Happy Victory Monday!
It’s been a while since I got to wake up with this feeling. The Monday following a New England Patriots win is always an enjoyable time. Read some articles, watch some highlights, listen to some talking heads, and then finally start your workday at around 1 or 2 p.m. before clocking out early to get ready for the Monday Night Game. The way it’s supposed to be.
Since this is the Patriots we’re talking about here, it’s only fair to open up a breakdown of their first win of the season with rampant pessimism, naysaying, and a general sense of party poopery. Because winning isn’t enough with this franchise, even in these rebuilding years. Patriots fans are never happy about anything, ever, so I need to give the people what they want.
- There are still some mental errors that are going to need to be addressed, and we now have two weeks of game tape that show Mac Jones making some questionable decisions regarding his throws. He missed a wide open Lil’Jordan Humphrey early in the first quarter. He threw to a double covered DeVante Parker and right into the hands of one of the best safeties in the league. He should have had another pick had Cam Sutton not dropped a gimme. He missed a wide-open Jakobi Meyers in the flat on 3rd-and-2, forcing it to a double-covered Jonnu Smith instead for an incompletion and a punt. A few passes sailed high or in the dirt. For a quarterback who blew us all away with his accuracy and decision-making during his rookie year, you kind of have to wonder what’s going on here.
- New England also seemed to have some issues getting everyone into position alongside effective play clock management. Delay of game penalties and forced timeouts short-circuited drives in which the offense really seemed to struggle finding a groove.
- DeVante Parker has one catch for nine yards through two games on four targets. Two of those attempts have been interceptions.
- I’m gonna go out on a limb here and state my contention that an undrafted free agent seeing punt return duties for the very first time should try to make a retreating over the shoulder grab of a booming punt inside the 10 yard line that’s clearly on its way into the end zone.
- I’m cold.
- My feet hurt.
- Nobody came to my 10th birthday party.
- I’m out of coffee.
- OK, that’s enough of that. Because overall, there was a lot to like in yesterday’s win. This game was, for the most part, exactly what I expected it to be: two evolving (read; struggling) offenses that had some difficulty moving the ball against two strong defenses. Neither the Patriots nor Pittsburgh Steelers offenses ever really found a true rhythm from whistle to whistle, but both sides put together some nice drives. What it ultimately came down to was that the Patriots were able to capitalize on Pittsburgh mistakes, which ended up being the deciding factor in the game.
- This game may be also preview of what Pats vs. Steelers will be over the next several years. Two second or third place teams in their division grinding out a win. Not exactly what it used to be... but that’s OK.
- Speaking of not what it used to be, this game marked the first Pats/Steelers matchup that didn’t feature either Tom Brady or Big Ben since 1998, when the Drew Bledsoe-led Patriots took down the Kordell Stewart-led Steelers 23-9. That’s pretty wild.
- New England’s first offensive drive was a solid mix of run and pass, exploiting the under routes, receivers finding holes in the zones and Mac Jones making the correct reads with solid timing, and then fizzled in the red zone. Sound familiar?
- Finishing drives and maintaining drives really needs to be the focus going forward. New England’s first TD of the day was a beautiful 44-yard bomb to Nelson Agholor that you love to see, but can’t rely on for regular points. Their second came off of the mole Bill Belichick has had on the inside for a few seasons now when Gunner Olszewski muffed a fair catch and the drive started from the Pitt 10 after a personal foul added yards to the play. They have yet to march down the field and punch it in.
- Though I will say, it was a much better day for the offensive line. There were some killer false start and holding penalties, but Mac Jones had plenty of time to throw in the pocket and he wasn’t sacked once. Cole Strange had multiple one-on-ones against Cam Hayward and won them all.
- Strange was also a beast in the running game, which notched 124 yards on the ground yesterday. He has great instinct on his pull blocks.
- I feel like I should warn the community now — there’s only so long I’m going to be able to resist talking about pulling, hand movement, sacks, and Strange 69 in a manner that won’t get me cancelled. So, it’s been nice working with you all.
- One of the reasons New England seemed to find more success on the ground is that they went back to the power/gap scheme instead of zone blocking. Just like on defense where a defender either plays man coverage (responsible for one player) or zone (responsible for whoever comes into that area), gap or zone run blocking follows a similar philosophy. Zone running can be extremely effective if the linemen make the right reads and the RB has good vision as to where the cutback lanes are, but it invites miscommunication and can blow up easily. The Pats put a hat on a hat yesterday and it went very well.
