The outcome of the Pittsburgh Steelers loss to the New England Patriots in Week 1 may not have been entirely surprising, at least not to Vegas odds-makers who hit it on the nose, but there were a number of interesting reversals in the Steelers' matchup against the Patriots Thursday.
Some of these are merely interesting and some may signify a change in the wind. It's way too early to try to infer trends from even the most significant data from Week 1, but I'll try to pinpoint which unexpected twists are worth paying attention to and which are merely curious oddities.
1. Lost in the hubbub about "communigate," is the fact that apparently the Steelers employed a little gamesmanship of their own this past week in "leaking" hints that their gameplan involved getting their hands on Gronkowski as much as possible when the reality is they were planning to basically ignore him. At any rate, it's tough to reconcile those comments with the performance on the field. Gronkowski was left uncovered, abandoned at the first hint of a running play, and left to a 3rd-string LB to cover in the red zone, all of which led to predictable results.
It's not unusual that Gronkowski had a big day, but it is odd that the Steelers didn't seem at all worried about stopping him from having a big day. Was this a failure by Butler to effectively communicate the plan to his players or a failure to adequately plan for his opponent's biggest weapon? Either way, since this is the first and only game plan of Butler's we've seen, it bears watching to see how he handles red-zone defense and containing teams' top offensive threats in the future.
2. How about those starting outside linebackers? Yeah, the ones that played less than their backups. According to Saturday's BTSC article by Jeff Hartman, James Harrison played 38 defensive snaps compared to starter Jarvis Jones' 24. Many, if not most, Steelers fans suspected that James Harrison's supposed pitch count would go out the window pretty fast if Jones struggled, but Jones was playing pretty well and Harrison ended up playing more than two-thirds of the game. Even more surprisingly, the supposedly-raw rookie Bud Dupree was on the field for 26 snaps compared to Arthur Moats' 20. He set the bar pretty high for his fellow rookie pass-rushers too, with a pair of tackles and a rare sack of Tom Brady.
Does this portend a reversal of roles for starters and backups? Possibly, in the case of Dupree, but he's still raw and unprepared to be relied on for a full range of responsibilities. Odds are that neither he nor Harrison are going to become every-down starters.
Butler was shuffling a number of players around, including Robert Golden extensively and the aforementioned work by Terence Garvin. Looking ahead, this is probably a sign that the Steelers are attempting to embrace situational football rather than simply putting their best players on the field and keeping them there. Just because a player's name isn't first on the depth chart doesn't mean he won't see plenty of action.
3. How good is Tom Brady? Well, he's really good at putting people to sleep anyway. It's not a reversal of expectations but a reversal of reality, as the publicity and media attention focused after the game on Brady's "great performance" including 19 consecutive passes. I wonder how many analysts and sports reporters actually watch all the games they comment on. The fact is, unsurprising to many Steelers fans, Big Ben had at least as good a game, if not better, than Brady.
For all Brady's completions, he accounted for 63 fewer yards than Ben, and that's counting more than 50 yards gained after the catch in just two plays by Dion Lewis and Rob Gronkowski. On a per-pass basis, Roethlisberger also outperformed Brady, with 9.2 yards per attempt, compared to Brady's 9.0 yards per attempt. Brady completed a lot of short passes, but Roethlisberger made more than enough big plays to even things out.
That's another way of saying that Ben actually displayed skill and was fun to watch, while Brady did little if anything to demonstrate why the team was better off with him rather than Garropolo under center. If all you look at is the stat line, four TD's look great, but if you saw how open his receivers were, it's evident that all those TD's were schemed as much as they were thrown. Ben's TD and 2-point conversion throws were just two of many that highlighted his mastery of the pigskin. There's nothing changing here except the truth, every week, just as it has been throughout their respective careers. Ben will continue to be underrated and Brady overrated by the talking heads again this year.
4. Darrius Heyward-Bey, who many fans wanted to see cut this training camp, reversed expectations by playing a solid game and actually outperforming Markus Wheaton who's ahead of him on the depth chart. Heyward-Bey posted four receptions on seven targets for 58 yards. That's a 14.5 yard per catch average, which matters for a deep- threat receiver and a 57-percent catch rate, which matters for DHB. Heyward-Bey posted over 900 yards in his best season in Oakland, proving that he can be a productive receiver...if you give him enough chances. His problem has always been that he misses too many passes. His 47-percent career catch rate is perhaps excusable considering the scrub quarterbacks he had throwing to him in Oakland, but he had the exact same catch rate on 62 passes thrown to him by Andrew Luck in 2013. He had a full year to learn the Steelers' playbook last year and spent time in the off-season developing chemistry with Roethlisberger. If that equates to elevating his catch rate even slightly, he can be an impact player during Martavis Bryant's absence and a very high quality depth player upon his return.
It's an odd reversal that DHB has been hammered by fans for having half of his toe out of bounds while adjusting to a slightly off-target pass instead of getting credit for almost having an even bigger game, while Markus Wheaton gets a pass for outright dropping the ball on a very inefficient night, catching only three of seven targets (although that was an incredible catch on the sideline). It seems like Heyward-Bey is still plagued by the label attached to him because of a poor rookie season after being monumentally over-drafted by Al Davis.
The reality is that Heyward-Bey is as good, if not better, than Torrey Smith, formerly a starting WR for the Ravens and now starting for the 49'ers (who incidentally has only a 49-percent catch rate, but nobody cares because he was drafted in the second round). What does this mean going forward? Probably just an interesting fact.
Wheaton may or may not bounce back; he was expected to have a breakout season last year but averaged only 40 yards per game. He's the younger player with more upside, though, as Heyward-Bey is by no means old but probably already on the wrong side of his peak athletically. The Steelers are unlikely to give DHB substantially more targets at Wheaton's expense, and there will be even fewer to go around when Bell and Bryant come back. It's good to know he's there if we need him, though.