Tag Archives: Vance McDonald

Patriots Drop Banner #6, Throttle Steelers 33-3, Observations

Steve Balestrieri
September 9, 2019 at 7:21 am ET

Saying the New England Patriots got off to a good start in 2019 is an understatement. The night began with the team unveiling its sixth Super Bowl banner and then absolutely dismantling the Pittsburgh Steelers by a 33-3 that was every bit as dominant as the score would indicate.

We entered the season just a few hours ago with questions about the offensive line, and how the offense would gel with a wide receiver core that didn’t get a lot of practice time with Tom Brady. Demaryius Thomas and Damien Harris sat this one out with injuries but the remaining cast members were outstanding as the Patriots rolled up 465 yards of offense. 

Isaiah Wynn and Ted Karras both handled their duties excellently as these two were under the microscope going against a very good Pittsburgh front seven that led the league in sacks a year ago. Karras’ shotgun snaps [as many commented on during the game] were fluttering to Brady and while it didn’t set back the offense a bit but it is something that will have to be worked on. 

With aggressive play-calling by Josh McDaniels, the Steelers were reeling almost from the outset and the receivers looked in mid-season form. Pittsburgh had no answer for the Patriots backs out of the backfield while Tom Brady absolutely picked them apart, something he’s done to Pittsburgh every time they’ve played in Foxboro.

Brady finished the night 24-36 for 341 yards with three touchdowns. 

The Patriots defense, which we’ve been excited about all summer long looked as dominant as hoped for. Pittsburgh was unable to mount any kind of sustained offense. Stephon Gilmore rendered the dangerous JuJu Smith-Schuster to an afterthought and forced Ben Roethlisberger to be constantly having to look at his second and third options. Pittsburgh’s ground game was held to just 32 yards, while the Steelers passing game piled up a bunch of garbage time yardage, they were frustrated all night long.

Other observations from tonight’s win include:

Josh McDaniels Play-calling – McDaniels had an aggressive game plan and the players executed it to near perfection. The Patriots ate the Steelers alive with quick throws, utilizing shallow crosses underneath which allowed the receivers to make yards after the catch. Pittsburgh beefed up the middle of their defense this year, but at least for tonight, they didn’t look like they were ready for the Patriots passing game. 

McDaniels dusted off the double pass from Julian Edelman to James White which had blockers out front and netted the team a huge 32-yard gain that set up the first touchdown. Whenever the Patriots spread the Steelers out, they were able to find open receivers all night long. 

Brady Razor Sharp – Rust? Is Father Time catching up? Not any time yet. Brady was methodical in his approach and surgical with his precision, something he’s done to Pittsburgh time and again in the friendly confines of Gillette Stadium. 

Brady’s best throw was a perfectly thrown ball right down the seam, a laser to Phillip Dorsett for a 25-yard touchdown. He put it in just the right place in a tight window for an easy score. Later in the second half, Brady uncorked a 52-yard strike to Dorsett for another easy touchdown when the deep safety blew the coverage and left the middle of the field wide open. With a national audience watching, Brady looked in vintage form. 

Phillip Dorsett – Speaking of Dorsett, he’s often the forgotten man among the Patriots offensive playmakers. But tonight, he made the Steelers remember his name. He had four catches for 95 yards including two TDs [25, 52], and was a thorn in the secondary’s backside considering how many other players they had to cover. 

The last 20 passes that Brady has attempted to Dorsett, dating back to last season have all been completions. Think about that for a second. 

Josh Gordon – The troubled but uber-talented wide receiver was reinstated by the league just a few weeks ago but he too appears in mid-season form. Gordon has had good success against Pittsburgh in the past and tonight was no exception. 

Gordon had three catches for 73 yards and included in that was a very impressive 20-yard touchdown where Gordon ran a crosser, broke tackles and powered his way into the end zone. Later, with the Patriots backed up in their own end, he and Brady connected with a 44-yard bomb right down the middle of the field. 

James White/Rex Burkhead – On a night where the Steelers front seven bottled up and rendered Sony Michel ineffective, White and Burkhead constantly gashed the Steelers in both the running and passing games. 

White had five catches for 56 yards and added 26 more on the ground in just four carries. Burkhead had 44 yards on eight carries and added five catches out of the backfield for 41 more. The versatility and the ability to spread the wealth around bodes very well for games down the road. 

The Secondary is Outstanding – We’ve been beating the drum for this secondary all summer and tonight was a prime example of how good this group can be. They picked right back up where they left off from the Super Bowl. After holding the Rams to just three points, that was all the Steelers’ offense could muster tonight. 

Stephon Gilmore neutralized Smith-Schuster all night long and on every big down, blanketed him like a glove forcing Ben Roethlisberger to look elsewhere. Smith-Schuster had a few catches in garbage time that made his numbers look better than the night he had overall.

