Knee Jerk Reactions to Week 1: Patriots vs. Steelers

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Things to consider while hoping Antonio Brown stays out of the West Wing where Brady keeps the bell jar containing the magical rose the enchantress gave him that keeps him in the form of a GOAT:

–So the Patriots hang their sixth banner. They dominate in all three phases. They win 33-3 in a game that not only wasn’t that close, it wasn’t even close to being that close. They did it with their No. 1 running back picking up 14 yards on 15 carries. By throwing to Josh Gordon and two 5-11 wideouts and couple of backs, with practically no involvement from their tight ends. And some time soon they’ll be adding Antonio Brown, Demaryius Thomas, Ben Watson and eventually N’Keal Harry, as well as get Kyle Van Noy back. If this is the Matrix, give me the damned blue pill and let me stay here in the goo-filled pod.

–And to do it to the Steelers, who haven’t been tied with anyone for most Super Bowl titles since 2005 while Brown was staring at them from the owner’s box is just diabolical. It’s like forcing you vanquished enemies to stand there while you sit on their throne and marry their queen. The Pats might as well have just stolen all their Netflix passwords while they were at it.

–The thing is, the Steelers seemed like they were finally figuring out how to beat this team. They’d gotten away from doing the things that worked against everyone else but the Patriots seemed to have the cheat codes for. Instead of stubbornly hanging onto the old zone schemes that Tom Brady would carve up, they started playing predominantly man, and the Pats struggled to adjust. Instead of always throwing out of shotgun and running from under center, they were mixing in draws from gun and 7-step dropback passes. And in last year’s win at Pittsburgh, they were effective at both. But over the offseason, the Pats adjusted to their adjustments and it’s got to be utterly demoralizing for one of the few AFC teams with a shot to be a threat to New England in the playoffs.

–I’ve tried to train myself to not panic if things aren’t going well in September. To remind myself that, on both sides of the ball, this team runs systems that are high-performance, precision-engineered driving machines that need a lot of maintenance to dominate on the highway. So the first month is an extension of training camp. If this is how they look now, with so much roster turnover and late additions to the offense and minimal prep time – against a quality opponent no less – the rest of the NFL has every justification to be petrified of what the this team’s peak could look like.

–I’ve been knee jerkily reacting to Pats games since before I joined Barstool in like 2004 or 05, when I would post them to a Patriots fans message board. I’ve never had any structure to them, preferring just to burp out random thoughts as they occur to me. And I have no intention of organizing those thoughts into a coherent format now. But just to briefly take a shot at being comprehensible, here are the guys I think are most worthy of singling out for praise in this one:

*Tom Brady. Try not to be stunned by my mentioning him first. But even with essentially three receivers and a couple of pass catching backs as his color palette, he Bob Rossed a masterpiece. Attacking the Steelers new look coverages with man-beating route concepts like slants and flats. He looked off safeties the way he used to torture an objectively great player like Troy Polamalu. He threw on-target, laser guided missiles on deep balls to Phillip Dorsett and Josh Gordon.

I still don’t know how he froze Kameron Kelly there. Unless he astral projected the image of another receiver onto the field in front of him, because that was your garden variety Go route designed to draw deep coverage, to free someone up underneath, not to come wide open. Still, not a bad throw for an aging, noodle-armed, cliff-falling malcontent with a harpie wife who’s forcing him into retirement.

*Stephon Gilmore.
When Darrelle Revis was our CB1, they’d generally put him on the offense’s No. 2 option and double team the No. 1. That’s no knock on Revis; it was smart and effective and forced quarterbacks to go deep into their progressions. The Pats are not doing that with Gilmore. He had Juju Smith-Schuster virtually the whole night with little to no help. Juju is supremely good at attacking off-man coverage. According to Pro Football Focus, he had the best Passer Rating when targeted against off-man in the league. And at times he flashed his agility and sharp route-running, like just before the half when he shook Gilmore to get inside leverage for a big gain. But for he most part, Gilmore neutralized him with press and bump and run and came as close to taking an elite receiver like JJSS away. He is so much better than we were told he’d be when they signed him.

*Jerod Mayo. In his first game as Not Really the Defensive Coordinator Mayo pitched a complete game one-hitter. I especially liked the wrinkle of doubling Smith-Schuster in the red zone and moving Gilmore to Ryan Switzer, which was unexpected and effective, stalling one of the few drives where Pittsburgh got close enough to use it. Mayo used a top-down approach, starting the game with their base nickel and later dime. But still loading the box with safeties to neutralize the run. And as the game wore on and defense got hotter, he just kept throwing defensive backs on the bonfire. By the start of the 4th, he had seven Dbs with three linebackers and Michael Bennett as the only down lineman. On a 3rd & 10 out of that set, Mayo rushed five, forced a checkdown and only gave up a yard. I’m too grateful to Brian Flores for all he did here to point out the man Mayo replaced just watched his team give up 59 points. Instead I’ll just say if Belichick was really smart he would’ve built an animatronic coach to stand on the sidelines wearing the headset and holding the Cheesecake Factory menu so Mayo wouldn’t end up as a head coach somewhere else next year. But it’s too late now.

*The other cornerbacks. Jonathan Jones was outstanding all night. Mostly against James Washington. Typically with safety help. And almost always staying stride-for-stride with his man in trail technique. Jason McCourty had that one major glitch on the 33-yarder to Washington up the sidelines, where the Pats were in Cover-2 but Duron Harmon bit on (I think) at tight end slant and was late getting over. But other than that, J-Mac seemed to have a pass break up on every drive, showing good late hands to knock balls out whenever a receiver’s hands touched them. And JC Jackson got some reps as they sent their entire secondary horde into battle late in the game. It’s pretty clear the are going to keep Gilmore on the field at all times with three safeties, and go with this three-headed King Ghidora rotating through on the other side.

