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.
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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