Knee Jerk Reactions to Week 15: Patriots vs. Steelers

Things to consider while realizing that, at long last, the 2018 Patriots might have finally broken me:

–Maybe this is rock bottom. I hope it is. Life used to be good. We had money and influence, a hot fiance and membership in the exclusive clubs. But they planted stolen cash and drugs in our pockets, froze our bank accounts and credit cards, took away our town house with the butler and sent us to jail. And right now it doesn’t feel like a hooker with a heart of gold and 1988 Jamie Lee Curtis’ body is coming to rescue us. But you never know you’ve hit rock bottom until things get better, so maybe this isn’t as low as it’s gonna get.

–A new year that started out with so much promise went south in a hurry five days in when Seth Wickersham dropped that Upper Decker in our toilet tank, his report about all the dysfunction and bad blood inside the Patriots. Some of it was grossly exaggerated and some was flat out wrong. But ever since, being emotionally invested in this team has become work. It’s required effort. A slog of constantly pushing back against the flood waters of negativity that built up over almost 20 years. Negativity we didn’t have to address because you could always point at the standings. Until now. Until they just lost back-to-back games in December for the first time since before my younger son could talk. He graduates high school in the spring.

–And if you’re one of those people who’ve turned assuming the worst about the 2018 Patriots into a lifestyle – or your livelihood – today is a great day for you. The dams holding back that negativity have burst open and all of it is spilling out. The quarterback going to ownership to force a trade of the backup. Then skipping OTAs. The cornerback getting benched in the Super Bowl. The weirdo Facebook documentaries. Two coordinators leave. One mysteriously comes back. Trade rumors involving the tight end. Talk about summit meetings to clear the air that never materialized. Free agents lost. Free agents signed. Surprise draft picks. It’s all out there and the tide is rising. So dive in. I’m sure the water’s great. I just don’t have the emotional energy at this point to hope you drown.

–And I’m not just talking about the media types, like the fun bunch over at the Boston Globe:

I mean everyone who’s been doing a Death Watch on his dynasty all year. The old guys at the gym who make me take out my ear buds so they can tell me they think Belichick wants to coach the Giants. The guy who texted me last night “I hate this team.” The lady at the book signing who told me with a straight face they should’ve kept Jimmy Garoppolo because “What if Tom Brady gets hurt?” While I stood there for a beat to figure out the politest way possible to remind her Jimmy G is hurt,again, and Brady isn’t. And basically anyone who’s been part of the Doomsday Cult counting down to the Patriots’ Footbamaggedon. Drink the poison Kool-Aid and yourself. Maybe the day you’ve been looking forward to is finally here.

–For the rest of us, seriously, how often lately have you really enjoyed a Patriots game? The Tennessee playoff game last year was fine. But the Jacksonville game was a meat grinder and the Super Bowl a nightmare. The first Dolphins game this year was a much needed laugher. And Green Bay was a nice win. But even the impressive victories over Chicago and Kansas City were grueling; watching the defense get gashed for big chunk plays and leaving sweaty palm print stains on the arm rests of your chair.

–And now following up last with this. It’s like we read “Customers who bought ‘Freaky Last Second Loss in Miami’ also bought this ‘Anemic No-Show in Pittsburgh’” and we immediately added it to our purchase.

–OK, that’s enough wind up. Now to this game. And to how they managed to score a touchdown on their third play from scrimmage and never see the end zone again over their last 52. Against a middle-of-the-pack NFL defense that had just given up 24 points to the Raiders and Broncos, for fuck sake. With a Patriots offense that had all their starters and didn’t list a single name on their injury report. On that, let’s start at the beginning and finish at the end and see if that unconventional approach will make some sense of this crime scene.

–I thought they came out with a solid game plan. Giving the Steelers run looks, forcing them to go with their fat guy packages, and then play actioning the bag out of them. They were putting Rex Burkhead behind James Develin and selling the run fakes with pulling blockers. On one play they came out in the “I” and then flexed to an empty backfield with Burkhead in a Max Spread, 6 yards outside the numbers. They caught Pittsburgh in a substitution for a 12 men penalty. And had the Steelers so baffled that on Chris Hogan’s touchdown they had three defenders on Josh Gordon and none on Hogan.

