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Knee Jerk Reactions to Week 2: Patriots vs. Steelers

Things to consider while appreciating how 500 games ago, Mr. Kraft saved this franchise from moving to St. Louis. And looking forward to games 501-1,000:

--Ordinarily, I'd put in a lot of effort to not overstate the importance of a win in Week 2. But the times we are in are anything but ordinary. When articles were appearing saying that if the Patriot started 0-2, their season was effectively over, why diminish a solid road win against a conference opponent? I'll leave that talk to the dangerous, anti-Patriots extremists out there who are a threat to our democracy and simply give this W the celebration it deserves. At the very least, this keeps hope alive because more than half the league is 1-1 and the Pats are one of them. At most, this win saved thousands of New Englanders from having to spend the next seven Sundays taking their wives/girlfriends apple picking and leaf-peeping. So let us count our blessings. 

--There are several units on this team to thank for the fact you're reading this instead of searching for quaint Bed & Breakfasts close to a Corn Maze in Vermont right now. And taking them out of order, I'm going to start with Steve Belichick's defense and its employment of The Fabian Strategy. It gets its name from General of the Roman Republic Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus, who because he didn't have enough names, was also given the surname Cunctator, meaning "The Delayer," for defeating his enemies not by overwhelming them on the battlefield, but through patience and caution. When Hannibal's army was destroying Roman troops and villages all up and down the Italian peninsula in The Second Punic War, Fabian sought to keep them at bay, deny them victories, engage them only in small skirmishes, strain their supply lines, and wear them out mentally and physically. One time with his men camped in the hills above Hannibal, he kept a small party there to keep the fires lit, thus keeping the Carthaginians pinned down. He then launched a surprise raid on Hannibal's brother Hasdrubal's army instead. Handing them a crushing defeat. And handing Hannibal his brother's severed head. The way the Pats D contained Pittsburgh's offense, kept everything in front of them and swarmed to the ball was The Fabian Strategy. Those two 3 & outs in the 4th quarter of a 3-point game - total time of possession: 2:39 - was Hasdrubal's head getting delivered, closing scene of Se7en-style. 

--Almost a quarter of Pittsburgh's yards on the ground came on one end around by Gunnar Olszewski (I can't believe I have to go back and relearn how he's got the "s" before the "z" again). Najee Harris found no gaps in the line to hit. And every time they put him in space on the edge, there was a safety and a linebacker pouncing on him like a mountain lion on a jogger. 

--In the passing game, they played their usual base Nickel with Devin McCourty as single high safety, and mixed a lot of Cover-3 to take away the deep areas outside the number. And on a few obvious passing downs, some Cover-4. Mixing man and zone underneath the deep shell, the DBs flew to the receivers all game and kept the damage to a minimum. Diontae Johnson is a legitimate deep threat who, apart from one 17-yarder, averaged 8.0 yards per catch. And while Chase Claypool is exactly the sort of big body, hybrid WR/TE that has typically been a matchup night terror for this defense, they kept him bottled up all game. When the analytics come out later on, we can fully expect this to be one of the best games in terms of limiting YAC in the league all year. And a testament to how far this unit has come since being practically non-competitive in Buffalo back in January. More on the defense later.

--But 2,000 year old Roman statesman analogies aside, the real stars of this one were the offensive line. Sure, you can quibble about the unforced errors like the one-per-game Isaiah Wynn false start, another by Michael Onwenu, or a David Andrews hold negating an incredible catch by Kendrick Bourne. But why would you? The week before, Pittsburgh's front-7 where holding meetings in Cincinnati's backfield, and using Joe Burrow as their conference table, sacking him seven times. This O-line - and they used the same five for 100% of their snaps, which is encouraging as hell - kept Mac Jones clean all game. In Week 1, Alex Highsmith had three sacks; yesterday he had three total tackles. And as a team, the Steelers produced one TFL. That is dominance. 

