Welcome to Season 11, Episode 2 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious yet lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup …
In their dynasty decades, Patriots fans could count on Bill Belichick, his coaching staff, and a certain quarterback to make instant repairs after the occasional troubling or unexpected loss.
Get pummeled by the Chiefs in 2014? We’re on to Cincinnati. Inevitably, the Patriots’ next opponent after a loss felt the wrath of their frustrations. It was one of the greatest of their many extraordinary attributes while winning six Super Bowls in 18 seasons.
Things are different now, and we’re still sorting out just how much. Tom Brady is in his third season as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer, and that will always be weird. Belichick’s coaching staff is relatively sparse in staffing and experience. And as brilliant as we believe Belichick still to be, it must be noted that the Patriots have lost five of their last six games. That sprint to catch Don Shula as the winningest coach in NFL history has become a leisurely walk.
In the past, a Week 2 game would never be designated a must-win. But Sunday’s matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers, a quasi-rival whom they are facing for the first time since the 2019 opener, is absolutely must-win.
The Patriots lost their opener to the Dolphins last Sunday, 20-7, in a game that had very little suspense. The offense was disjointed and drew accusations of being basic. They made fundamental, costly mistakes, and they let the Dolphins off the hook when they tried to return the favor.
With the Ravens and Packers looming in the next two weeks, the Patriots need a win Sunday, or the possibility of a 1-3 or 0-4 start becomes very real. The Steelers are coming off an overtime win against the defending AFC champion Bengals in which they forced five turnovers. Their defense was ferocious, but their offense was uninspiring behind placeholder quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, totaling 267 yards.
With quarterback Mac Jones battling a back problem earlier in the week and an apparent illness that kept him out of practice Thursday, it’s going to be on Matthew Judon, Kyle Dugger, and the Patriots defense to seize the day.
Kick it off, Bailey, and let’s get this thing started …
Three players to watch who aren’t the quarterbacks
Trent Brown: Jones said this past week that the Patriots were “moving in the right direction” in practice and that the problems that plagued the offense against the Dolphins were fixable. They had better be fixed against an aggressive Steelers defense that feasts on mistakes, but is one week enough time for repairs? More play-to-play consistency and far better communication from the offensive line would count as major progress. Arguably the most pivotal play in the loss to the Dolphins — Brandon Jones’s strip-sack and Melvin Ingram’s recovery for a touchdown in the second quarter, putting Miami up, 10-0 — was because of a missed assignment on a relatively basic read by Brown. Because the Patriots’ offensive talent is limited and their drives tend to be methodical, there is little margin for error, and those kinds of plays cannot happen. Brown, an eight-year veteran, has to be significantly better, and he has to be significantly better this week against a Steelers defense that sacked Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow seven times last Sunday. The Patriots catch a major break with reigning defensive player of the year T.J. Watt sidelined because of a pectoral injury, but they still have to deal with Alex Highsmith, who had three of those seven sacks against Cincinnati.
Damien Harris: One way for the offensive linemen to get some confidence and a little bit of mojo? Allow them to run block and be the aggressor. The Patriots did run the ball well early against the Dolphins, but the 17-0 deficit to start the third quarter dictated that they lean on the passing game in an ultimately futile attempt to come back. The Patriots finished with just 78 yards on 22 carries in Week 1. Harris, who ran for 929 yards, 15 touchdowns, and averaged 4.6 yards per carry last season, ended up with just nine carries for a productive 48 yards. Harris, perhaps the Patriots’ most underrated offensive player, and Rhamondre Stevenson, who had eight carries for 25 yards last week, must be more involved. Pittsburgh, with three-time All-Pro Cameron Heyward in the middle, was stout against the run last week, limiting the Bengals to 133 yards, 47 of which came when Burrow got away from the rush. But the Patriots should not be deterred with their two talented backs.
Minkah Fitzpatrick: With Watt sidelined, this fifth-year free safety moves to the top of the list of Steelers defenders most likely to make a game-altering play. Heck, he did it last week, picking off Burrow’s first pass of the season and returning it 31 yards for a touchdown. Fitzpatrick compiled 10 tackles in the opener, Mutomboed the Bengals’ game-winning extra-point attempt, and drew the ire of Bengals receiver Ja’Marr Chase, who was caught giving him a two-finger salute. It’s interesting to note that Fitzpatrick is reunited with Brian Flores, now the Steelers’ senior defensive assistant/linebackers coach. As head coach of the Dolphins in September 2019, Flores traded Fitzpatrick and a couple of draft picks to the Steelers for three picks, including a first-rounder. The deal proved a heist for the Steelers, with Miami getting marginal tackle Austin Jackson and not much else.
Grievance of the week
Hopefully this is the last time we have to think about Kendrick Bourne’s status on the Patriots as a “situation.” Hopefully, he’s a bigger part of their game plan — I should say, considerably bigger, considering he saw just two snaps in the opener. Hopefully, he contributes like he did over the final 15 games last season, when he caught 52 of 64 targets for 773 yards and 5 touchdowns.
We all like Bourne, right? He’s a gregarious guy, and the closest thing these Patriots have to an explosive player on offense.
But there’s one more hopefully to add here. Hopefully, he’s striving for consistency in practice and doing everything he can in terms of preparation to be ready for his opportunity when it comes. It kind of annoyed me that there seemed to be unilateral frustration with Belichick and Matt Patricia for not playing Bourne more than those two snaps against Miami, but little acknowledgment that Bourne has some responsibility for his status.
We knew that he had ticked off Belichick during the week of the Panthers joint practices and preseason game, and it was revealed this past week by NBC Sports Boston’s Tom E. Curran that Bourne was late for a meeting that week. That might seem like a minor transgression. It’s not, at least if you remember that discipline is one of the pillars upon which the Patriot Way is built. Bourne’s position coach, Troy Brown, is one of the players who set that standard. The Patriots coaches aren’t being petty. They’re being consistent. If Bourne wants the prominent role that his talent suggests he should have, he has to be consistent, too.
Prediction, or worst draft decision: Mitchell Trubisky over Patrick Mahomes, or Tua Tagovailoa over Justin Herbert?
Here’s my working theory on why Belichick is giving his team all sorts of benefits of the doubt and saying stuff that would have seemed ridiculous in the past, such as the suggestion that September games are an extension of preseason: He knows his team doesn’t have the talent to elude mediocrity. This, I suspect more and more, is a bridge year in his master plan. A time to implement new offensive concepts, get reps for and evaluate younger players, and hope it looks a heck of a lot better at the end than the beginning. Maybe they’ll throttle the Steelers, all repairs will stick, and I’ll chuck this theory out the window come late Sunday afternoon. But right now, as the 2022 season still takes shape, I can’t help but wonder if, in some ways, their coach is on to 2023. Steelers 16, Patriots 13.