By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
We've seen this all summer. We saw it in practices, joint practices, fake football games. And now it's spilled over to the real football.
The Patriots defense is deep, tough, talented, and playing impeccable team football. So obviously they were going to shut down the stale Steelers offense in a 33-3 beatdown, their second straight dominating defensive effort going back to the Super Bowl.
Pittsburgh netted 308 inconsequential yards, 221 of it coming in the second half as the Steelers desperately tried to mount a comeback. The Steelers finished only one drive in the red zone, and when they did they declined to go for a touchdown on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line. They went 3-for-12 on third down and 1-for-3 on fourth down. The Patriots broke up nine passes total, including three for Jason McCourty, in a game where he had to be tested as Stephon Gilmore made life tough on JuJu Smith-Schuster.
For a few minutes in the third quarter, however, it looked like the Steelers could finally crack that secondary. Maybe their usually-explosive passing attack could start battling back into a game that the Patriots had begun to bearhug. When James Washington caught a 45-yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger over McCourty, Pittsburgh had its chance to make this game worth watching in the second half.
After the defense's only truly bad moment on the night, McCourty knew that he had to play with a short memory.
"It sucked, because I felt like I was in great position to make a play on the ball. The very next play they threw the ball right back at me," McCourty said after the game. "That’s this league. You’ve got to be able to forget about the play before, whether it’s good or bad, and be able to move on to the next play and continue to try to execute throughout the game. Especially a game like that. They’re spread out, throwing the ball every play.
"Your opportunity’s going to come, so when you give one up you’ve got to come back and make up for it."
This was the kind of night where the defense would make up for it. McCourty broke up a potential touchdown to Donte Moncrief on the next snap, helping push Mike Tomlin to his head-scratching decision to kick the shortest field goal possible and cut the Patriots' lead to 20-3.
It was Tomlin's way of admitting he wasn't going to find the end zone against this Patriots defense. Not when they're playing so well as individuals and as a collective.
"It goes back to the continuity we have," said safety Duron Harmon. "Some guys have been playing with each other for a while. There are a lot of veterans on the defense. When you have that continuity, that experience, and a lot of good football players, it makes your job easy."
The front-seven wasn't quite as dominant as the back end, but they still came up with big plays when they needed them. Danny Shelton made a big third-and-1 stop on James Conner to extinguish an early Steelers drive. Deatrich Wise fought through a double-team and worked back up the field to knock the ball loose from Roethlisberger for a strip-sack, which the Steelers fortunately fell on at the time. The returning Jamie Collins read a third-and-1 pitch to Conner all the way, bursting in untouched to drop him for a four-yard loss.
They didn't even have usual starting linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who was reportedly inactive due to the impending birth of his child.
"Yeah, well we had planned on having five outside linebackers active, so fortunately that was a position we have pretty good depth at, so the four guys there – [Shilique] Calhoun, [Chase], Winovich, [John] Simon and Jamie [Collins] – they did a good job," said head coach Bill Belichick. "I mean, they all played and I think they all played fairly well on defense as a group. But it was fortunate that we had some depth there. But look, that could happen on the first play of a game anyway, so you always have to be ready for that, but our guys responded to it well. They did a great job."
Most importantly, the defense showed the same trust and confidence in each other that they showed throughout camp and the preseason. It makes everyone's job a little easier when everyone else is doing theirs, and they can depend on each other to make plays regardless of where they are coming from.
"We’re headed in the right direction as far as communication, everybody being on the same page, guys flying around making plays, and everybody trusting each other and doing their job," said cornerback Jonathan Jones, who minted his new three-year extension with a pair of pass breakups and strong, aggressive play both inside and outside.
If Jones is going to have a career year, and Gilmore is going to continue to be his All-Pro self, and McCourty is going to pick up where he left off last season, and the front-seven is going to come up with key stops? It's going to be a long season for every offense being fed to this group.
It's a unit that was ready to go right out of the gate, and that's because the job began months ago.
"Confidence is built through preparation," McCourty said. "One thing Bill [Belichick] always talks about is 'practice execution becomes game reality'. We take that seriously all week. Ten days leading up to this game, we're working our butts off in practice, working on our calls, working on covering guys to come out here on a Sunday night and be able to execute and be able to make plays and do what we’re supposed to do out there.
"You show up on game day and you don’t have a reason to worry about a guy. That’s not just with the starters, that’s anyone that touches the field. Guys are prepared and they know what they’re doing. We have the utmost confidence in everyone in this locker room."
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].