--Specifically late in the game. After a terrible sequence in which the Pats couldn't convert a 3rd & 5 (Jones tried to hit DeVante Parker on a comebacker that he hadn't planned to come back on) and punted to the 10, they got the ball back at midfield only to fail to convert a 3rd & 2 (a checkdown to Jonnu Smith in traffic that had no chance of succeeding), and punted into the end zone, the offensive line was called upon to finish the game. And delivered. With a 13-play drive consisting of 12 rushes that ate up the last 6:30 and all of Mike Tomlin's time outs. And gave the interior line a chance to close it out. On consecutive rushes, Rhamondre Stevenson followed a Cole Strange pull through the right side B-gap for 8 yards and a 1st. Then Damien Harris followed an Onwenu pull through the left side B-gap for 16 as Onwenu pancaked the defender hitting the hole. In particular, Strange had another outstanding game, which included him clearing out Cameron Heyward like he was a blocking sled at training camp to spring Stevenson for 7 yards and a 1st on the opening drive of the half. And pass protected against him:

--But it's that final drive, when they needed it most, that the interior of the line took over the game. It couldn't have worked out better if Bill Belichick walked out of the dugout, called to the bullpen with a "big ass" gesture, and handed the ball to Andrews as the PA system blared "Enter Sandman." 

--Some people were Tweeting out that early in the game, Belichick was taking a knee in front of his O-line on the bench going over details, in that way we've seen him do it a million times with his defense. And that Assistant Offensive Line Coach Billy Yates had been moved from the booth to the sideline for this one. Regardless of what made it work, let's hope they keep it up.

--It's taken me far too long to get to the receivers, I know. Thank you for your patience. Your call is important to me. I am currently experiencing higher than normal KJR volume. Please stay on the blog and I'll get to the positions in the order in which they are they perceived. 

--As it stands right now, Nelson Agholor is the most improved Patriot year-to-year. He just looks like an entirely different player. Or a whole new iteration of the one we saw last season. He moves better. Finds open spaces. He's attacking the ball. Winning the contested catch battles. It's like this offseason he was bitten by a radioactive Deion Branch:

I don't know that it's possible for a corner to position himself any better to defend a pass than Ahkello Witherspoon did there, and still Agholor picked him clean like an old man pulling a quarter from behind his granddaughter's ear. It was essential that Agholor turn up better than he did in his first season in Foxboro. So far, so very good on that.

--Parker is another story. A guy who was clearly the WR1 almost since the first day of camp, he and Jones simply do not have that hard-to-define but impossible-to-deny bond that a quarterback and a receiver need in order to be effective. It feels as though Parker is that guy at the party Jones likes and all, but doesn't know well enough to just walk over and strike up a conversation with him. Because it'll be one of those forced, awkward things because there's not enough of a history or chemistry there, so it'll degenerate into, "So … where are you, uh, working … now?" While what we really need is for them to become besties because Jones has thrown two picks while targeting him, which is twice as many receptions as Parker has through two games.

--Part of which I'm willing to blame on Matt Patricia, to some extent. For some reason, Parker seems to always be running deep posts and 9-routes outside the numbers, when the book on him has always been that he's at his best in tight spaces. He's not going to run himself open, he's going to use his size and superior hand strength to win fights for the ball. Get him some short, quick throws to the flat. Feed him some WR screens and let him use his size to break tackles. Post him up in the shallow middle like a center at the top of the key and dish it to him. Patricia seems to be trying to get him to do battle on open ground when he should be fighting in a bathroom using a pen like Jason Bourne.

--While we're talking Patricia (and when this year are we not?), the offense that he went to great lengths to install this offseason is beginning to look very familiar. Meet the new scheme, same as the old scheme. We were sold on this idea that we could expect a variation on the Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan systems, with motions all over the place, Jet sweeps, "Sift Action" where the tight ends come across to block the backside edge defender, throwback screens and whatnot. But it looks like we're just getting a lot of whatnot. Which is to say, the Erhardt-Perkins system they were running before. Certainly the motions are the same, receivers and tight ends coming across the formation presnap to determine coverages. Jones calling out the Mike and adjusting the protection accordingly. If there's been some great evolution here, I'm no Charles Darwin because I'm not seeing it. I'm still a Creationist who believes the offense was made in six days by Charlie Weis, 23 years ago. So it says in The Good Book.

