Today’s theme is divergence. Find Parts A, B, and C here, here, and here.
Almost five months ago, the New England Patriots, as they have done repeatedly, almost habitually since drafting Tom Brady in 2000, defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers. This game will correctly live in infamy as the one in which Jesse James’s game-winning non-touchdown spurred an actual NFL rule change, but it also deserves recognition for the events that unfolded heretofore.
With 2:06 remaining in a game they led 24-19, the Steelers sent Jordan Berry to punt the ball back to the Patriots. Everyone ranging from relative neophytes to the Steelers-Patriots, ahem, “rivalry” (for lack of a better word) to the hardened, rightfully-fatalistic observers who’ve seen this movie before could’ve reasonably predicted what was going to happen next: Berry was going to punt the ball deep into New England territory—the exact field position would be irrelevant; Brady was going to march New England’s offense right down the field in metronomic fashion; and the Patriots were going to win the game.
And that’s precisely what happened. Berry crushed his punt—it traveled 60 yards through the dreary aerospace and ultimately netted the Steelers 49 yards. With 77 yards to go and just over two minutes to get there, the Patriots should’ve been toast. In fact, according to ESPN’s in-house win probability model, the Steelers had a 78 percent chance to win the game following Berry’s punt. But this model did not consider the Tom Brady variable, and it did not consider the Rob Gronkowski variable; nor did the Steelers, apparently.
On New England’s first play from scrimmage, a pass meant for Gronk was tipped at the line of scrimmage and ended up in Sean Davis’s hands. He dropped it. Brady followed this unexpected—but perhaps completely expected—bit of good fortune by rifling a pass deep across the middle of the field to a wide-open Gronk, who had escaped the clutches of Davis. The play gained 26 yards. Then, following the two-minute warning, Brady made almost the exact same throw and almost inexplicably found Gronk, once again, standing all alone. At this point, after watching one of the five best quarterback-receiver duos in league history gain 52 yards in two plays with the ease and simplicity of a father/son backyard pitch-and-catch, one had to think that the worst must’ve been over. The Steelers will put another guy on Gronk. Someone will sack Brady. A draw must be coming. Or a screen. There is no chance that Brady finds Gronk running free in the middle of the field on a third consecutive play.
Brady did find Gronk running free in the middle of the field on a third consecutive play, and they gained 17 yards as a result. Dion Lewis scored the game-winning touchdown on the next play, an eight-yard foray during which he was never touched. Click ahead to 1:54 and feast on the carnage:
Because there is no universe in which kicking an extra point in this situation makes even one lick of sense, the Patriots lined up to attempt a two-point conversion; more accurately, the Patriots lined up to successfully convert a two-point conversion:
Davis, if you’ll recall, spent the previous four plays looking something like an uncredited henchman in The Dark Knight. Why was he left on an island against arguably the most imposing red-zone target in league history, an indomitable black hole fueled by light beer and 69 jokes?
From the snap, Brady made no effort to mask his intentions: he took a literal one-step drop-back before immediately pivoting to his right, squaring his shoulders, and firing a picture-perfect, high-arcing fade toward Gronkowski’s outside shoulder. Critically, Brady had already fully committed to making this throw despite the fact that, when his throwing arm hit its apex, Gronk was not yet open; he either trusted his own ability to throw Gronk open (which would’ve been fair), or he trusted Gronk to beat Davis one-and-one (which also would’ve been fair).
As Brady was juuuuust about to release the ball, Davis made a futile attempt to jam Gronk at the line. Gronk—who is large—swatted Davis—who is less large than Gronk but very large for a defensive back—away like a mosquito and jetted by him, somehow gaining four yards of separation with 12 yards of field with which to work. Brady’s throw was not great—had Davis not been thrown aside like a grade-schooler, he might’ve had a chance to swat this ball away—but Gronk was so laughably open that it didn’t need to be. Gronk caught the pass, shrugged Davis away once more for good measure, STOOD OVER DAVIS, POINTED AT DAVIS AND LAUGHED (!!!), and threw down a patented Gronk Spike that probably registered on the Richter Scale.
So, to recap: Sean Davis dropped what should have been the game-sealing interception; he allowed New England’s most obvious offensive threat to register, suitably, 69 receiving yards on their penultimate offensive drive; and he surrendered what may have been the weakest two-point conversion of the 2017 season. A rough night indeed.
