Pick Six: Observations from Game One

The Patriots kicked off the 2019 regular season on Sunday Night Football by defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers 33-3 at Gillette Stadium. Before the game the home team unveiled the Championship banner, won in Super Bowl 53 this past February. However, events from the previous day dominated the fan and media conversation: Former Steeler receiver Antonio Brown was such a bad actor in Oakland this preseason that the Raiders released him, and hours later he had come to terms on a contract with the Patriots.

Six Comments on Game One

1. Who needs Antonio?

While Antonio Brown was ineligible to play game one, a common theme of conversation after the contest was: Do the Patriots really need another receiver? Edelman (96% of the offensive snaps per pro-football-reference.com), Dorsett (87%), and Gordon (67%) combined for 251 receiving yards and three touchdowns on 19 quarterback targets (13.2 yards per pass attempt).

While Brady was not his most accurate self in the season opener, the offense was able to pull off enough “big” pass plays to roll up the points against the Steelers. Late in the 1st quarter Tom Brady hit Josh Gordon on a shallow crossing route, Gordon stepped through cornerback Joe Haden’s tackle attempt and scampered 20 yards for the opening touchdown. In the 3rd, Brady smartly noticed that the Steelers had walked a linebacker – Vince Williams – out over Josh Gordon and they immediately hit a go route up the left seam to Gordon for 44 yards. Pittsburgh safety Terrell Edmunds made a solid hit as the ball arrived, but Gordon held on to set up an eventual field goal attempt by Stephen Gostowski.

Phillip Dorsett got free for two long touchdown plays in the game. Late in the 2nd the Patriots aligned three receivers in a bunch formation, close to right tackle. At the snap, Dorsett ran straight up the right seam, past cornerback Joe Haden, and Tom Brady timed the 25 yard throw perfectly to reach the receiver before safety Terrell Edmunds could give help. The 58 yard touchdown to Dorsett in the 3rd came off of a spread formation, with Pittsburgh showing man coverage pre-snap on third-and-10. Once the ball was hiked, the Steelers transformed into a four-deep zone. Phillip Dorsett – starting at the left slot – ran a skinny post past distracted safety Kameron Kelly for an easy catch and score.

2. Up and down night for running backs

Nice game for running back Rex Burkhead in collecting 85 running and receiving yards on 13 touches. New England’s field goal scoring drive right before half time got jump started with back-to-back Burkhead catches. Late in the 3rd quarter Burkhead took the hand off, saw that the Steelers had quick penetration, and stutter-stepped to get past defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt and linebacker Bud Dupree in the backfield for a three yard gain.

James White looked like his same, reliable self when asked to get his offense out of a first-and-20 situation late in the 1st quarter. White took two shotgun handoffs for 15 yards, allowing a short first-down completion to Phillip Dorsett off a Josh Gordon “rub” route on third down. White was also the ultimate recipient of the ball on the Brady-to-Edelman-to-White double pass for 32 yards on the next play.

Rough day running the ball for Sony Michel, who gained only 14 yards on 15 carries. His best run came early in the 4th on an outside run to the left behind a tackle Isiah Wynn, pulling to the outside.

3. New wrinkle on offense

Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels experimented with putting Burkhead and James White in the game at the same time. Midway through the 1st, the Patriots went hurry up and put each running back to the side of Tom Brady in shotgun. On the next play, both running backs lined up wide – creating a five-wide look with only three wide receivers – and Brady found Burkhead open for the catch. Late in the 4th, Burkhead and White aligned “stacked” behind the left tackle.

We have seen McDaniel play with two-running back formations in the past – particularly in the preseason – so it’s worth watching if this becomes a reusable tool in the 2019 playbook.

4. New and changing pieces on the offensive line

The Patriots line debuted with new left tackle Isaiah Wynn and new center Ted Karras, and both looked like they belonged with the returning first-teamers. A notable highly came on a third-and-ten play in the middle of the 3rd quarter: The line gave Tom Brady a long time to wait for Phillip Dorsett to get open up the right seam for a 58 yard catch-run-and-score.

Midway through the 4th right tackle Marcus Cannon injured his arm/shoulder on an outside run. Left guard Joe Thuney moved out to right tackle and the recently signed Jermaine Eluemunor moved into the left guard position. Cannon was fortunate to not sustain an injury in the 1st when Shaq Mason lost his footing on a pass block and fell into Cannon’s legs. Mason also picked up a holding penalty on a running play in the 4th.

5. Defensive backs in position and making plays

Considered a strength of the Patriots coming into the season, the defensive backfield disappointed no one on Sunday night. Playing majority man defense, New England allowed Pittsburgh only 5.8 yards gained per their 47 pass attempts. Late in the 2nd quarter, Patriots’ cornerback Jason McCourty was credited with a breakup of a pass intended for Donte Moncrief along the left sideline. Coming out of halftime, McCourty was beaten by Pittsburgh receiver James Washington early in the 3rd quarter on a third-and-ten go route up the right sideline. McCourty slowed down, as if he thought the ball wasn’t coming his way. On the very next play, Jason McCourty knocked a potential touchdown pass away from receiver Donte Moncrief in the end zone. The Steelers would eventually settle for a 19-yard Chris Boswell field goal attempt – their only points of the night.

Fellow cornerback Jonathan Jones broke up a third-and-six deep pass to receiver Johnny Holton in the 1st quarter and later knocked the ball out of Steeler receiver Diontae Johnson’s hands on a fourth down, in-cut early in the 4th quarter. Patrick Chung looked healthy after offseason surgery: In the 2nd quarter the safety tackled receiver Ryan Switzer just short of the sticks, which set up a third-and-one run stuff by defensive tackle Danny Shelton, and then a Steelers’ punt. Later in that same quarter, Chung reeled in Switzer at the line of scrimmage after a quick pass, and three plays later Chung broke up a fourth-and-one pass attempt to receiver Donte Moncrief.

6. It’s good to have Jamie Collins back

Linebacker Kyle Van Noy missed the game for the birth of his child, so the “stand-up” front seven duties for New England were shared between three labelled “linebackers” and three labelled “defensive ends.” Newly returned linebacker Jamie Collins swallowed up a third-and-one toss to running back James Conner for a four yard loss in the middle of the 2nd quarter. The NBC broadcast crew showed on replay that Collins was too quick for Pittsburgh center Maurkice Pouncey to cut off his pursuit. On Pittsburgh’s first drive of the second half, Collins got good pressure on Ben Roethlisberger, helping to force an incompletion intended for receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.

To this observer, standup defensive end Chase Winovich is still working to find his grove against top-NFL talent at offensive tackle. Credit to him for getting around left tackle Alejandro Villianeauvo on a fourth-and-nine rush and drawing a holding penalty from the Steelers’ veteran.

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