Labriola On

Labriola on Vance, Vince, the AB trade

Ready or not, here it comes:

• For the first time since 2010, the Steelers will be the team employing the most dynamic tight end in a matchup with the New England Patriots. All due respect to Heath Miller, who was one of the most complete tight ends in the NFL throughout his career and the best tight end in Steelers history, but Rob Gronkowski was a big play beast, an impact player for every snap he was on the field.

• Gronkowski is now a retiree, and that means it’s Vance McDonald who has all of the qualities to assume the role of big play beast at the tight end position on Sunday night inside Gillette Stadium.

• In last December’s game against the Patriots at Heinz Field, McDonald had just two catches for 13 yards, including a 5-yard touchdown in the first quarter that opened the scoring. Come Sunday night, the Steelers will need more from McDonald in the passing game than they got from him last December, and if they get more that will put the New England defense in a tough spot.

• If the Patriots are having trouble with McDonald, if safety Patrick Chung is having problems dealing with McDonald in coverage, New England could have to counter with a sub-package that gets more defensive backs onto the field, and if that happens the Steelers running game could be the beneficiary. Remember, in last December’s game, with James Conner out with an injury Jaylen Samuels rushed for 142 yards, and the Steelers finished with 158 and a 6.3 average per carry.

• That level of production from the running game for the Steelers would be a step toward the visitors being able to win in the New England for the first time when Tom Brady was the starting quarterback, to win where Brady has a 135-21 record as a starter in the regular season and in the playoffs.

• Speaking of pounding the ball with the running game, don’t be surprised if that’s the way the Patriots choose to attack the Steelers defense, at least initially. It might seem counterintuitive that a team quarterbacked by Brady, an offense that once passed on 27 of 30 offensive snaps against the Steelers in 2002, would turn to ground-and-pound, but that has been the team’s history of late.

• Over the final 10 games of the 2018 season, four of which were in the playoffs, the Patriots ran the ball 333 times and attempted 340 passes, which is rather remarkable offensive balance for a team with Brady at quarterback. And unprecedented in the sense that much of their running attack has come with a fullback in the backfield.

• When asked about how the Patriots offense seems to evolve continuously, Coach Mike Tomlin said, “They change relative to the weapons at his disposal, and they work to highlight the talents of those he is working with. Their changes are centered around the strengths of people who work with Tom Brady, but the consistency, the component of it that’s unchanged is No. 12.”

• As for the Patriots, what offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said about what he’s looking for from his group is very similar to what Tomlin said he’s looking for from his in Sunday night’s opener.

• “We want to take care of the ball, play penalty-free, and make as few mistakes as we can make,” McDaniels told the Boston Herald. “That’s a generic answer, but that’s the reality of the situation at this point in time … there’s still a lot of unknowns, still a lot of bridges you’ve got to cross, and a lot of reps you’ve got to take to get better and improve on. But to say exactly what we’re going to be, what [personnel] groupings we’re going to lean on, who’s going to play this many snaps, the roles everybody’s ironed out, I think it would probably be unfair for me to say that.”

• Based on all of this, the idea of Vince Williams as a starting inside linebacker and Bush having his playing time monitored in this opener starts to make sense. If the Patriots are going to want to start out by employing a physical running attack, Williams would seem to be the better option at inside linebacker, and the Steelers still would have Mark Barron next to him to handle coverage responsibilities.

• And another element of the game where Williams is a better option than a rookie in a season opener is in the area of getting the defensive call from the sideline, communicating it to the rest of the players on the field, and then calling out any adjustments that might become necessary based on New England’s personnel grouping and the alignment of that personnel.

• In the Steelers victory over the Patriots last December, Williams played 59 of the 62 defensive snaps (95 percent) and after the victory Tomlin praised him for his efforts as the defensive quarterback on the field. Tomlin admitted that playing Williams so much may not have been ideal in terms of the matchups with the Patriots offense, but having everyone on defense on the same page and understanding what needed to be done on each snap was worth the trade-off.

• Just think back to some of the Steelers’ recent games in Gillette Stadium and the impact of mistakes and miscommunication by the defense – having two few men on the field, having Gronkowski go uncovered because guys weren’t getting the calls from the sideline, etc, etc, etc. Make those kinds of mistakes against Brady, and he’ll make you pay for them. Every. Single. Time.

• If the NFL had any occasion for walk-up music, similar to Major League Baseball, a suitable choice for General Manager Kevin Colbert would be Toby Keith’s “How Do You Like Me Now?!”

• So, football experts, how do you like that No. 3 and No. 5 in return for Antonio Brown now? And remember, Oakland’s No. 3 was the second pick of the third round (66th overall) , and so that was justification in the Steelers’ minds for giving up their No. 2, which was the 52nd overall choice, as part of moving up to draft Devin Bush.

• Colbert has gotten a lot of criticism for two recent trades – Santonio Holmes for a fifth-round pick from the Jets in 2010, and the No. 3 and No. 5 for Brown. The Steelers parlayed that fifth-round pick from the Jets into the acquisition of veteran cornerback Bryant McFadden and the No. 6 pick that was used on Brown. And then the picks obtained for Brown helped the Steelers trade up for Bush and draft Zach Gentry.

• The Holmes trade netted the Steelers the best receiver in football until he went off the rails, and then trading him facilitated the trade-up for the kind of inside linebacker the Steelers have lacked since Ryan Shazier’s injury plus an interesting developmental tight end.

• Anybody out there still believe the Steelers got jobbed on the Antonio Brown trade? Bueller? Bueller?

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