Five takeaways from the Patriots’ 33-3 season-opening victory over the Steelers, which suggested a sixth banner may not be the last for Bill Belichick and Tom Brady…
AN IDEAL START
It’s probably best to be consistent. If we’re going to cast aside concerns about a sluggish start or a September clunker by contending that the Patriots typically treat September as an extension of the preseason, then it’s only fair to be careful with overloading the credit when things go well early in the year.
But, after this one, trying to curtail the excitement of Patriots fans might already be a lost cause.
As openers go, Sunday night was about as good as it gets — from the unveiling of a sixth championship banner, to the thorough dismantling of the team that’s been the NFL’s second-most consistent over the past couple of decades, it was a distinct statement that the domination of this dynasty is not done.
And, actually, if anything, this team may have the potential to be better than any of those that have won three of the past five Super Bowls.
Offensively, Brady threw for three scores and 341 yards, 251 of those going to his top three receivers — and that was without Antonio Brown, who may be the NFL’s best receiver and is set to join the squad this week.
Defensively, Stephon Gilmore handled JuJu Smith-Schuster, the Steelers went 3-for-12 on third down while only once reaching the red zone — and that was without Kyle Van Noy, who may have been New England’s best defender in the Super Bowl and is an anchor on that side of scrimmage.
And even in the special teams realm, Stephen Gostkowski answered his preseason critics by cleanly burying all four of his field goal tries.
From Isaiah Wynn starting at left tackle in his first career game, to Josh Gordon’s return from suspension, to a rebuilt coaching staff’s first test under the bright lights, everything worked. As a result, the Steelers looked like a team in transition, while the Patriots looked like a team on a mission.
And that was without what could well be two of their top 10-12 players. Yeah, it’s OK to be excited.
McDANIELS USES EDELMAN’S ARM TO CREATE A SPARK
The most famous of the four passes Julian Edelman attempted over his first 10 seasons as a pro was easily the dime he dropped into the hands of Danny Amendola as the Patriots rallied against the Ravens in a 2014 divisional playoff. With that one, Josh McDaniels dipped into his bag of tricks in hopes of seizing momentum in what had become a somewhat desperate situation.
Sunday night, in the first quarter of the season’s first game, the situation facing the Patriots was obviously far from desperate. But after an opening series and a half in which it seemed the Pats — including Brady — were having some trouble settling in, the offensive coordinator called for a little razzle dazzle from the former Kent State quarterback.
And if his purpose was to help shake out the nerves and stiffness of opening night, it worked.
After Edelman’s cross-field screen pass to James White went for 32 yards, Brady found Josh Gordon in stride on a short slant, and the receiver bounced off a tackle attempt for a 20-yard score.
Before that, and before Edelman helped handle the passing duties, Brady had hit just two of five throws. He connected with Rex Burkhead on a short throw over the middle, then another to Phillip Dorsett in the left flat, but all three times he’d tried to hit Edelman he’d missed. And missed badly. His first throw was an ugly duck, his footwork looked out of sync, and he looked antsy with bodies around his legs.
But the throw to Gordon started a string of six straight completions. He began the subsequent series by drilling a strong, powerful throw to rookie Jakobi Meyers. That drive brought New England all the way to the Pittsburgh 7 before settling for a field goal, and two possessions later the Pats went six plays and 80 yards, the last 76 coming on Brady throws, including a pretty feed up the seam that Dorsett snagged in the end zone.
By halftime, Brady was 16-of-25 for 194 yards. The Patriots had scored on five of their last six series to go ahead, 20-0. And McDaniels had done his part in ensuring the Pats didn’t fall prey to a sluggish start.
ANOTHER STELLAR START
The defensive coaching staff surrounding Bill Belichick has transformed since last December — but that didn’t prevent the Patriots from extending a stretch that started under Brian Flores back then, and stands as a credit to New England’s collective ability to prepare a gameplan.
When the Pats held the Steelers scoreless in the first half Sunday, it piggybacked upon the AFC championship and Super Bowl to mark the third consecutive game in which they blanked their opponent over the first two quarters.
The last time the Patriots were scored upon in the first half was during the divisional win over the Chargers, when Keenan Allen capitalized on confusion in the zone coverage — but that’s the only first-half touchdown New England has surrendered over its past six games. The Jets managed a first-quarter field goal in the regular-season finale, but the week before that, the Bills didn’t score until the third.
Those first two weeks were against rookie quarterbacks, but since then the stellar first halves have come against Philip Rivers, Patrick Mahomes, Jared Goff, and Ben Roethlisberger. That collection may well eventually include three Hall of Famers and the current highest-paid QB in the game.
In the most recent, Roethlisberger’s attack had managed just 87 yards on 24 plays prior to intermission, converting just one of six third-down tries, and getting thwarted on a fourth down, too. Certainly all that’s a credit to the talent of the Patriots defensive personnel, particularly in the secondary. But for an organization that prides itself on preparation, it’s also a testament to its superiority in that realm.
DON’T DISMISS DORSETT
As soon as news broke of the Patriots’ agreement with Antonio Brown, so did talk of just how good a receiving corps of Brown, Edelman, and Gordon could be. When it’s envisioned, it’s done with Brown coming in and commanding the starter’s load of snaps that as recently as Saturday morning figured to be handled primarily by Dorsett.
But although he may not have the elite skill set of others on the depth chart, consider Dorsett’s 95-yard, two-score season debut a suggestion that he may yet be more than a mere afterthought.
Earlier this year, Dorsett made touchdown catches in both AFC playoff games the Pats played. During this preseason, Brady raved about Dorsett, praising the receiver’s intelligence and speaking highly of the rapport the pair has built over the two previous seasons. Then he helped bury the Steelers by catching each of his four targets.
The first moved the chains on third and five on New England’s first scoring drive. His second was the score up the seam. Then the fourth was a bomb on which he sprinted past the safeties to haul in a pass before jogging into the end zone for a 58-yard touchdown.
Within that sample was a short, precise route; a Rob Gronkowski-like route right up the gut of the defense; and a take-the-top-off long ball. There’s diversity in what he can do, and he knows how to do it the way the quarterback likes it done — as evidenced last season, when he caught 76.2 percent of the passes thrown his way, the highest completion rate for any player Brady targeted more than five times.
“He’s a tough kid. Been very dependable. Smart. Plays all the positions,” Belichick said. “Has come through for us in a lot of big games.”
Whether it’s next week, or four months from now, those who can fill multiple roles, remain ready, and earn the trust of the quarterback have a tendency to make a difference when it matters. Expect the same of Dorsett.
The arm injury that forced right tackle Marcus Cannon from the game late could prove to be the biggest negative of the night, but if Cannon avoided something major the most notable disappointment on a near-flawless night was the performance of the Patriots running game.
The Pats tried to establish the run early, to no avail, then later in the game Rex Burkhead made some yards to get the overall numbers to the realm of respectability. But Sony Michel managed to gain just 14 yards with his 15 carries, and overall the team averaged just 3.4 yards per rushing attempt. Discounting the 15 yards from Edelman and Brandon Bolden, the Pats trio of primary backs picked up 84 yards on 27 attempts.
The need for New England to run the ball effectively may be mitigated somewhat by the addition of Brown and the returns of Gordon and Edelman, but Michel and the ground game were a huge part of the Patriots’ success last preseason. They are also in large part the team’s insurance against the potential dropoff of a 42-year-old quarterback.
On opening night, it didn’t look like they’d need that insurance policy any time soon, of course — but if Michel and the line can join the party, 33-point performances could come to count as off nights for this attack.