Brady and the Patriots break Pittsburgh's heart again

Brady and the Patriots break Pittsburgh's heart again

PITTSBURGH -- Tom Brady sat sideways in a folding chair, his ass on a bright yellow cushion, his left elbow slung over the back of the chair. His back was against the cement wall, his bare feet on the folding chair in front of him, an empty locker was to his immediate right.

Brady was given the last two lockers in his row, which was positioned at the back of the visitor’s dressing room at Heinz Field.

The locker to his immediate at his elbow was empty. His clothes and luggage were neatly placed in the locked next to his feet. His equipment bag was on the floor. His long-sleeved, black Under Armour undershirt and blue compression shorts were still on. He was in no rush as he thumbed his silver phone, intermittently looking up to smile and say, “Awesome…” or some variation of that when a teammate or team staff came by to bang knuckles.

He’d just finished off another win in Pittsburgh. He’d done what he does -- plucked a team’s still-beating heart from its chest and squeezed it tight -- but he’d still needed his defense to pull off a miracle late to finally stop the thing from beating.


That part came at the very end and it looked just the same as it did when the Patriots won Super Bowl 49 – an opponent melting down at the buzzer. The Steelers felt victimized, persecuted. Their tight end Jesse James scored a touchdown. And then he didn’t because the rules -- the ones that every damn fan and media member know by now and that NFL tight ends should surely know too -- say that you can’t let the ball hit the ground without your full control after a catch. Period. And James failed to do that.  

So it was left to the Steelers quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, to do what the Steelers have done to team after team this season. Finish them off. And he couldn’t do it. The Steelers sideline short-circuited, someone told Roethlisberger to spike it, someone told him to run a play -- they couldn’t get the story straight --– and he threw into traffic and got picked off. Game.

The game that Mike Tomlin circled, starred and underlined almost a month ago was bungled away. Now it was left to the Steelers to figure out what happened. Judging by the response of wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey to each postgame question -- sticking out his tongue and making the raspberry noise -- they were having a tough time of it.

Meanwhile, Brady was on his phone, FaceTiming with one of his sons. At one point, you could hear him ask, “How did you do?” and talking about the new Star Wars movie.

Somewhere else in the Patriots locker room, a player was singing the Styx song “Renegade” a late-game staple at Heinz used to fire up the defense. It played prior to the Patriots touchdown drive when Brady hit Rob Gronkowski for 26 yards, 26 yards, 17 yards and a two-point conversion to put the Patriots ahead. There was a 9-yard touchdown run by Dion Lewis mixed into that Gronkfest. 

Gronk wandered over to Brady from his nearby locker. Gronk showed him his left triceps with a bruise going around it like a tribal tattoo. “Oh my God!” Brady said, laughing at the keepsake.

Gronk headed back to his locker. “I’m going to be so sore tomorrow,” he mumbled.

Hats and t-shirts were being passed out, announcing that the Patriots were AFC East Division champions.

Joe Thuney stopped Malcolm Butler and poked at the blue shirt, “Where’d you get that?” he asked.

“Pro Shop,” Butler answered, walking away with a laugh.

A couple of lockers down from Brady was Brandin Cooks.

“Hey TB,” he called as he crammed a division champs hat down on his head and tugged the brim. “This is new for me.”

“Looks good on you, Cookie,” said Brady

This was the most important game on the NFL’s regular-season slate. The most anticipated. The country was watching; most of it probably praying to see the Patriots upended.

And the country was left unfulfilled. Again.

It was a BS call that “bailed out” the Patriots, just like the Tuck Rule or the one that stripped the Jets of a touchdown this year. Or any other of a dozen lucky breaks New England routinely gets meant that this maddeningly efficient team, humorless coach and arrogant fanbase got to grave dance again when it was the Patriots who were supposed to be dead.

All the Monday morning hot takes that were ready to be taken from the oven had to be thrown in the trash.

The media horde moved from player to player. From Eric Rowe to Duron Harmon -- the principles on Big Ben’s pick. Then over to Dion Lewis, who said he knew the Steelers were going to throw a pick. “Soon as it was overturned, I said, ‘Oh, they gonna blow it.’ You just went from winning the game to having to keep playing. I called it. I said, ‘They about to throw a pick right here.’ I really didn’t think they were gonna throw a pick, but they really did it.”

They really did.

At the opposite end of the locker room, Elandon Roberts was at his locker, a towel over his shoulder, another around his waist.

“We had the kind of plays that we weren’t looking for on defense,” he explained. “I had my plays that had me saying, ‘Man!’ But it was on to the next play. Short memory. That’s the mentality the whole defense had. Sixty minutes. When you play a 60-minute game like this, they’re gonna make good plays and we’re gonna make bad plays and vice versa. That’s the type of fight it was. That’s a great team over there. And it came down to the last play. A team like that, a game like that makes you come more together as a team because you know the guy next to you got your back.”

The guy who has everyone’s back was still at his locker, still playing with his phone, still holding brief audiences.

