Things to consider while realizing the rest of the NFL sees the Patriots sitting at 6-1 and knows exactly how everyone on “The Walking Dead” is feeling right now:
— Before we begin, understand I am in a state of post-traumatic stress from the season premiere of “The Walking Dead.” I promise, no spoilers. Just know that as you’re reading this, I should be curled up in a ball under my bed or seeking grief counseling. But I do it for you. Just don’t responsible for anything I say. Thank you.
— This is one of those wins where if you look at it close up, doesn’t feel all that impressive. You faced a back up quarterback, at times made him look like 1999 Kurt Warner and let a team hang around longer than you should have. But hit the “-” button on this one’s Google map a few times, and it looks better. On the road, the Patriots didn’t play their best game by any means, fumbled twice and dropped two perfectly thrown third down passes (one followed by a duck hooked 25-yard punt) and still won by double digits. Sure, they need to clean it up, but if you can find much negative in this, there’s a career waiting for you in the field of campaign attack ads. Or Boston sports journalism.
— I’m fascinated by Josh McDaniels’ approach to this one. We all know the McOffense can shape-shift at will like Mystique. And you’d assume its at-rest, default setting (its Rebecca Romijn/Jennifer Lawrence mode) would be the Rob Gronkowski/Martellus Bennett combination, create mismatches and chuck the ball all over the place. But in Pittsburgh, Gronk and Bennett rarely saw the field at the same time. And usually when they did, either one stayed in to block (the long catch by Gronk to set up the final touchdown) or was a running play (the three tight end look with James Develin they pounded LeGarrette Blount behind to kill the clock in the fourth). For the most part, McDaniels preferred a Posse look, with one running back, one tight end and three wideouts. It says everything about how stocked his toolbox is that he can use them the way he did and still put up four touchdowns despite the turnovers and drops.
— Of course, now that the battle station we call Gronk is fully operational, he alone is enough to make defenses suffer complete meltdowns. Consider his touchdown catch. The Pats ran a three man route combo I’ve seen called “Parachute,” where Danny Amendola ran a deep curl, Julian Edelman a shallow cross and Gronk ran the “chute,” a go route. The play side safety was Sean Davis, who left the seam to go help on Amendola and looked like he simply wanted no part of covering Gronk. Which makes zero sense football-wise, but perfect sense when it comes to self-preservation.
— More than anything, the gameplan seemed to be about pushing the Steelers front-seven around. And it succeeded. They used a lot of traps and zone blocks. Blount’s first touchdown was a stretch run where Nate Solder rode L.T. Walton into the interior of the line, Gronk came across the goal line to snowplow Mike Mitchell and Blount cut back against the grain for the score.
— The first touchdown was a perfectly blocked screen to James White, set up by David Andrews engaging Ricardo Mathews before slipping outside and Joe Thuney submarining Lawrence Timmons. All done with Gronk out of the play, split out as a wide-Y on the back side of the play.
— I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t single out Marcus Cannon for praise. Right now he’s in a two-man race with White for the most improved player on the club. I’m glad I said it, because I need to be able to live with myself. I can’t afford the extra rent.
— I really appreciate the NFL running those “Football is family” ads where a player does some woman’s job so she can go get her breast cancer screening. I’m looking forward to the one where a guy goes to help out Josh Brown’s wife so she can get treated for broken bones and contusions.
— There are few things in this life that bring me as much joy as watching Mike Tomlin make indefensibly stupid decisions. Throwing the challenge flag on a Gronk non-fumble that wouldn’t have gotten him possession of the ball unless Industrial Light and Magic doctored the replay with CGI. Down by 11 in the fourth quarter, he opts for a 54-yard field goal try instead of trying a fourth-and-2.