–As far as I can tell, that was one they call “Gun Trips LT YAC,” a 3X1 alignment with Gordon as the single X-receiver, the “YAC” meaning Gronk came in motion across the formation and a 6-man protection where the lone back has the responsibility from the Will to the weakside force. If there’s no blitzer, he runs a designated route. Hogan and Gordon ran deep crossing routes and the defenders on Hogan’s side were frozen by the run fake and passed him off to the deep help, all of which followed Gordon. Just perfect execution against a defense that was reeling with confusion. And if you told me that D would keep them out of the end zone the rest of the way, under Massachusetts law I could’ve had you committed as a threat to yourself and others. But you would’ve been right.

–What happened the rest of the way is that they kept trying to sell the run fakes without actually running. And eventually the Steelers figured out that almost no runs are coming. And the few that did, they could handle well enough with their nickel packages to simply stay in their passing sets. The Patriots weren’t going to beat them on the ground. Weren’t going to try to beat them on the ground. The had a pass-first game plan and after a series or two, Pittsburgh figured that out.

–With the cooperation of the Patriots themselves. Another play action out of the “I” with Gronk motioning resulted in a 16-yard slant to Gordon inside Coty Sensabaugh. A flex to spread resulted in a 1st down catch by James Develin. But drops by Julian Edelman and James White killed the drive. More importantly, they killed all the offensive momentum and they simply never recovered. The Patriots were essentially dead from that second possession onwards. But it wasn’t murder, it was them committing Seppuku.

–Another drive ended with a drop by Gordon right at the digital yellow line. But by that point the offensive line had established they were not about to be outdone. That when it came to killing drives, they were determined to be John Wayne Gacy. A false start by Trent Brown. A hold by Trent Brown that negates a 25-yard rush. A false start on Marcus Cannon. As the Steelers, playing a base nickel and only rushing four, managed to beat five and sometimes six blockers, early and often, forcing rushed throws and incompletions on route combos that were designed for 5- and 7-step drops.

–Cannon especially had trouble with TJ Watt speed-rushing him around the edge. I promise you that if he had a Boggart locked in a cabinet and it came out in the form of a Watt brother, it would be TJ-shaped. And the Patronus that has worked so well on JJ all these years never materialized for him yesterday.

–That to me was ultimately the biggest factor in the loss, the failure of the Pats O-line. Either to hold up against four-man rushes or stop drawing more flags than an Olympics opening ceremony. It especially cost them in crunch time. A hole by Cannon cost them. A false start by Joe Thuney in the red zone at the 2:00 warning did as well. Followed by a hold on Shaq Mason, that while a pretty lousy call, nevertheless meant Dante Scarnecchia drew four of a kind. All deuces. Big, steaming deuces.

–Add to those the two straight pre-snap penalties by Julian Edelman. And that unforgivable, unpardonable, inexcusable lob wedge red zone interception Brady threw, and it was like the stupidity reached pandemic levels and spread throughout the offense. I think we were all counting on the obligatory Mike Tomlin Steelers meltdown to happen, only this time it was the Patriots. They were undisciplined. Committed unforced errors. Lost all situational awareness. And basically played like a 60 minute continuation of that last play of the Miami game. They either weren’t mentally over that one, or unprepared for this one, or mentally checked out. Or maybe they’re all secretly sleeper agents sent here by the NFL to bring the dynasty to an end. And I’m sort of hoping it’s that last one, since the first three are too horrible to contemplate.

–Just as disturbing is the fact Pittsburgh bracketed Gronk all night and yet Brady couldn’t get the ball to his secondary options, who presumably would’ve been left with mismatches. Hogan had one other catch all night. Gordon had just the one. Brady used to find the weaknesses in your coverage, sprinkle them on his spirulina and eat them with banana smoothies for breakfast. But there was no time for progressions. That is troublesome.

–The defense was a culprit too, for sure. But I find it hard to go off on a unit that went on the road and held a playoff team to 376 yards and 17 points while forcing two turnovers.

–Still, we once again saw them get shredded repeatedly right up the middle, the way the Dolphins did. On the first possession Jaylen Samuels set the tone on a run blitz by Pat Chung coming from the outside and getting nowhere, so Samuels cut it inside through one of the massive, valley-sized gaps in the interior we’ve become accustomed to and picked up 25. Malcom Brown has been a non-factor plugging those holes, always either being turned around walled off or helping to make the tackle seven yards back. Lawrence Guy had his moments but still vanishes for long stretches. All of which once again reminds me that the biggest disappointment on this team is Danny Shelton, who not only looked like the best player on the roster in July and August, was supposed to fix this very issue. And he hasn’t seen the field in weeks. Basically any time an opponent doesn’t simply run powers between the tackles, they’re doing the Pats a solid by giving them some chance to make a play, which they don’t have up the middle right now.

