Patriots

Tom E. Curran's takeaways: Patriots put Steelers defense in a blender in Week 1 win

Tom E. Curran's takeaways: Patriots put Steelers defense in a blender in Week 1 win

The banner dropped and so did the boom on the Pittsburgh Steelers. That’s the main takeaway from Day 1 A.B. (after Antonio), this Patriots defense is as voracious as we thought it might be.

Pittsburgh managed just four first downs in the opening half and went 1-for-6 on third down. Ben Roethlisberger threw for 65 yards on 9-of-14 passing, the longest being a 19-yarder to Juju Smith-Schuster who was locked down effectively by Stephon Gilmore.

The Patriots – who were gashed on the ground by Pittsburgh in Week 15 last year – were outstanding and aggressive against the run this time. Two plays in particular stood out in the first half. The first was a third-and-1 run stuff by nose tackle Danny Shelton who stopped James Conner inches short of the sticks.

The second was a third-and-1 toss to Conner that Jamie Collins diagnosed right away (maybe because the Steelers tried to run it three times in a row). Shooting through traffic, Collins dropped Conner for a 4-yard loss and if he hadn’t made the play, fellow linebacker John Simon would have.

Toss in a fourth-and-1 pass breakup by Patrick Chung on Donte Moncrief just after the two-minute warning and you can see why Roethlisberger came out in the second half with a “Screw it, I’m throwing deep” mentality.

Forget Roethlisberger’s final passing line. A lot of it was compiled well after the matter was decided. Look instead at the fact Pittsburgh could manage just 32 yards on the ground on 13 carries. Bottled. Up.

PUTTING THE STEELERS D IN A BLENDER

Takeaway 1A? With his offensive game plan for this opener, Josh McDaniels showed why he deserved every bouquet thrown at him in last week’s “Do Your Job” special.

And while that game focused on the tail-end of 2018, McDaniels and Tom Brady have been conjuring so much chaos for defenses since the middle of last year when they were drastically undermanned that it’s become accepted that they just put defenses in a blender with regularity.

The first drive was five straight runs with two backs on the field for each of them. The second drive was no-huddle shotgun with virtually every combination of backs, wideouts, tight ends and formations all executed in hurry-up. A double-pass that went for 32 yards was mixed in there as well. That drive ended with a 20-yard touchdown pass to Josh Gordon on a simple crossing pattern that Pittsburgh misplayed, allowing Gordon to build a head of steam and step out of a tackle at the 2 before bulling in.

The Patriots second touchdown was another piece of formation, motion and play-action chicanery that ended up freezing the Steelers defense and letting Dorsett get a step down the seam for a touchdown that made it 17-0.

By the time the second half came, the Steelers were due for their semi-annual “Let’s leave a guy totally uncovered and see how it goes…” defense. They let Dorsett run unchecked past defensive back Kameron Kelly who appeared to have a communication breakdown that ended with Dorsett catching a 58-yard touchdown. And that was on a third-and-10. On the Patriots next drive, they wound up with linebacker Vince Williams covering Gordon who wound up pulling in a 44-yard rainbow from Brady while taking a big hit. By then it was elementary.

PLENTY OF WORK FOR GORDON

Josh Gordon played way more snaps than I thought he would. His wind last season was a big issue when he came over from Cleveland and he looked to be carrying some extra weight when he got to camp but he didn’t appear to need any tapping out in the opener.

WINOVICH THE IRRITANT

Chase Winovich is going to be a season-long irritant for opposing offenses. He’s generally lining up outside the left tackle in a two-point stance and comes off the edge like the Tasmanian Devil. He got within a reaching distance of Ben Roethlisberger a few times and celebrated after the resulting incompletions enough to get Roethlisberger glaring at him. He also drew a hold on left tackle Alejandro Villanueva when Winovich got very small and left Villanueva wrapping up the rookie and falling on him. Villanueva wasn’t psyched.

