with just one touchdown in four trips into the red zone, with New England notching a turnover on a Malcolm Butler interception in the end zone and Pittsburgh missing one field goal.
In many ways, that was the story of the game. New England scored touchdowns on all three of its trips inside the 20. Old-fashioned football math says seven beats three every time, and even better when you hold a team scoreless on red zone trips.
"Certainly in the end the red area was a huge difference in the game," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Monday. "In a close game those points amounted to a lot. Again, team defense."
REPORT CARD VS. STEELERS
PASSING OFFENSE: C-PLUS -- For the second straight week the passing offense bogged down a bit at times before getting the eventual job done in victory. Things got off to a horrific start when Chris Hogan fumbled away Tom Brady's pass on the opening offensive play for an early turnover. Brady was also under too much consistent pressure, even if his efficiency never seemed to be affected. Working with a productive running game, Brady completed 19 of 26 throws for 222 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions for a 124.2 passer rating. He completed 70-plus percent of his passes, avoided a pick and topped 120-plus in passer rating for the third straight week since returning from suspension. Thirteen of his 19 completions went to the combination of Julian Edelman and tight end Rob Gronkowski. The former had nine catches on 10 targets, but tallied only 60 yards (6.7 avg.) and had a key third down drop. Gronkowski did more, catching all four of his targets for 93 yards, one for a 36-yard touchdown and a 37-yarder to set up a touchdown. Martellus Bennett had just one, five-yard reception on a pair of targets. The only other impactful pass catcher was passing back James White, who had a 19-yard touchdown on a screen to open the scoring. It wasn't the most productive day for the passing attack going against the NFL's 30th pass defense, but it was good enough on the road on a day when things weren't clicking on all cylinders through the air.
RUSHING OFFENSE: A-MINUS -- LeGarrette Blount was the heart of the offense in Pittsburgh, churning out his best day of the season. The big back ran 24 times for a season-high 127 yards with a season-best 5.3-yard average and a pair of touchdowns. New England's offensive line, which struggled at times in pass protection, gave Blount room to work on most carries. He maximized the yardage, bouncing out for a couple nice gains, including a 25-yard long. Aside from a game-ending kneel-down, Tom Brady chipped in with four rushes for 14 yards, including a pair of third-down conversions covering five and four yards, respectively. Overall, it was an impressive day for Blount and the Patriots offensive line that faced a suspect and banged-up Steelers defensive front that allowed Miami to run for 200-plus yards a week earlier.
PASS DEFENSE: B-MINUS -- Steelers inexperienced backup Landry Jones completed 29 of 47 passes for 281 yards with one touchdown and one interception for a 76.6 passer rating. The interception came in the red zone after New England turned it over on its opening play, but Jones returned the favor on an underthrown pass toward Antonio Brown in the end zone that Malcolm Butler picked off. Brown and Butler saw plenty of each other on the day, a competitive battle of Pro Bowl talents. Brown finished with a game-high 107 yards on seven catches, the bulk coming on a pair of big plays for 51 and 25 yards. Running back Le'Veon Bell was Jones' most frequent target, catching a game-high 10 passes for 68 yards as the Patriots did a decent job tackling, though he did have a 22-yarder. Jones spread the ball to eight different targets, never really pressured into quick reads or throws as New England's pass rush was a non-factor. Jones moved the ball through the air in the middle of the field, but the Patriots defense stepped up in the red zone, led by the Butler pick. It wasn't a dominating performance by any means, and the pass rush never helped the coverage out, but it was a winning effort.
RUSH DEFENSE: B-MINUS -- Bell was the obvious centerpiece of the Steelers attack minus Ben Roethlisberger. That meant 21 rushing attempts for 81 yards, a 3.9-yard average. Considering that the dangerous lead back entered the game averaging 5.5 yards a carry, that's not a bad day for the Patriots' front. Bell had just two runs longer than 10 yards but never hit a big play and was generally contained by the Patriots, including linebacker Jamie Collins and his eight solo tackles. Safety Patrick Chung was also a big part of keeping Bell in check with a team-high 10 total tackles. Alan Branch continued to be solid from the defensive tackle spot with another tackle for a loss. New England knew Bell was going to get his touches and made sure the back was unable to carry the Steelers offense to victory.
SPECIAL TEAMS: D-MINUS -- Just about everything that could go wrong in the kicking game did for New England. Stephen Gostkowski continued his struggles with a missed PAT. Punter Ryan Allen had two short kicks under 30 yards, including a 25-yard shank that actually ended up in the stands on the way to a day with a 32.5 net average on five punts. Julian Edelman lost a fumble at the end of a punt return. And the kickoff coverage that had been so good covering short, high kicks allowed 27- and 32-yard returns as Pittsburgh started at the 25 or better on all five of their drives after kickoffs. It was an all-around bad day in the third phase for New England.
COACHING: B-MINUS -- Facing a bad defense and a team working with an inexperienced backup quarterback, New England was the squad that didn't exactly seem ready to play. Turnovers, dropped passes, penalties and poor execution riddled the Patriots in all three phases. Offensively, Josh McDaniels' game plan of sticking to the run against Pittsburgh's lighter personnel with two-high safeties worked reasonably well, even if the focus on the run does keep the scoring down for the potential high-powered passing attack. Still, the pass protection never solidified, although the group never allowed a sack, and the passing game really only included throws to Edelman and Gronkowski. That's too predictable for a team with so much depth of weapons. Defensively, Matt Patricia's troops did their usual controlled rush and conservative thing, believing Jones wasn't consistent enough to pull off the upset. While that ended up true, there was much to be improved on in the pass rush and overall pass defense. Certainly Joe Judge needs to find a way to pull things together better on special teams, where New England just couldn't do much right. Winning on the road in the NFL isn't easy, so New England deserves credit for that. But the Patriots didn't exactly seem ready to go from the opening kickoff and had to scrape together a hard-fought win over 60 minutes.