*The rookies. In our first look at Isaiah Wynn in a life fire exercise, he looked like the guy you’d want them to take with the 23rd pick. Yes, he’s not huge like Nate Solder or Trent Brown (who still might get his status as a planet reinstated). Not many people are. But mostly working against Bud Dupree he showed a solid, balanced base, moved well and didn’t get shoved off his spot. Ted Karras had no major blocking issues, mainly facing Javon Hargrave. And he did a nice job of getting out in front of that double pass screen to spring White upfield. But if I’m picking nits, his shotgun snap tends to float like a Tim Wakefield pitch. And Chase Winovich got significant snaps, more as the game wore on and the Steelers were in full time passing mode. I’m not sure he’ll get credit for any pressures or QB hits. But he pushed some pockets against Alejandro Villanueva and Matt Feiler. And it’s pretty obvious he’s an established part of their edge rotation.

*Phillip Dorsett. In case you haven’t noticed, the guy no one has felt good about having to count on has become one of Brady’s most reliable deep threats. How reliable? Going back to January, he had caught four of Brady’s last five touchdown passes. On his first TD of the night, Brady faked the hand off to James White and froze the safety just long enough for Dorsett to gain half a step on Mike Hilton, which is all he needed. Watch those plays and realize that he’s a week or two away from being Brady’s fifth option. Now try to think about baseball stats or your grandma so your embarrassing erection goes away.

*Josh McDaniels. No tight ends in an offense built around two tight ends? No problem. McDaniels simply steers into the skid. He pulls off a double pass from Brady to Edelman to White behind a wall of blockers. He uses Ryan Izzo to free Gordon up on a mesh route. He got Pittsburgh in run sets by lining up in the I behind Jimmy Neckroll, and then play actioned them into Bolivian. Like those two in a row he called to set up that first Dorsett TD. And he hasn’t even opened the Amazon package that the Oakland Raiders left on his porch.

*Pat Chung. The Steelers converted just three 3rd downs on 12 attempts, all of them when the game was out of reach. And Chung was there making a lot of those stops. As well as a PBU on a 4th pass to Donte Moncrief. It’s a testament to his work to come back from a broken forearm. But also not the worst advertisement for the quality of Meredith, NH cocaine. (I kid. Innocent until proven guilty. Just say no, kids.)

–Speaking of the Patriots offseason, we know you were waiting all year to say “The Patriots are the masters of rubbing off,” Cris Collinsworth. To all you TV analysts scheduled to do these games? You get one per game. That’s it. Make it count.

–It’s just not Fall until you get to see a Mike Tomlin team do Mike Tomlin team things. Like when they finally get down into a goal-to-go situation and break the huddle with just enough ticks on the clock to burn an unnecessary time out. Then throw a corner fade that has zero chance of connecting. Then settle for a field goal. From the 1. Down by 20. But their greatest moment – the highlight of the NFL season so far – was everyone moving but the backup center.

Mental mistakes by the Steelers are an integral part of this time of year for me. Like breaking out the fleece and going leaf peeping. They are my Pumpkin Spice football plays.

–That false start was so embarrassing I thought the entire Steelers team was going to hire Social Media Consultants to figure out how to get released.

–As far as the two new Special Teams Cult leaders, there was a lot to like from Jake Bailey and Gunner Olszewski. Bailey opened up with a 53 yard lunar shot before coming back to Earth with a misfire. But then again, it wasn’t pretty much a night off for a punter in this offense. And Olszewski justified taking up a roster spot, not only with a nice 20 yard return but also in kick coverage, making first contact with the returner at about the 11. He could stand to finish the tackle there as Switzer slipped him to get to about the 22. We still don’t know if he’ll survive once some every down players get activated. But he did nothing to disappoint us Gunnies.

–The guys who didn’t play are an interesting bunch. We never got to see Joejuan Williams, Obi Melifonwu and Damien Harris were inactives. Jakobi Meyers had just that one stellar catch and run. And I never saw newly elected team captain Elandon Roberts all night. I guess it means you’ve got quality depth at linebacker when coming out for the coin toss is the only thing The Dread Captain Roberts does all night.

–I would never begrudge Kyle Van Noy missing a game because his wife is in labor. Personally though, I don’t think any man should be in there. I’ve done it twice and it’s a bloody nightmare. Seriously, it’s like a crime scene. The dad is just in the way. The mom is in agony. Frankly I think you’re better off trying taking on blocks from Maurkice Pouncey and trying to chase down tight ends in coverage and leave the baby birthing to the professionals. Just one man’s opinion. But congratulations to the Van Noy family on the blessed event.

–I might have had a little trepidation when Michael Bennett was talking about coming here to engage people in political discussions. But one, he’s been a perfect addition to this roster. And two, he couldn’t have picked a better way to win me over.

–This Week’s Applicable Movie Quote: “If God didn’t want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep.” – Calvera, “The Magnificent Seven”

–I saw no less than a half dozen commercials and still don’t get it. Is Laundry Night a good thing or a bad thing? The only takeaways I had is that they’re trying to adapt elaborate Super Bowl Ad stunt commercials into the regular season. And that at this point cable might as well just dedicate a network to nothing but 24-hours of infomercials hosted by Peyton Manning. That way he’ll have something to do, people who can’t get enough of him can get their fix, and I can finally cut the cord once and for all.

–It’s a long shot, but while Brady and Gisele are taking in boarders, I won’t take up much room. And we can make a pillow fort and in the morning I’ll make waffles.

–I can’t believe football is back. Thank gawdamighty it’s better than I remembered it being. Wakanda forever!