Jonathan Jones, fresh off signing a long-term extension was brilliant in the slot, taking away the Steelers’ second options. He’s tough, physical and has excellent speed. Pat Chung was also outstanding, putting Vance McDonald, [someone we pegged as a possible safety blanket for Roethlisberger in our pregame] on a milk carton until the final drive of the game when he caught two meaningless passes. 

Julian Edelman – Hurt thumb? No worries here. Lost in all of the hoopla with the rest of the offensive weapons was the fact that Edelman was his normal uncoverable self tonight, doing all of the dirty work across the middle of the field. 

On the national broadcast, Chris Collinsworth called Edelman “fearless” as he knows he’s going to get tattooed with many of his catches. But it never stops him from completing his routes. With the offense spreading the wealth, Edelman had six catches [team high] for 83 yards. 

_________

The running game wasn’t as sharp as they had hoped, Michel had only 14 yards on 15 carries. They didn’t finish drives and had to settle for FGs. The pass rush didn’t generate much pressure on Roethlisberger [one sack]. So, the coaching staff will have plenty to pick apart in the film sessions to hammer home the point that they still have a long way to go. But it was a heckuva start.

Consider this, the offense looked as good as it did and they still didn’t have Demaryius Thomas, Damien Harris, and Antonio Brown, who signed with the team on Saturday…just in case you were on Mars over the weekend and hadn’t heard. 

Arguably their best playmaker on defense, Kyle Van Noy missed the game due to the birth of his child tonight [we hope everyone is fine], So, this wasn’t even a fully-loaded roster. 

The march to be “Knockin’ on Seven’s Door” began in earnest tonight and put the rest of the league on notice… the Patriots are back and don’t look like they’re going anywhere any time soon. 

We’re on to Miami.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and myself from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news and game analysis.

Patriots 2019 Opponents, First Impressions of the Steelers

Steve Balestrieri
September 3, 2019 at 7:30 am ET

The NFL regular season is back. The 2019 NFL season is finally here. This is the first meaningful game for New England since the Patriots – Rams Super Bowl. Every year we begin the week with a quick overview of the Patriots opponent and this year will be no different. 

The Patriots 2019 season begins with a very familiar foe coming to Foxboro. Although the Pittsburgh Steelers reside in the AFC North, it seems like a date with Pittsburgh is slated for every year, to where the two teams are now almost in the realm of divisional opponents. With both teams being annual front-runners to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, this one will begin with the Patriots unfurling their sixth Super Bowl banner, and the only other team to have six? The Steelers.

Last year, the Steelers rode a tremendous defensive effort and the running of Jaylen Samuels, who roasted New England’s defense for 142 yards on 19 carries to down the Patriots 17-10. That was the last game that the Patriots lost, winning their final two regular-season games against Buffalo and the Jets and then winning all three playoff contests to nail down Super Bowl LIII. 

The two teams have met 32 times and the overall series is tied 16-16. The Steelers have the edge 15-12 in the regular season while the Patriots own a 4-1 advantage in the postseason. However, the vast majority of games [22] have been played in Pittsburgh. This will be just the 11th time the two teams have met in Foxboro. Since taking over the Patriots Bill Belichick is 11-4 against the Steelers while Mike Tomlin is 3-7 against the Patriots. 

So, here are our first impressions of the Steelers of 2019:

JuJu Smith-Schuster is the Unquestioned “Go-To Guy” in the Steelers Offense:

Antonio Brown is now a Raider and LaVeon Bell is a member of the Jets. While many were predicting the demise of the Steelers’ offense with those two gone, it may end up being addition by subtraction. This summer, the Steelers training camp was all about football and none of the drama that surrounded them in recent years.  

Smith-Schuster capped off a fantastic season in 2018 with 111 catches for 1426 yards and seven touchdowns. He has developed a fantastic rapport with Ben Roethlisberger and is now clearly the top receiver on the team. He received gushing praise from Bill Belichick before the game last season that was entirely warranted. 

He and Roethlisberger can work the short or deep game depending on how the defense is lining up and he’s primed to be even better in 2019. If there is any slight concern for this season, it is without Brown on the field, Smith-Schuster should now be facing the top corners for each team. While it may make his job a little bit harder, it makes the matchups that much more intriguing. 

Lining up mainly against rookie J.C. Jackson last year, the Patriots did a good job of holding him in check [4 catches for 40 yards on 10 targets], this year, it will be intriguing to see who the Patriots matchup with Smith-Schuster. Stephon Gilmore would be the obvious choice but with James Washington, Donte Moncrief, slot receiver Ryan Switzer, and Diontae Johnson, Pittsburgh has a tremendous amount of speed outside. 