STRONG START FOR SPECIAL TEAMS

Smooth start both for kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who drilled all three of his field goals and snuck in a fourth and rookie punt returner Gunner Olszewski who had returns of 20 and 15 yards and cleanly fielded three fair catches. Olszewski’s ability to cleanly and confidently field punts can’t be overstated (Chris Harper) nor can the impact he will have in keeping Julian Edelman out of harm’s way on fourth downs.

DISRUPTIVE DBs

The Patriots were outstanding at ball disruption on the Steelers receivers. Patrick Chung , Jonathan Jones and Jason McCourty (twice) all drove the ball out of the grasp of Steelers receivers on what would have been relatively easy receptions if they hadn’t gotten there with so much aggressiveness. It’s little things like that – arriving on time – as opposed to a heartbeat late as we’d seen in prior years that make a massive difference in getting off the field on third down.

A SLOW NIGHT FOR SONY

Sony Michel had what appears to be a depressing game statistically – 15 carries, 14 yards. He didn’t get a lot of clearance up front to work and – one ray of light – three of the 1-yard runs picked up first downs in second and third-and-short.

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'He was crying' to officials: Patriots, Stephon Gilmore frustrate Eagles' Zach Ertz

'He was crying' to officials: Patriots, Stephon Gilmore frustrate Eagles' Zach Ertz

PHILADELPHIA — Zach Ertz's numbers looked good. And Ertz fantasy owners were likely very pleased with what Ertz provided on Sunday, catching nine passes on 11 targets for 94 yards.

But, as one of the only viable receiving options in the Eagles offensive huddle, the Patriots rendered Ertz's contributions largely meaningless. Without starting receivers Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson, the Patriots were able to focus on Ertz and help stymie the Philadelphia passing game. Carson Wentz completed 20 of his 40 attempts for 214 yards and a touchdown. Including the five sacks he absorbed, Wentz averaged just 3.9 yards per dropback.

Despite the injuries to his offensive unit, Eagles coach Doug Pederson believed they'd be able to muster more than that paltry figure in their 17-10 defeat. 

"We feel like," Pederson said, "with Zach and Dallas [Goedert], we can do some things . . . Listen, give them credit. They did a nice job on defense kind of taking those players away. We knew that coming into this game, and we just didn't make enough plays."

Ertz, in particular, was kept quiet early on. 

He caught three passes for 16 yards, none of which resulted in first downs, through the first quarter. He helped get the Eagles out of the shadow of their own end zone during their long first-half touchdown drive, but didn't touch the football beyond his team's 26-yard line on that series.

In the second quarter, Ertz caught back-to-back passes for 20 yards, but the Eagles punted two plays later. Ertz caught one pass in the third quarter for one yard, bringing his three-quarter total to six catches, 37 yards.

At one point, it looked like Patriots coverages were starting to get to him. 

On Philadelphia's final third-down snap of the third quarter, Patriots corner Stephon Gilmore provided physical one-on-one man-to-man coverage. Wentz went elsewhere with the football, the pass fell incomplete, and Ertz appealed to the closest official for a penalty flag. He didn't get one, and then he and Gilmore exchanged words as the Eagles punt team took the field. 

"He was crying," Gilmore said. "He do that on film a lot. If you get into him. If he don't get the ball or he don't get a call, he'll cry. But he's a good receiver. He's a good tight end. He's a great player . . . He's a great player, but when he don't get his way, he'll complain to the ref. But who don't do that?"

The Patriots plan for Ertz was, essentially, to have Gilmore take Ertz when he was clearly going to be a receiver — second-and-long, third downs, obvious passing situations late in the game with the Eagles trying to come back. Gilmore had Ertz in man-to-man on a second-and-eight play early in the game, but then Ertz was bracketed on the subsequent third down and Gilmore took receiver Jordan Matthews. Jonathan Jones took Ertz on a first-down snap early in the game. Safeties Devin McCourty and Terrence Brooks had Ertz at different points in the game as well.

It was a varied plan, one that the Patriots were able to execute thanks to their polished system of communication.