–Not that outside runs are any bargain, either. There’s a disturbing trend happening the last few weeks were they simply cannot string out a play and run a back out of bounds. They’re playing that “spill” technique which is designed to stretch the line in pursuit while taking away the cut backs and allow the linebackers to finish off the ball carrier. Jerod Mayo was the best ever at it. And I thought Kyle Van Noy was pretty capable as well. Not any more. Not right now. You can count on the back getting around the corner for at least five and often more since it’s corners and safeties left to come and finish the play and they get overpowered. I don’ t know what Samuels’ 40-time was, but since he’s 225 lbs, I’m going to assume he’s not Usain Bolt. They just made him look like him.

–The low point for the Front 7 was Pittsburgh taking over at their 1 thanks to that act Jonathan Jones and Burkhead need to take to America’s Got Talent. The Pats lined up in what I think was a Bear front with Brown at the nose two 3-tech tackles and Chung walked up inside the tight end. It’s designed specifically to stop exactly what Stevan Ridley did, which is bust it inside the tackle for 12 yards and room for Ben Roethlisberger to operate. And operate he did, putting his team across midfield in three plays.

–And once again, the Pats defense came out with their typical 1st quarter vanilla ice milk scheme, and it cost them on that opening touchdown drive. Again, Brian Flores responded by adding toppings. And they worked. The rainbow sprinkles of a Van Noy perfectly timed blitz where Maurkice Pouncey never saw him coming for a sack. The fudge sauce of a Jonathan Jones slot corner blitz, coming behind Van Noy as he drew a double from Matt Feller and Samuels. The toasted walnuts of a double A-gap blitz, even as Roethlisberger tried to slow the rush with a hard count, which forced the overthrow Duron Harmon intercepted.

–So it was sort of palatable, I guess. But the difference between the two defensive fronts is what’s so alarming. Like I said, Pittsburgh got pressure with four, being blocked by five or six. The Patriots got pressure, through magic tricks. Smoke and mirrors and rings of fire and white tigers, to distract you from the fact they can’t win the individual battles. That thought, more than anything, is what will ruin what is usually one of the best weeks of the Patriots fan’s calendar.

–This Week’s Applicable Move Quote: “You know, it occurs to me that the best way you hurt rich people is by turning them into poor people. ” – Billy Ray Valentine, Trading Places

–A long time ago I resigned myself to the fact I belong to every demographic group you can make fun of without getting in trouble with the Thought Police. And I’m good with that. We’ve sacrificed enough great comedy in the name of sensitivity. Still, I keep seeing that ad where the one guy in the sweater vest is karate chopping logs out of frustration and the other guy on the recumbent bike and bike helmet and I have to ask: What if America’s white, hetero, married, suburban males were really as pathetic, feckless and lame as they are in commercials?

–This has been unrelentingly grim and I suppose I should try to add some positives. I guess? There’s JC Jackson, for one. He had Juju Smith-Schuster virtually the whole game and did himself proud. There was that one stretch where they targeted him three straight times. A Streak route that Jackson had smothered. Followed by one where he had perfect position but Smith-Schuster pulled it out of his ear like Antonio Brown did to Malcolm Butler a couple of years ago. The a comebacker for 9. But that was the extent of the damage. If nothing else, Jackson is this year’s big find. And is currently playing rings around Jason McCourty. He’s your new starting outside corner of the future. And by future, I mean starting weeks ago.

–I’ve waited this long to bring up the officiating, just because I don’t want to seem like I’m blaming them for this loss. Because that’s loser talk. And what I’m actually doing is blaming them for this loss … partially. Objectively speaking, they had a gawdawful game. Jonathan Jones gets a 26-yard PI penalty for looking at Eli Rogers with side eye. A few possessions later, Joe Haden commits Assault with Intent to Maim on Edelman before the ball arrives, no call. The reversal of Cordarelle Patterson’s first down because they decided somehow his shin bone is capable of touching a ground his knee didn’t like he’s Gumby, not only sets a football precedent, it defies human anatomy. As well as what your eyes told you.

–But the refs are not the reason the Patriots got two interceptions and couldn’t turn them into touchdowns. They didn’t cause the false starts. And they are not the reason on the final play, Patterson was running across the back of the end zone while the practically uncoverable Josh Gordon was on the sidelines watching. That thought haunted my dreams last night. And will continue to.

-Remember when you saw the Bills and Jets at the end of the schedule and assumed two easy wins to take us into the playoffs? Those were good times.