Friday, September 11, 2015

Offenses Dominate In Patriots' Victory Over Steelers

New England tight end Rob Gronkowski scores the first of his three touchdowns in the season opening win over Pittsburgh
Lewiston, Maine 3:23am

The storm clouds that swept over Gillette Stadium just hours ago are squeezing out a heavy load over southern Maine before moving on to harangue points north. The air is cool and moist, and the overcast din lends a somber gloom - perfect for agonizing over just about anything, even mulling over and revisiting painful memories...

...even for football, which on this night can't be helped because as home openers go, the New England Patriots battle with the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday night was a blast from the past, and not much of it was of the pleasant recollection type.

Oh sure, the Patriots had their moments, but on the night that they raised their fourth championship banner, plays made by the potent Steelers' offense conjured dark images from the recent past - for instance, there was a helmet catch, a close-to-impossible sideline catch, someone accusing the Patriots of cheating, an opposing running back shredding the Patriots run defense, and an opposing quarterback leading his team up and down the field seemingly at will,

And despite all of that, plus coming off of the most turbulent offseason in the history of offseasons, the Patriots still won.

That's important to keep in context, because how New England won on Thursday night is how they have won since head ball coach Bill Belichick took over 16 seasons ago: tough, bend-but-don't-break defense that gives up big chunks of yards between the twenties, then collectively becomes as stout as a smoky Icelandic Beer inside the red zone - and a fast-paced, tight end-centric  attack on offense that feeds off of a complicated series of concepts.

Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hung 351 passing yards on the New England secondary with a dazzling display of deep ball accuracy, and the apparently not-quite-as-washed-up-as-we-were-lead-to-believe DeAngelo Williams ran for 129 yards - but coaching errors and untimely penalties at critical points in the game doomed the hard luck Steelers' offense to lose a game in which they did everything they needed to do to win - except score points.

Earning just 14 points when it really mattered, the Steelers dropped a 28-21 decision to the Patriots in the season opener for both teams despite driving inside the New England 30 yard line - and twice inside their ten - in five of their first six possessions of the game, kicker Josh Scobee missing two field goal attempts before making two and a Will Johnson one yard touchdown run and ensuing two-point conversion being all Roethlisberger had to show for his night...

...while Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady threw four touchdown passes to his tight ends - three to Rob Gronkowski and one to Scott Chandler - and change-of-pace back Dion Lewis collected 120 yards of total offense while the New England defense got in Roethlisberger's way just enough - and at critical moments - to win the first game of their world title defense.

The Patriots bread and butter all night was the quick out to the left sidelines where Brady was 11 for 11, counting on the skill and wiggle of his trio of garden gnome receivers to turn his four yard tosses into four more - drawing the Pittsburgh defense down into the five yard buffer enough times to open up the intermediate passing game, which was devastating all night long.

At one point, Brady had thrown 19 consecutive completions as the Steelers chose to play off of the New England receivers, with nary a contested ball in his 25 of 32 night for 288 yards. Julian Edelman picked up where he left off in the Super Bowl, picking up first downs in rapid succession and averaging nine yards per catch while Gronkowski flat abused the Pittsburgh coverage on five catches for 94 yards.

Gronkowski's 19 yard per reception average spoke volumes as to how deep the linebackers and safeties were playing off of him - be it a show of respect for his skill or just plain ignorance of the game plan - even after a few in the Pittsburgh coverages had boasted all week long of their ability to stop Gronkowski by jamming him at the line, which now sounds like a total bag job.

Not counting kneel downs to end both the first half and the game, the Patriots enjoyed just eight possessions and lost the time of possession battle by a slim margin to the Steelers, who ended up with one more possession than New England, putting together drives of 54, 52, 57, 80 and 67 yards that yielded little more than a purple heart for the Pittsburgh offense...

...beginning with the first drive of the game, a nine play drive that fell short when right tackle Marcus Gilbert was flagged for holding, forcing a Scobee field goal attempt that he pushed wide right, then after the two teams traded punts Brady lead a methodical 13 play, ninety-yard drive, shredding the passive Pittsburgh defensive backfield with double digit yardage every time he dropped back to throw, capping it off with a quick out to Gronkowski who was split wide with no defender within 20 yards of him.

Brady's eyes got wide as he realized that Gronkowski was uncovered, furiously clapping his hands together and screaming at rookie center David Andrews to snap the ball before the Steelers realized what was happening and called a time out.

Gronkowski's 16 yard walk in the park to paydirt put the Patriots up 7-0 just moments into the second quarter and, after Scobee pushed another field goal attempt wide right, Gronkowski put New England up by 14, easily winning a jump ball over two Pittsburgh safeties in the back of the end zone with four minutes left in the half. Scobee finally nailed a 44 yarder with just seconds left to break the crust for the Steelers, who trailed by eleven going into the room.

The gnomes took over for the Patriots on the first drive of the second half, Edelman, Lewis and Danny Amendola taking turns moving the chains on short dump offs from Brady - a pass interference on Pittsburgh corner Cortez Allen in the end zone setting up the home team at the one, where Brady found Chandler short left, the 6' 7" import from Buffalo casually reaching the ball across the goal line before any defenders could reach him.

The Steelers responded with frightening intensity, Williams breaking off a 28 yard gainer to set the tone, then Brown burning Patriots corner Malcolm Butler on a sweet double move for 33 yards to get into the Patriots' red zone where fullback Will Johnson punched the ball through for Pittsburgh's fist touchdown, the ensuing two point conversion closing the Patriots' lead to just 10 points at 21-11.

Pittsburgh closed the gap to seven with another Scobee field goal after failing three times to punch the ball into the end zone from the one yard line, but then Gronkowski put the Patriots back up by 14 on a fade to the left - this after Brady and he connected on a 52 yard catch and run up the seam, and then saving the drive by recovering a Lewis fumble at the goal line.

The Steelers sealed their own fate two plays later when Roethlisberger didn't pick up on Patriots' safety Duron Harmon undercutting a go route deep in Patriots' territory, the resultant interception all but ensuring a New England victory - then Pittsburgh's curious clock management for the remainder of the game making defeat a certainty for them.
Harmon's pick ended the Steelers' hopes of a comeback

The final touchdown came with just two seconds left in the game with Roethlisberger dropping a bucket throw to Brown just over the reach of Butler, who despite Brown's obscene statistics, actually played the All Pro receiver tight most of the game. 80 of Brown's 133 yards came on two throws, one where Butler looked like a rookie in biting on the double move, and the other being picked on a crosser that freed up Brown down the right sideline.

Take those learning experiences away and Butler held arguably the best receiver in the game to seven catches for 53 yards, most of those throws tightly contested.

Williams enjoyed gaping holes to run through in the heart of the Patriots' run defense, as Roethlisberger spread out the Patriots and forced them into constant nickle and dime situations, leaving the box light with as few as six defenders to battle the Steelers' offensive line - and now New England is in preparations for a visit to Buffalo next Sunday, a team that features big fast receivers and a dynamic running game like they experienced against Pittsburgh...

...but also with an inexperienced but electric quarterback operating behind a very good offensive line. To be sure, the Bills defense won't lay back on the Patriots' receivers, as head coach Rex Ryan always seems to come up with game plans designed to limit the potency of the New England offensive attack.

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