On Tuesday the Patriots began to turn the page from the final stages of setting the roster and practice squad to their normal weekly schedule. Conference calls with coaches Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels and Steve Belichick were the only access for the day, as the team prepped for three practices later this week.
The recurring theme for the coaches? Getting the season off on the right foot, but being ready for an unpredictable game where neither team truly knows even themselves yet.
Yes, football is back, but this is just the start of a long journey.
"This game is just a step in the process. It won't be the final analysis but it'll be part of a continuing analysis," Belichick told the media. "Every game's an opportunity, every practice is an opportunity and hopefully we'll be able to take advantage of each of those opportunities, not just with the young players or the players that have less experience in our system, but with every player to improve both individually and for units to improve collectively with our overall execution."
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels preached caution when preparing for the season opener.
"You don't spend too much time guessing about what may happen because you could do yourself a lot of harm in that regard,” McDaniels said. "The guesswork is something that just adds time to your week. We know that there's a good group of players that are going to be out there at certain positions. Are they going to play this guy over that guy more, etc.? I think those conversations wait until Sunday to find some of those things out.”
Belichick said that despite some similarities in terms of personnel and scheme, the carryover from last season's Week 15 matchup, which saw the Steelers squeak out a 17-10 win, will be minor.
"I don't think it's insignificant, but there are changes and, again, both teams have had a lot of time to prepare for the game and also – both teams are different than they were at that point in time. They've also had a chance to add, subtract or modify things schematically that they're doing and both teams have some different players that I would anticipate playing significant roles in the game that weren't part of that game. Those things are all different."
One thing that will be different for the Patriots is not having Rob Gronkowski, who had 8 career touchdowns against the Steelers in 7 career games. McDaniels acknowledged the team just has to move forward and can't try to replicate what Gronk brought to the party.
“When you've lost many players over many years, you don't just try to plug-and-play and say that one person is the same as somebody else who's no longer there,” McDaniels said. “I think each team is dealing with the same set of issues or unknowns in that regard and you try to do the best you can, and then you also continue to sort that out as you head through the season. It doesn't end, obviously, on Week 1.”
While the defense has looked outstanding through summer practices and preseason games, secondary/safeties coach Steve Belichick reiterated that they don't really know what they have right now.
“I’m not really sure what the future holds for our defense. Each year, we just try and build as much chemistry and camaraderie with the unit as we can. I can’t really speak on last year or years past versus this year. We’re just kind of worried about the team that we’ve got right now. We’ll just try and put the best product we can out on the field.”
The biggest thing to prepare for? The elder Belichick said it’s being flexible.
"We'll start somewhere, but I think there's a good chance we'll have to make adjustments on Sunday night," said Belichick. "That's the way it normally is on opening day anyways, so that's how we'll approach it."