They Are Who We Thought They Were
At long last, the NFL season is officially underway, starting Thursday night with a poetic clash of the old and new school of the AFC. The New England Patriots are defending champions, coming off their fourth Super Bowl victory in six tries, all in the 21st century. This recent dominance has been achieved most visibly by ruthlessly efficient but ever-changing offenses, anchored by Tom Brady. Their opponents, the Pittsburgh Steelers, boast a league-leading six Super Bowl titles and some of the most fearsome defenses ever assembled.
In this year's opener, the new school won, because both teams proved to be almost exactly as advertised. The Patriots scored early and often with quick and precise passing (especially in the red zone, where they scored four TDs on four trips) while Pittsburgh's defense was barely an echo of the famed Steel Curtain.
It's obviously not quite that cut-and-dry, so let's take a closer look: with four regular season quarters under each of their belts, what did these two AFC contenders show us?
The defense is quite clearly not the pride of Pittsburgh coming into this season. While that side of the ball lost some veteran presence in the offseason, including Troy Polamalu, the other side appears to be trending upwards even as Ben Roethlisberger ages. Behind some of most spectacular individual performances of 2014 on the part of Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, the Steelers soared to 11-5 with the seventh-most points, second-most yards and second-best offensive DVOA in the league.
Even with Bell out for this game and the next, this unit figures to be a handful under the direction of OC Todd Haley. 34-year-old DeAngelo Williams gained 127 yards on the ground, which, even accounting for Vince Wilfork's absence, is a ridiculous total. To the surprise of many who figured Pittsburgh would lean on its star receiver with its star back sidelined, Haley's initial game plan was highlighted by runs and screen passes. The missed FGs by Josh Scobee loomed large in this game; had the Steelers jumped out to a lead, they might have been able to stick to the plan that had worked so well on the opening two drives.
While we learned about the renewed, somewhat unexpected commitment to the run game, the Steelers defense basically taught us nothing. They're a young squad, and expectations were not sky high, but it was brutal to watch at times on Thursday. There were times that primary targets like Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski were open by five yards or more, and a quarterback doesn't have to be as good as Tom Brady to see and exploit that kind of breakdown in coverage.
Seems like you might want to cover Gronk. pic.twitter.com/wxsL7jXkaR— SB Nation GIF (@SBNationGIF) September 11, 2015
The front seven performed ably, not giving Brady a lot of time to throw. At the same time, it's hard to judge their performance against a New England offensive line that started three rookies--plus, Brady didn't need all that much time anyway to find an open man. I mean, take another look at that picture. Come on.
The Champ is Here
Like I mentioned above, the fans didn't learn much from this game; both teams came out looking more or less like their preseason predictions. Unfortunately for the rest of the league, the Patriots looked a lot like the team that went 12-4 and won the championship. Partially as a function of the dismal Pittsburgh secondary, but mostly because this is a good football team, the offense hit the ground running, picking up right where they left off from 2014. Brady went 25-of-32, including 19 straight completions, throwing 4 TDs and writing one big "thank-you" note to Judge Richard Berman.
There was a lot of turnover on the defense--they lost Wilfork up front and Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, and Kyle Arrington from the secondary--and there were inklings of a potential issue for New England. Of course, Antonio Brown got his against Malcolm Butler, and it's concerning that the Patriots were out gained by over 100 yards, and allowed so many of them to a backup RB.
Roethlisberger also had a lot of time to throw behind an offensive line that was middling last year in pass protection. Thursday was a convincing victory over a fellow AFC title-hopeful, but the Patriots won't get many games in which the opponent gets within field goal range twice and comes away with zero points.
The last takeaway from the season opener is not just about the Patriots or the Steelers, but about the kind of league we might see this year. In the 3rd quarter, Pittsburgh successfully converted a 2-point play to go down 21-11. Scobee had missed two field goals earlier in the game, but even so, it's an odd strategy in last year's culture. There's no difference in how many times you have to score going down by ten instead of eleven, and there's a lot of time left in the game to make it up one way or another.
But it's a new NFL. Scobee kicked a 3-pt field goal in the game that was nine yards shorter than an extra point (now a 33-yard attempt), and the offensive line had been both opening up big holes and protecting Roethlisberger very well. More points is better than fewer points, and since the PAT is no longer such a sure thing, it's very possible we'll be seeing our fair share of 11-8 games, especially involving teams that are good in the trenches like the Steelers were last night.
Only one game down; there's so much more to learn. On to the rest of Week 1.