- New England also used a lot of 11 personnel yesterday as opposed to the 21 base they ran against Miami. Henry and Smith combined for zero catches against the Steelers, so it will be interesting to see if the formation is game-specific or if they’ll eventually find their main base offense.
- I do think that, against a more competent offense, New England has a lot more trouble than they did. There were a handful of good plays, but a number of “meh” ones, and this was a good case of the offense doing enough to win and the defense keeping them in it. My favorite drive of the season so far (small sample size, I know) was the last one, where the Patriots got the ball back with 6:33 to play and the Steelers offense never took the field again. 13 plays, 46 yards, and just one pass. Ground and pound, impose your will, take a knee.
- On defense, it was an interesting choice, against a quarterback like Trubisky, to leave the under routes open and force him into short throws, which he had no problem taking. A QB known to have accuracy issues who is always a threat to take off seems better defended by playing more press man and staying tight at the line.
- Literally the second I wrote that, New England defended a 1st and 10 in a tight 4-3, faked the blitz, dropped the linebackers, and Trubisky tried to force a deeper slant that Mack Wilson tipped into Jalen Mills’s hands. You’re welcome.
- I think the general approach to the defensive strategy was that by keeping everything in front of them and swarming to the ball at the point of release, it would limit the overall damage and force throws to problem spots on the field. The run game was nonexistent; Harris averaged 3.3 yards per carry and the defense only gave up 71 yards on the ground, taking away that one Gunner jet sweep that I’m pretty sure Mike Tomlin just put in there to make the little guy feel better.
- The interior of this line continued to be the strength of the unit. Great games from Christian Barmore, Deatrich Wise Jr. and Lawrence Guy to clog the middle as the safeties and linebackers had cleanup duty along the edges.
- That it’s taken everything in my power to avoid any and all Strange 69 jokes for months and it only just came to my attention now that there’s a Wise/Guy in the middle of the Patriots defense tells you everything you need to know about me.
- Anyone who once again wants to do the four minutes of work it takes to do my job for me and figure out when the last time New England scored on the last play of the first half and the first play of the second, feel free to comment below.
- While I had Lil’Jordan Humphrey making the team, I never had him elevated over Kendrick Bourne in 3WR sets as some kind of WR/TE hybrid. But Bourne got more reps and I’m feeling good about it.
- The Patriots ran two plays with Mac Jones directly under center in the first half. One was a play-action draw pass and the other was a QB sneak as the two minute warning approached. Everything else was out of shotgun, which does limit the playbook quite a bit but gives the quarterback more time in the pocket and makes pass protection a little easier. That’s pretty telling.
- That Nelson Agholor TD was the exact same play, plus a little extra yards, that resulted in Mac Jones’s first pick of the season against the Dolphins. It’s the first 50-50 win I can remember a Patriots receiver winning since... Well, since I don’t know when.
- I’ll never understand the propensity that some ballcarriers have to toss the football into the air the second they cross the goal line. We saw it with Agholor yesterday and with the Cardinals to close out their win against the Raiders. For the love of Tebow, will you hang onto that thing? DeSean Jackson still can’t live that one down.
- Of all the places I never expected to see a floating tiki bar, Pittsburgh, PA is way, way up there.
- I really, really hope that Kyle Dugger isn’t going to miss any time. This is a different Patriots defense without him in there. Peppers was fantastic in Dugger’s absence, but Peppers is still coming off that ACL and needs to be eased back into things.
- I can’t believe I made it this far without talking about Matthew Judon, who registered four tackles, a sack, and a pass breakup to force a Steelers punt. I’ll happily listen to arguments for why that was DPI that wasn’t called... but there has been zero consistency as to what constitutes DPI and what doesn’t for about 15 years now, so I’m just going to shrug my shoulders and move on. Pats got screwed last week, maybe the Steelers did this week. Nobody has any idea.
- The bottom line is that this was a much-needed road win against a conference opponent to avoid dropping to 0-2. The difference between 1-1 and 0-2 is way bigger than it should be, and this gives the Patriots some nice momentum heading into their home opener against a Ravens team that is either going to be out for blood or still in complete shock after their collapse against a suddenly surging Dolphins team. Big chance for a statement game on Sunday.
- And finally, congrats and a massive THANK YOU to Robert Kraft, celebrating his 500th game as owner of the Patriots yesterday. This franchise was a dumpster fire and moments away from relocating to St. Louis when he stepped in, on his own dime, and turned everything around. One of the best owners in all of professional sports.
It’s already shaping up to be an absolutely WILD 2022 NFL season. We’ve had more madness through two weeks than we had for the first half of 2021. So it seems like anything goes here. We all better buckle up.