"It's from coaching down," Gilmore said. "Sometimes I was gonna be on him. Sometimes the safeties was gonna be on him. You can't line up in one thing the whole time. You gotta keep them thinking. That's one thing we did today. He didn't know who was gonna be on him at certain times. It helped out a lot."

Gilmore also had the benefit of getting the occasional chip at the line of scrimmage on Ertz. Linebacker Dont'a Hightower, playing on the edge, knocked Ertz off of his route immediately during a third-and-nine play and Gilmore took him from there. 

Though Ertz is essentially a 6-foot-5, 250-pound receiver in certain situations, Gilmore said he couldn't play him like the receivers he typically shadows on a weekly basis. 

"I gotta slow myself down a little bit because they're so slow," Gilmore said of covering tight ends. "But they're big and they push off a lot. Just gotta slow myself down a little bit because I'm used to covering faster guys. If I do that, I can play them pretty tight . . . "

"You can see it on film. Ertz is a fast guy, but like I said, I've guarded faster guys. I gotta really slow down and not get on top like I play receivers. Let him beat me a little bit. If I play on top he'll push me off. That's the game plan I had."

Ertz came alive late in the game, catching three of five targets in the fourth quarter for 57 yards and three first downs as the Eagles pushed the pace. Philly had a chance to tie it late with a heave to Nelson Agholor on fourth down, but it bounced off of Agholor's hands and to the turf. 

The fact that Ertz wasn't the one to be the target with Wentz looking for a critical strike meant that, in some respects, despite what the box score would tell you, the Patriots did what they wanted with Philly's top offensive weapon. 

Brooks, who played for the Eagles in 2016, said having some experience seeing Ertz in practice years ago might've helped him Sunday. He played 35 snaps on Sunday, according to Pro Football Focus, which was his second-highest total of the season. With Patrick Chung inactive due to injury, Brooks stepped into an increased role.

"That comes with film study and practice reps and things like that and for the most part confidence," Brooks said of taking Ertz. "You gotta be confident that whoever lines up across from you, you can take him on. I was up for the challenge, man. I was excited about it. That's one of the best tight ends in the game. I was very happy to get that chance to keep going against him . . . 

"He made some nice catches, other ones with tight coverage. But I give it to him. I got a lot of respect for that guy and what he does in this league, but I feel like it's on me, whoever I line up across, to shut them down. That's my mindset every time."

Ertz wasn't totally shut down. His final stats would suggest as much. But he was shut down on third down (zero catches) and in the red zone (zero catches). He didn't have a catch in Patriots territory. 

Whether it was Brooks in coverage or Gilmore or McCourty, or someone else, the Patriots took Ertz away when Wentz needed him most and won. No matter what the box score says, they'll take that.

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Patriots clinch 19th consecutive winning season to extend absurd run of success

Patriots clinch 19th consecutive winning season to extend absurd run of success

The New England Patriots clinched their 19th consecutive winning season with Sunday's 17-10 Week 11 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, so let's put this incredible run into perspective.

There are just 11 teams right now in the NFL with consecutive winning seasons, and some of those franchises are in danger of seeing that streak end in 2019. 

ESPN's Field Yates put together the full list on Twitter, and when you see the Patriots down at the bottom, it's easy to appreciate the unprecedented run of success they've enjoyed over the last two decades.

The Patriots haven't lost eight or more games since 2000, back when Tom Brady was nothing more than a sixth-round pick hoping to keep his place on the roster. Fast forward nearly 20 years and Brady has led the Patriots to six Super Bowl titles, and with New England sitting atop the AFC with a 9-1 record, title No. 7 is a very realistic possibility in February.

The Pats' 19 consecutive winning seasons is the longest such streak since the AFL/NFL merger in 1970. It trails only the Dallas Cowboys, who had 20 straight winning seasons from 1966 through 1985, for the all-time record.

New England has not won fewer than 10 games since 2002, and it won 12 or more games eight seasons in a row from 2010 through 2017.

There's a lot to admire about the Patriots' dynasty, and the team's ability to come back each season, fight off complacency and consistently finish above .500 certainly ranks among the most impressive facets.

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