After his eighth visit to Pittsburgh, he was in a victorious visitor’s locker room for the sixth time. At 40 years old, he’s almost 16 years removed from the first time he came here. He sat in that folding chair and looked content. At home. Just like the Patriots will probably be for the playoffs.


Don't pigeonhole me: How will Adrian Clayborn fit into the Patriots defense?

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Don't pigeonhole me: How will Adrian Clayborn fit into the Patriots defense?

Looking for a two-word answer from Bill Belichick during a press conference? Ask him how a new addition to the roster might fit into the Patriots scheme. 

"We'll see," is Belichick's typical reply in those situations. 


We point that out here because it's hard to know exactly what any new player's role will be with the Patriots, particularly for an edge player like Adrian Clayborn. That spot in Belichick's defense can take on a variety of roles, from pass-rusher, to edge-setter, to coverage player. 

But we can take an educated guess as to how Clayborn will fit in the Patriots defense, based on what we know. That's what the Patriots did when they signed him. They saw certain skills. They saw Clayborn perform in certain situations. They made their projection. 

There's always the chance Clayborn asserts himself in a way that wasn't expected. Or maybe the way he fits with his new teammates will open his coaches' eyes in ways they weren't anticipating. But at this point, as is the case with every new addition, they're hypothesizing. So we will too. 

AGAINST THE PASS: Clayborn was, for the vast majority of his snaps, a pass-rusher for the Falcons last year. He played 631 snaps for the Falcons, which was 53.4 of their defensive snaps. Of those 631 plays, Clayborn rushed the quarterback 477 times, per Pro Football Focus (76 percent of his workload). And of those pass-rush snaps, only one came from the left side. (Clayborn was born with Erb's palsy, which means his right arm has some limitations compared to his left, which impacts the side of the field he aligns on. He played 91 percent of his snaps from the right side in 2016.)  Clayborn played over 80 percent of the snaps during each of his first three seasons in the league as a member of the Bucs so he's been a three-down player before. But recent history would suggest the 6-foot-2, 280-pounder is now more of a sub option.

Here's how Clayborn responded during a conference call on Wednesday when asked if he could chip in on first and second down for the Patriots. "I believe that’s what people have pigeon-holed me in as a third-down player, but I know I can play first, second, third down if need be," he said. "That was my role in Atlanta because that’s what they asked me to do, but I mean, I can play all three downs if you ask me."

AGAINST THE RUN: According to Pro Football Focus, Clayborn has been a negatively-graded player against the run during each of his seven seasons in the NFL. Last year he checked in as PFF's 78th-ranked run defender among edge players, which was far below the ranking Trey Flowers received (19th) but ahead of Deatrich Wise (85th) and Eric Lee (96th). During each of his last three seasons with the Falcons, he has seen his snap-counts break down similarly: about 75 percent of his work came against the pass, about 25 percent came against the run. He can defend the run. He's capable of it. He just hasn't been asked to consistently hold up on the edge on a down-in-down-out basis during the most recent phase of his career. 

THE FIT: Based on his history in Atlanta, it would make sense if the Patriots asked Clayborn to come off of the right edge in passing situations in 2018. That's where his recent experience has been. Keeping him away from the left side not only makes the most of where he's strongest, but it also keeps him from finding himself in coverage. As Belichick has explained in the past, the left end spot (Rob Ninkovich's old spot), going against right-handed quarterbacks, is typically asked to do more in coverage. The right edge has been Flowers' area in the recent past -- he played almost 65 percent of his passing-rush snaps last season off the right, per PFF -- but if the Patriots are fully-healthy up front, Flowers could kick inside to do his rushing. An ideal sub package for the Patriots, it could be argued, would have Clayborn on the right edge, Flowers and either Wise or Adam Butler on the interior, and Derek Rivers or Dont'a Hightower on the left edge. Rivers saw some work off the left side before suffering an injury in last year's training camp. Early last season, Hightower saw time on the left edge. 


Clayborn will have an opportunity to show he can do more than rush off the right side. He said on Wednesday that the Patriots have discussed multiple roles for him. (Perhaps he could rush from the interior, though he's not as long as Flowers or Wise, whose arms make them good matchups for stouter guards and tackles.) Wherever those opportunities come, Clayborn knows he'll have to make the most of them if he doesn't want to be pigeonholed. The deal for two years and $10 million he just signed in New England doesn't guarantee him myriad responsibilities.

"Whatever I can prove I can do,” he said. "I know I can rush the passer. I know I can set edge in the run. I mean, there’s a couple of different positions that they believe I can play, so it’s up to me to prove I can play them."


Ex-Patriot Ricky Jean-Francois signing with Lions

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Ex-Patriot Ricky Jean-Francois signing with Lions

Former Patriots defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois is signing with the Lions, according to Jordan Schultz of Yahoo Sports.

The 31-year-old had six tackles in six games for the Patriots in 2017. He'll reunite with ex-Patriots defensive coordinator and now Lions head coach Matt Patricia in Detroit.