Look for More Balance This Year in Pittsburgh’s Offense:

With Bell now far in the rear-view mirror, the running game is now the sole responsibility of James Conner. Conner had a very solid 2018, appearing in 13 games with 12 starts and carried the ball 271 times for 973 yards [4.5 yard average per run] with 12 touchdowns. He was also targeted 71 times in the passing game and caught 55 for 497 yards and another touchdown. He missed the Patriots game but the Steelers, as we mentioned above gashed the run defense with Samuels.

The Steelers had the worst run/pass ratio in the league last year, throwing the ball on 66.6 percent of the plays and running just 33.4 percent of the offense plays. One of the things they look to do this season is to mix things up and run the ball a bit more to keep opposing defenses off balance. And Conner, entering his third season is primed to make that happen with little loss of offensive production. If anything, it should improve their offensive efficiency.

Conner while not a burner, has shown to be explosive, averaging a 20-yard run in every 24 carries and very reliable in the red zone. While Bell held out for a big dollar contract with the Jets, it was still less than what the Steelers had offered him. But in his last four years with the Steelers, Bell had 19 touchdowns. Conner had 12 last year alone. 

Devin Bush and Mark Barron Are Transforming the Middle of the Defense:

The middle of the field has been the kryptonite for the Steelers defense since Ryan Shazier was injured. But the Steelers addressed this area of their defense this spring. They picked up Mark Barron in free agency from the Rams, the 29-year old hybrid linebacker/safety is undersized but very athletic and can cover in sub-packages The Steelers gave him a two-year contract worth $12 million dollars. Then they moved up in the draft and selected Devin Bush, the linebacker from Michigan with the 10th pick in this year’s NFL Draft. 

Bush has impressed the man the Steelers were looking to replace in Shazier, who was severely injured in 2017. “You’ve seen the way he plays. He had 10 tackles in the first half (against the Buccaneers). Sometimes it’s hard for people to get 10 tackles in two games,” Shazier said.

“I think he’s going to make a lot of splash for us. He’s going to be a big-time player for us. I don’t want to put too many expectations on him but I know one of his goals is to win defensive MVP, and I want to do whatever I can to help him out. I think he’s not gonna be that far away from it. I think he’s gonna have a great year.”

They also added FA Steven Nelson from the Chiefs who should be an upgrade from Coty Sensabaugh and Artie Burns.

Having these playmakers on defense should help the one area that the defense really struggled with…turnovers. For a team that led the league in sacks, the secondary had only eight interceptions. Usually, those two things go hand in hand. But in 2018, they didn’t. By adding those two in the middle of the defense, look for Pittsburgh to force more picks this year.

Vance McDonald and Samuels Should Evolve Into Big 3rd Down Targets in 2019

With the loss of solid tight end Jesse James in free agency this year, [we were calling for the Patriots to show interest there], the Steelers aren’t deep at TE, but in Vance McDonald, the Steelers have a very good option to attack the middle of the field and get more looks in the offense now that Antonio Brown is in Oakland. 

McDonald had 50 catches last year, good for 610 yards and four touchdowns. He’s backed by blocking tight end Xavier Grimble and rookie Zach Gentry who the team picked up in the 5th round of the 2019 NFL Draft with the 141st overall pick. 

McDonald and Jaylen Samuels should see a big uptick in third-down snaps this year with plenty of opportunities to increase their productivity this season. I’d look for both to get lots of looks from Roethlisberger, starting on Sunday night. 

Tuzar Skipper is the Steelers Feel Good Story of the Summer:

This summer Patriots fans got behind the efforts of UDFA Gunner Olszewski, a defensive back from tiny Div.II Bemidji State who they turned into a WR/KR. Pittsburgh fans were treated to a similar story. Tuzar Skipper was a UDFA from Toledo who went for a tryout with the Kansas City Chiefs but was turned away. The Steelers invited him to tryout at their rookie minicamp and signed him to their 90-man offseason roster. 

He came into training camp at the very bottom of the depth chart but consistently impressed the coaches every day with solid play, which should also sound familiar. In his first preseason game, he registered a sack of the QB against the Buccaneers. Against the Chiefs, he added another. He finished the preseason with 5 sacks, the most in the league. 

Skipper leapfrogged several players and has earned a spot on the 53-man roster. And like Olszewski with the Patriots, he’s quickly become a fan favorite of the Steelers faithful. 

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Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and myself from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news.

Five Patriots Players to Watch Against the 49ers

Steve Balestrieri
November 18, 2016 at 12:00 pm ET

Good time to get back on track this week

The Patriots head out to the West Coast after a close loss last week to the Seahawks on Sunday Night Football. They’ll be looking to get back on the winning track and keep their lead in the AFC with a win on Sunday versus the 49ers.