--Whereas in the Miami game, they stubbornly stuck to the game plan of 21-personnel featuring the two tight ends, Parker and Jakobi Meyers, this one mixed it up. Smith and Hunter Henry each played roughly half the snaps. We saw a ton of 3X1 sets that got reps for both Bourne (Kendrick, not Jason) and Lil'Jordan Humphrey, as well as 2X2s with one of the tight ends attached to the formation or in the slot. And on some occasions, a two-back set, like this goal line Tank formation for the score:

It's no doubt going to be a game-specific plan from week to week. And given they only put together one sustained scoring drive plus the one to put the game away, I'm not going to rent a party tent and a bouncy castle for the kids just yet. But they got almost 200 combined yards out of their top two wideouts while proving they can protect their QB and grind down a quality defense. So there are plenty of positives to choose from.

--Whether this is a new system or the old one, is it too much to ask that Patricia get the play call to Jones with a reasonable amount of time on the clock? There was another delay of game penalty in this one. And another time out wasted to prevent a second one. Whether that's due to some committee approach or just indecisiveness, it's got to stop. It shouldn't take the length of the entire "Final Jeopardy" song to tell Jones which stretch run to call.

--Side note: Let's all agree that Lil'Jordan is an unusual name and move on, shall we? The kind of guy who deems it necessary to make a Li'l Bow Wow reference or whatever is the kind of guy who LOLs at the LIMU Emu.

--If you must laugh at something, laugh at Trubisky's arm:

If it was any weaker, the Red Sox would give him five years and $145 million.

--I also think we can all agree that Trubisky is one handsome gentleman. Until he straps on a helmet and it covers his beard. When you see him with just the mustache, he looks like he's walking into a kitchen where Chris Hansen is waiting to tell him to take a seat:

Archie Carpenter. Shutterstock Images.

--Getting back to the other side of the ball, Kyle Dugger was once again the best player in a Patriots uniform before he left the game. The flashes he displayed as a rookie have combined with the steadiness he showed last year (he was second on the team in tackles) have combined to form a Reese's Cup of two great tastes that taste great together. And it would most definitely not be a Fun Sized treat if he's out for any extended time.

--That said, Jabrill Peppers showed off the depth that exists at the deepest position on the roster the second he stepped in for Dugger. On the first possession after the half, he sniffed out short passes on consecutive plays and rolled grenades into them, first to Claypool that gained two and then a screen to Jaylen Warren for no gain. Even if Dugger is fine (crossing all my crossable parts), Peppers should see more playing time going forward in a secondary that plays as much in-the-box safety as any in the league.

--The best addition to the defense so far has, without question, been Mack Wilson. Here he reads Mitchell Trubisky, doesn't bite on the play action, drops back into the deeper middle zone as soon as the QB commits to the throw and comes under the passing lane for the tip. This is the sort of speed and mobility they've been badly in need of:

And while I don't have the numbers in front of me (which won't stop me from saying it), that gives Wilson more turnovers forced than Chase Winovich had in three seasons here.

--This Week's Applicable Movie Quote: "I'm not dead!" - The Dead Body That Claims It Isn't, Monty Python and the Holy Grail

--Matthew Judon displayed his signature brand of disruption up front, coming from the far side of the field and disengaging from Steelers center James Daniels - who is 6-foot-4 and 327 pounds - to end the first half:

Then followed it up by ending the second half (defensively, anyway) with a PBU on Harris a good 20 yards up the sideline:

That was a clutch play at a time when the offense was struggling to put the game away. And completed the back-to-back 3 & out Daily Double the team desperately needed to save the game and, if the experts were to be believed, the season. Just great complimentary football. 

--And it applies to all three phases, given that my 2022 Training Camp Crush Brenden Schooler changed the game on this one:

That game-changer was worth spelling "Olszewski" for. 

--Now they get to build on this with an actual home game next week. It feels like it's been forever.