FOXBOROUGH — As Rob Gronkowski was leaving the field following his three-touchdown performance in Thursday's 28-21 win over the Steelers, he was stopped by NBC's Michele Tafoya — the only person to successfully put the brakes on the big Patriots tight end all night.
Asked about Tom Brady's performance, Gronkowski said his quarterback was "great," before switching his focus to the offensive line, particularly the three newbies.
"I've got to give huge credit to our offensive linemen,'' said Gronkowski. "We had three rookies out there and they played their butts off tonight and they did an excellent job.''
It was the consensus opinion among the winners.
David Andrews started (and played every snap) at center and Tre' Jackson started (and played five series) at right guard. Shaq Mason rotated in at left guard and also played five series. Versatile veteran Josh Kline was the swing man, playing six series, three at each guard spot.
The rookies had strong games, with Andrews turning in the most impressive performance. The 6-foot-3-inch, 295-pound undrafted free agent out of Georgia had an impressive preseason but seemed destined for a backup role at best. But when second-year man Bryan Stork (concussion) was placed on short-term injured reserve and Ryan Wendell (offseason shoulder surgery) was deemed not ready to return, Andrews took center stage. He was up for the challenge.
"I thought we did a good job but we've got a long way to go. A long way to go,'' said Andrews. "We've got to take what we learned from this game and get back to work.''
Andrews and his mates did a solid job in the run game but were even more impressive in pass protection, a key reason Brady completed 25 of 32 passes for 288 yards and four touchdowns. Sure, Brady deserves credit for getting rid of the ball quickly, but he didn't face a ton of pressure and was sacked just twice.
"We've worked pretty hard getting [Andrews] up to speed, and he did a tremendous job,'' said Brady. "I think all three of those rookies that played on the inside did phenomenal. It's a tall task to get them up to speed with all different variations and protections and adjustments that we tend to make, and I thought they really hung in there. They played with a lot of toughness, so it was great. Dave did a great job at center. Tre' and Shaq and the two tackles are phenomenal, so it was great protection all night. It really allowed us to get some guys open down the field.''
Andrews, who answers many questions with "yes, sir'' and "no, sir" the way a good Southern gentlemen does, was particularly impressive when the Patriots picked up the tempo — effectively catching the Steelers off guard. A lot. He said the change in pace didn't bother him.
"I just do what I'm told,'' said Andrews, who started every game at Georgia over his final three seasons. "If they want to go, we're going to go.''
Bill Belichick said the young guys' performance was impressive, it was also imperative given the depth issues along the interior.
"I thought they hung in there, they fought hard, they had some really good plays, and they had some other plays that they need to improve on,'' he said. "I think we can continue to work with them and coach them because they're trying really hard and they're working hard. They're giving us all they've got. We've just got to bring them along quickly.''
Neither Andrews nor Mason said they were overwhelmed by the enormity of the moment. They were able to shut out the distractions of Opening Night, and the fact they were sharing a huddle with Brady — a four-time Super Bowl champion — didn't faze them.
"We're just out there playing, blocking guys, and giving him time to do his thing,'' said Andrews. "I don't care who it is . . . Tom, Jimmy [Garoppolo], whoever it is. Whoever's back there, it's just great to go out there as a team and play a real game and get it going.''
Mason, who took a few snaps at fullback, had a similar mind-set. He was just happy to be out there "having fun'' contributing in any way he could.
"I honestly don't think about who's out there,'' said Mason, whose full name is Shaquille Olajuwon Mason, so it's no surprise he ended up blocking for a living. "Just focused on the calls, the plays, just focused on executing and doing my job.''
Mason, a fourth-round pick out of Georgia Tech, said the three rookies are "always pushing each other to get better.''
It's obvious the rookies have taken to the Patriot Way, mimicking their teammates on the field and their coaches off it.
"[Starting my first game] was great,'' said Andrews. "Now I'm just ready to make the corrections, learn from it, and move on to Buffalo.''
There's more proof that he's a quick learner.
. . .
The Patriots activated running back LeGarrette Blount, who was suspended for the opener. To make room, reserve linebacker Eric Martin was waived. Martin still has practice squad eligibility and it wouldn't be a surprise if he lands there if he goes unclaimed.