Monday, September 9, 2019

Patriots Dominate Opener, Top Steelers 33-3

In case you missed it (and how could you?), the Patriots wailed on the seemingly hapless Steelers, wiping them out 33-3 in a game that wasn't even that close. The win put them in a tie with Buffalo for the AFC East lead, one game up on the losing Jets and Dolphins. Next up is those same Dolphins, who are 14.5-point underdogs at home next week against the Pats.

As is often the case, it's tougher to learn a lot from a blowout win than a close game. But here is what I gleaned from the victory.

1. This might be the deepest linebacking corps the Patriots have had under Bill Belichick. They were missing Kyle Van Noy (out for the birth of his son). But the fill-ins stopped absolutely everything in front of them. No short passes, no running game, multiple tackles for a loss, and multiple stops on third- and fourth-and-short.

This had been an area of concern since the victory in Super Bowl LI over Atlanta. And they probably lost the SB against the Eagles because the linebackers were a weak spot, and barely had a linebacking crew last year. But now it's a clear strength on the team. Team Captain Elandon Roberts didn't even play enough to make a single tackle -- shows you how deep they are.

2. Seems like the media concerns at receiver were overblown. Julian Edelman had 6 catches for 83 yards; Josh Gordon 3 for 73 (and 1 TD), Phillip Dorsett 4 for 94 (and 2 TDs), and the running backs combined for 10 catches and 97 yards. Even rookie Jacobi Meyers got into the act with his first NFL catch (more on that later).

And all this before Antonio Brown arrived. Yep; I'd guess the receivers will be just fine.

3. Tom Brady started slow but still torched the Steelers. TB12 ended the day going 24 for 36 (67%), 341 yards, 3 touchdowns, and a 124.9 rating. Not bad considering he was off a bit to start. Pittsburgh did get more pressure as the game progresses, but he was only sacked once and made two of the TD passes as he was getting hit.

4. The field goal unit was perfection in action. Stephen Gostkowski went 4-for-4 on field goals (longest 41 yards) and 3-for-3 on extra points. There were no signs of uncertainty or issues with holds were evident in the preseason. And the kicks weren't just edging in, all were good with room to spare.

5. So much for slow starts. The team started 2-2 in three of the last five seasons. Not much chance of that in 2019 -- they have the awful Dolphins next week, the terrible Jets the week after, and the team they always beat, the Buffalo Bills the week after. (Note: Brady is 33-2 in games that mattered against the Bills since becoming a starter... a 94.3 winning percentage.)

Things to watch

A) Meyers is close to being in the Brady circle of trust. He made the right move and was open on his one catch. But if you watch the replay, the throw is just a touch late because Brady waited to see if Meyers broke the route inside before he let it go. Once he's fully trusted by Brady, the ball will come out earlier and he won't get hit just as he receives the ball.

(Although it was nice to see him hang onto the ball after the hit.)

B) The Pats really do have a three-headed-monster at running back. The star last night was Burkhead (8 carries for 44 yards), and he and White were important to the passing game. Michel got bottled up because Pittsburgh loaded up to stop him. But he'll get his as the season progresses.

C) The punting game is in good shape, on both sides. New punter Jake Bailey averaged 45.6 yards a kick and had two downed inside the 20. And return man Gunner Olszewski returned two kicks for 35 yards -- impressive enough that Edelman shouldn't be called on to do much of that this year.

D) The back-seven of the defense looks really good in pass coverage. It might have owed to a bad Steelers receiving corps, but the DBs and LBs knocked away nine passes total, the most I remember in a long time. Every Steelers receiver had a guy right on him, and at least one got away with a push-off that should have been penalized.

E) I'll say it again here, new team captain Roberts will not be a starter by October. Their best linebackers are, in order: Dont'a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, Ja'whaun Bentley, and maybe then Roberts.

So where does this leave us? The win should have been expected, based on the Pats history of dominance over Pittsburgh in this century. The Dolphins might give the Patriots a tougher game next weekend, because a former assistant is running the show there. But they should still win.

Biggest on-going issue: The shotgun snaps of new center Ted Karras. (The fact that this is the biggest issue shows you how great they played last night.)

Non-Brady MVP: Dont'a Hightower. Dominant early in the game, setting the tone with multiple hits, and helping shut down the Steelers while the Patriots pulled away.

Statistical Oddity: The Steelers have been held to 3 points just 3 times in the last decade (2011 vs. the 49ers and 2016 vs. the Eagles). The last time they had fewer was 2006, when the Ravens shut them out.

Water-cooler Wisdom: "If Antonio Brown actually works out, the Pats could be looking at 16-0 again."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 1-0!

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