HOUSTON – The Patriots kicked off their week in Houston with Super Bowl Opening Night at Minute Maid Park on Monday night with more than 10,000 fans on hand for the festivities. The baseball park setting in the home of the Astros was much more conducive to the event than Phoenix Suns Talking Stick Resort Arena, which featured much tighter quarters two years ago at Super Bowl XLIX.
The extra space allowed for a huge stage and a rock star entrance for the AFC champs, complete with smoke machines and live music. The entire team complete with coaching staff and training and equipment personnel was together on stage before making their way down onto the field and to the various podiums.
"This is still crazy but it seems much more under control this year," said Brandon Bolden, comparing the experience to that of Arizona two years ago. "There's more space to move around and the crazies don't seem to be everywhere like last time."
The crazies were still present, such as the gentleman dressed as Cinderella alongside Prince Charming and various other side shows. But as far as media days go this one offered opportunities for some football.
The offensive line was among those talking about the game, specifically Falcons All-Pro linebacker Vic Beasley. Beasley led the NFL with 15.5 sacks and in his second season has emerged as one of the most feared pass rushers in the game.
"You hear all about him, because he was up there in sacks, and of course as a first-round pick last year," right tackle Marcus Cannon said. "But it wasn't until I really looked at film and seen everything he can do, and you see what a good player he is."
"Fast. He's super fast. Athletic. He's really gifted, given trouble to a lot of tackles. He's playing really well."
"It's his speed," left tackle Nate Solder agreed. "His athleticism. His ability to run the edge and the effort he puts into it."
Beasley had a quiet rookie season after getting selected in the first-round (eighth overall) out of Clemson in 2015. He finished his first year with just 4 sacks but has exploded in Year 2 and has been the Falcons most dangerous defensive weapon.
"It says that he's not going to quit, and he's working at his craft," Solder added. "I obviously didn't see him at all last year, so I don't know what the story was. But I know right now he's playing great ball and getting after a lot of guys and giving them a hard time."
One of the few Patriots blockers who has some experience with Beasley is left guard Joe Thuney. The rookie saw plenty of Beasley during their days going at it in the ACC. Thuney wasn't looking back at those college meetings fondly.
"I went to NC State and he went to Clemson, so I remember from college that he was a very fast and explosive pass rusher," Thuney said.
When asked what the tape looked like, the rookie responded with a smile.
"Don't watch it," he said with a laugh.
Beasley's biggest strength is his clearly his speed but he also has the versatility to move around the formation, something the Patriots front is aware of.
"At times, he'll be on both sides. Sometimes in the middle," Cannon said. "He's active and all that speed, he's real slippery with a ton of rush moves that we'll have to deal with."
The Patriots improvement up front has been one of the biggest developments of the season for the offense. Dealing with Beasley will be the latest of a seemingly endless stream of tests for Solder and Cannon, and how well they fare will go a long way in determining the outcome come Sunday.