— Not to mention Tomlin’s team’s general lack of situational awareness. On that first Blount touchdown, his defense got set with all the urgency of the old lady in front of you in the express line paying with a check. And with the clock running down, his offense ran like the first rehearsal of a kindergarten play. Between Tomlin bellyaching last year about his headset going haywire in Foxboro, Ben Roethlisberger claiming the Pats defensive linemen were moving too much and his defensive coordinator saying the Patriots cheat, it couldn’t happen to a nicer coach. Keep worrying about Bill Belichick pulling fast ones on you instead of fixing your own failings, Dr. Foreman.
— I get people’s frustration over the Patriots defense. I don’t share it, but I do get it. They’re about keeping points off the board. And they succeed. In this NFL, giving up 16 points on the road is a win any way you look at it. I know it’s ugly sometimes. There’s no forgiving surrendering two, third-and-10 first downs to Cody flipping Hamilton. But it works.
— The Patriots D fights like the Russians did against Napoleon and Hitler. They gave up miles of ground, let the enemy get deep into their territory, then toughened up in the red area and, when it mattered most, inflicted millions of casualties. And, they’ll get even tougher when winter comes.
— Despite the lapses, like Hamilton and that 51-yard flag route by Antonio Brown over Malcolm Butler, I thought the secondary played pretty well. As Billy Zane told Kate Winslet in “Titanic,” you can be blasé about many things Rose, but not an end zone interception in single coverage. Butler also added a nice pass defensed versus Xavier Grimble on a third-and-4 to hold the Steelers to a field goal. And showed some real grit and balls on a reverse when Pittsburgh had numbers out in front of the runner, so he took Maurkice Pouncey head on. Add a Pat Chung pass defensed against LeVeon Bell at the goal line and some outstanding tackling (Chung against Grimble to force a punt on the first possession) and the fact that one of the touchdowns was that obligatory amazing sideline balancing act they get burned by once a week, and I think they’ll grade out better in the film room than in the court of public opinion.
— It’s been a good three bullet points since I dumped on the Steelers for their general dumbassery. So let me point out that Darrius Heyward-Bey complained about an offensive pass interference call where for his entire pattern, he beat Eric Rowe with a bat wrapped in barbed wire. Sorry. I promised no “Walking Dead” spoilers. I’ll say no more. Moving on …
— And before I move off the topic of Pittsburgh stupidity, you had to love the crowd booing the unnecessary roughness call when Artie Burns (the NFL’s “Least Football Player-y Name” winner for 2016) tackled Chris Hogan with a body slam that would’ve gotten Kurt Angle DQ’d from King of the Ring.
— This week’s Applicable Movie Quote: “This is where we grab ’em by the nose and kick ’em in the ass!” – “Patton”
— Another note about the way the defense played. It’s worth pointing out that Landry Jones is not the worst backup quarterback in the world. Granted, he’s got that weird thing going where his mustache doesn’t reach his beard. And when his chinstrap covers the beard he looks like he should sitting in a primered van parked next to a playground. But he could start for several teams. So there’s no shame in holding him to 16 at home.
— There is no one who’s more excited about having Brady back than Julian Edelman. Every time he catches a pass for a first down (which he did a lot of Sunday) I half expect him to bring the ball back to Brady in his mouth, wagging his tail.
— Though I don’t think Brady feels the same way about Malcolm Mitchell. After that play when he was running for his life then launched an ICBM, only to watch from his back while Mitchell broke off his route, Brady shot Mitchell a stink eye the likes of which we haven’t seen since Scott Chandler became invisible to him.
— With the Pats on a roll like this, and a bigger, better, stronger, faster, less stoppable roll seeming to arrive any second now, there is literally no team in the NFL I’d rather see them facing right now than Buffalo. That win over a wounded Jacoby Brissett that the Bills Mafia practically held a parade for has to be avenged.
Jerry has a book! “From Darkness to Dynasty: The First 40 Years of the New England Patriots” has been called “the perfect book for any reader who is a die-hard Pats fan.” It’s available now online and at bookstores everywhere. Details and scheduled book signings are at JerryThornton.net.
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