In truth, Davis struggles in coverage spanned the entire 2017 season, and he was arguably the worst tackler in a secondary full of bad tacklers. According to Bleacher Report, who put a considerable amount of effort into compiling this list, Davis missed 21 tackles last season, which is part of the reason why they ranked him 51st out of 54 on their list of the NFL’s top strong safeties.
While, Davis was not solely responsible for the woes that pervaded Pittsburgh’s deep secondary during the second half of the 2017 season, he is the last man standing. JJ Wilcox and Mike Mitchell were both cut this offseason. Robert Golden, a core special teamer who moonlighted as a third safety, is now in Kansas City. If Davis were another year older or another couple hundred thousand dollars more expensive, he might’ve been sent packing, too. But Davis is still only 24 and will only count $1.1 million against the salary cap this season. He will be sticking around, at least for another year.
In 2018, the Steelers will hope Davis can cut down on the “rookie mistakes” that followed him through his sophomore season. First things first, Davis must improve his tackling. Not only does Davis routinely take the most perplexing angles when attacking opposing ball carriers, he fails to wrap up backs, tight ends, and receivers when he does find himself in position to get a stop. It would also behoove Davis to get stronger in coverage. If the Steelers hope to make an appearance in the Super Bowl, they will invariably have to surmount the Patriots. Until Terrell Edmonds proves otherwise, Sean Davis is the only member of the Steelers swift enough to keep pace with running backs, explosive enough to snuff out screens and draw plays, and strong enough to bump with the league’s stacked crop of freak tight ends. If Davis can be everything the Steelers need him to be, he could have a Ryan Shazier-like impact on the defense. If he remains a liability, his days could be numbered.
The Steelers picked up Dupree’s fifth-year option, which was only surprising if you took Kevin Colbert’s “scratching the surface” comments as an indictment of Dupree’s professional acuity at present. Sure, $8 million seems a lot of money to throw at a player who has registered 14.5 sacks in two-and-a-half seasons, but when you consider Dupree’s capacity as a run defender and coverage linebacker, he may actually be playing for below market value in 2018.
This isn’t to imply that Dupree does not have any weaknesses or that he cannot continue to improve—he does and he can—but rather to indicate that the Steelers may in fact have a potential franchise linebacker already in their midst. I think it could be a very long time before we see another outside linebacker in Pittsburgh notch 12 or 15 sacks, which could be the result of a paradigm shift in their defensive philosophy. The “pass rusher” epithet doesn’t really apply to Steelers linebackers anymore since they are asked to do so much. Dupree has the bulk, length, and athleticism to become one of the best all-purpose linebackers in the NFL.
If that does wind up happening, Dupree could parlay a strong 2018 campaign into a massive 2019 payday.
The Steelers drafting Mason Rudolph was the death knell for Dobbs’s career in Pittsburgh. Ben Roethlisberger is the starter, because duh, of course he is, which leaves Dobbs, Rudolph, and incumbent backup Landry Jones fighting for two spots.
It’s too early to make any firm declarations about how this battle will shape up, but I think it’s fair to say Dobbs is a dark horse. The Steelers apparently placed a first-round grade on Rudolph, so he is all but assured of a roster spot, but how well he performs in training camp will likely determine who secures the final slot. If Rudolph proves in training camp and the preseason that he can serve as Roethlisberger’s primary backup, then Dobbs’s job should be safe. Alternatively, if Rudolph underperforms, the Steelers will bump him down to third on the depth chart and likely retain Jones as the backup, since he is the only quarterback not named Ben Roethlisberger who has NFL experience.
I suppose the unforeseen third option would be Dobbs outplaying both Rudolph and Jones, which would lead to Jones being cut and Rudolph being no. 3. I’ll digress, however, in order to provide this take: the Steelers are going to release Dobbs at some point this offseason.
Which is kind of crazy, right? Remember, Pittsburgh spent a fourth-round pick on Dobbs in the 2017 NFL Draft, and hardly anyone expected him to be an even remotely competent NFL quarterback in his rookie reason. Presumably, the Steelers picked him precisely because he was a project, a malleable ball of clay that could spend two or three seasons developing behind a Hall of Fame quarterback—what changed? Dobbs was horrendous in limited action last preseason, so maybe the Steelers had seen all they needed to see. Maybe the Steelers truly view Rudolph as the franchise next savior. They certainly better, because they easily could’ve spent their third-round pick on an immediate contributor, as a fussy-but-technically-correct Roethlisberger pointed out earlier this month.