The Niners are 1-8 and have dropped eight games in a row. They’re looking to get off the shneid and Chip Kelly’s team will use the game a year ago when he coached the Eagles and they came into Foxboro and beat the Patriots as their motivation.

For the Patriots, they will look to continue their offensive hot streak since Tom Brady has returned. With Dion Lewis now activated, this Sunday we may get our first look at the talented and elusive running back. This week will also be a chance for the defense to get untracked. After they’re worst performance of the season last week, this will be a big opportunity to turn things around in a positive way.

Here are our five players from a Patriots perspective to watch on Sunday:

RB LaGarrette Blount: The Patriots big man in the backfield is having a very solid season and has 678 yards rushing in the team’s first nine games. He also leads the NFL with 12 rushing touchdowns.

This week he’s facing the worst statistical rushing defense in San Francisco’s. The Niners defense is allowing more than 180 yards per game and seven opponents have had 100+ yard rushing days against them.

It would be a shock if Blount doesn’t get 20 or more carries in this week’s contest. Until the 49ers can show that they can stop the run, I’d feed him the ball and let him pound the rock as it will open up a lot of things for the rest of the offense.

QB Tom Brady: And the person who would benefit the most from the running game getting off to a great start? Tom Brady. The game plan this week has to have Blount pounding the ball down low and waiting for the Niners’ linebackers and safeties to start cheating up to the line of scrimmage to help in run support and using play action.

Brady is the master at play action and this scenario could set him up to have a big day throwing the football. He too must remember the game a year ago against Chip Kelly’s Eagles, where he didn’t have a great game. Nothing like a big win to erase the bad memories from that one.

Brady should be able to find plenty of room to attack the 49ers secondary with the plethora of weapons he has at his disposal. He’s also playing at home for the first time in his NFL career and will have a lot of friends and family in attendance. That alone should prompt him to be spot on with his preparation and his performance this week. A motivated Brady fresh off a tough loss is an even better indicator of good things for the Patriots offense this week.

LB Elandon Roberts: For better or worse, he’s going to be under the microscope for the rest of the season because he’s now the man in the middle since the Jamie Collins trade. He and Dont’a Hightower will be tasked with rebounding this week after a rough outing against Seattle.

The 49ers have a good running game with Carlos Hyde, DuJuan Harris, and Colin Kaepernick scrambling out of the backfield. The Patriots first task on defense will be to make the SF offense one-dimensional and take away the running game. That area will be compounded by having the front seven keep Kaepernick in the pocket. He’s not the most accurate thrower but has a very strong arm. The defense will want to pressure him into trying to fit the ball in tight spaces.

Roberts had a tough game in both run defense and trying to defend RB C.J. Prosise, a converted wide receiver out of the backfield last week. Truth be told, Collins wouldn’t have done any better at trying to cover him. But this being Boston, the coverage capabilities of Collins will now take on the status of a myth. The best way for the rookie Roberts to quiet the critics is to play solid and within himself. Here is a big chance.

TE Martellus Bennett: Bennett had a big game a week ago with seven catches for 102 yards and without Rob Gronkowski this week, he’ll be tasked with being a much bigger part of the offense. Bennett’s numbers would have been even higher a week ago had Tom Brady not missed him on a play down the seam.

On the play that Gronkowski was injured, Brady passed to him down the seam, with Kam Chancellor in coverage and fellow safety Earl Thomas moving up in support. What Brady missed was Bennett streaking down the opposite seam on the left, all alone.

But this week against the Niners, Bennett will once again play a key, dual role. He’s been a fantastic blocker in the Patriots running game and with the focus this week on running the ball, he’ll be a key contributor, hooking up with the outside linebackers and attempting to get Blount to the second level.

But in the passing game, he’ll be the sole target for Brady attacking the seams. We won’t see the two tight end set this week, as they’ll opt for more three wide receivers with Gronkowski out. So Brady’s focus will be on Bennett, who has proven to be up to the task earlier this season.

Safety Pat Chung: The Patriots veteran safety also had a tough game a week ago. Several of the communication breakdowns last week against Seattle involved Chung and he’ll be looking to get back on track. He’ll be a key component in trying to stop one of the 49ers most productive weapons.

Tight end Vance McDonald has been very productive averaging 18.4 yards per reception with three touchdowns this season. He and fellow tight end Garrett Celek, promise to be targeted often on Sunday by the Niners’ offense.

Chung will match up with them underneath and be the first line of defense in slowing down the tight ends in this week’s contest. He’ll also provide the in-the-box run support the Patriots will need to slow down the Niners running game. After a week where so many things went wrong for the defense, it is the veterans who must turn things around and show the leadership for the younger players to follow. This is a good opportunity for Chung to do just that.

Stay tuned to PatsFans.com as we’ll have up-to-the-minute breaking news as well as post-game analysis.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.