FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — We can probably conclude, in a bipartisan national kind of way, that we have seen fewer weekends as full to the gunwales with absurdity as the one just passed. Against the sudden sprouting to all points of the compass of a new and exotic flora called “alternative facts,” it is nice to know that there are certain things on which we can all rely, fundamental things that apply, you might say, as time goes by.
One of those is the fact that, facing the Patriots in a playoff game, the Steelers invariably will try the same things that never have worked in the past and that, invariably, they will not work this time, either. Play a zone against Tom Brady, and he will have a carnival for himself, hitting on 32 of 42 passes for a record 384 yards and four touchdowns, and spreading the cheese out to nine receivers, but especially to Chris Hogan, who caught 12 for 180 yards and a couple of touchdowns. The second of these came on a gorgeous flea-flicker on which Hogan was so wide open that the isolation camera caught him with a genuine look of oh-god-don’t-let-me-screw-up look on his face as the ball arrived. Also, you can count on the Steelers to get the ball right down into the deep red zone, only to find several imaginary ways of their own to screw up.
Which is the point in our drama in which we introduce you to one Vincent Valentine, a massive rookie defensive tackle from Nebraska who’s spent his first season in the NFL doing what most rookies do in Foxborough—learning how much he didn’t know about playing defensive tackle. Day in and day out, through the grind of practice and frying his retinas in the film room, Valentine studied leverage and pad level and the thousand tiny jeweled movements that huge men need to make instinctive in themselves unless they want to be huge men working in their father-in-law’s feed store for the rest of their lives. He learned, a little at a time because, sooner or later, he was going to have to call on these things without thinking about them too much. And if Valentine, at 6' 3" and 320 pounds, sounds like a ballet dancer when he explains it all, that’s only because technique is technique and it’s when that technique becomes instinct that you find the place where your art comes from.
“Coaches are coaching everything here, hand-placement, just everything. Practice is like a game here,” Valentine said. “It’s just focusing every day, making sure I get my technique right, my leverage and everything. That’s what I did. “I was so surprised by how much I didn’t know, but I’m putting in the work every day with these guys. They’re helping me, bring me alone, and I’m just trying to keep learning from everybody. Patience is a virtue. Just working hard every day, you’re going to reap what you sow.”
With seven minutes and change left in the second quarter, and trailing at that point by a manageable 17–6, the Steelers began a drive on their own 25. Five minutes and 56 yards later, Ben Roethlisberger found Jesse James in the right flat and James staggered toward the end zone and seemed to have scored. Valentine and some of his teammates left the field while the play went under review. Then the call was reversed.
“Oh, yeah, OK,” he said. “It was, we gotta go, we gotta go. They’re at the one and we have to get in there and be more physical and push them back. Every play is an opportunity.”
So Valentine and his teammates went back out and, on the next play, Roethlisberger handed the ball to DeAngelo Williams—playing in place of the injured Le’Veon Bell—who slanted off toward the left. He hadn’t gone two steps before Valentine, apparently rising from beneath the sod, wrapped him up for a three-yard loss that ultimately would force Pittsburgh to kick a field goal. Ultimately that may have been the game’s most pivotal play, and the most critical in the first of New England’s two goal-line stands.
“We’ve seen multiple games or, in some cases, seasons, that come down to a yard, so that was a big yard there at the end of the half, that tackle,” Bill Belichick said of the play. “That was a big four-point swing and then, in the fourth quarter, it was 11 points there that we saved so, yeah, it was huge.”
After Valentine’s stop, Roethlisberger missed on a fade to Eli Rogers and the Steelers had to settled for a field goal. This is because God hates the fade and He hates all the coaches who call it, and He hates all the quarterbacks who throw it, and he hates all the receivers who try and catch it, even the ones that do.
If you watch the replay of Valentine’s stop carefully, you can see him deke a Steeler lineman to his right, and then step into a clear lane toward Williams. Well, “stepping” may be overstating it just a bit. He nearly fell right on his face. “Yeah,” Valentine said, “I kind of got my feet crossed there. I think he thought I was going in a different direction and I kind of fooled him. To tell you the truth, I’m not sure what happened. I looked up and there he was.”
This, it should be noted, is not going to be the way the play is going to be described when Valentine joins the rest of the defense in the film room this week.
“Oh, man, you know they’re going to see my feet tangled up there,” he said. “They see everything.”
Let it not be said, however, that there was no touch of absurdity in this game. As it happens, Vincent Valentine is the name of a character in the role-playing video game Final Fantasy VII—a Turk who gets his genes modified so he becomes immortal, as one does as a video game character. This has been something of the bane of the real VV’s life. “I heard that the whole time growing up,” the football-playing Valentine said. “Everybody talked to me about it all the time, but I didn’t know him. No t-shirts or anything. I never played Final Fantasy, man.”
That Valentine made the most of the big chance that appeared right in front of him is a tribute to how the New England defense has improved through a year that, frankly, presaged our present weekend of absurdity rather precisely. After all, this was the year in which the single most absurd faux-scandal in the history of the American legal system cost New England’s quarterback four games. The team came through that 3–1 and ended the regular season at 14–2, and if Commissioner Roger Goodell, the most unpopular man in New England since the British Army blew town in 1776, couldn’t quite make it to hand Bob Kraft the AFC championship trophy on Sunday night, that reckoning could still come in Houston.
If it happens, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia’s work with the Patriot defense is going to be a big reason why Goodell has to eat crow on a stick. He has had his own problems with which to deal, including the loss of pass-rushing anchor Rob Ninkovich for four games on a PED suspension. Patricia and Belichick patched things together with midseason acquisitions like linebacker Kyle Van Noy and rookies like Valentine and now the New England defense, which is still cited as the team’s primary flaw, is making all the plays that it has to make. Why Patricia isn’t a hotter coaching prospect around the league than he is remains a mystery. It can’t be the beard.
“Fortunately, this was a year where I’d say we weren’t forced into playing players as quickly as sometimes you are when you have injuries and players that aren’t available,” Belichick said. “We were able to bring players along and, when they were ready, we were able to play them.”
“Obviously, I don’t know the guys’ deep history when they come here,” said veteran safety Devin McCourty. “I don’t know what their roles were [with their previous teams] or whether they liked it there or not, but they come in here hungry. I think the mentality of the guys that come in here is they come in with a mentality of hard work and they want to play, and they want to be a part of what we have here.”
That was the case with Valentine who, along the way, picked up more than the ability to read blocking schemes at the NFL level. Asked what his assignment was on the big play he made that turned the game around, Valentine got all flummoxed and came up with the most Patriot answer of them all.
“Oh, man, I’m not going to say,” he said. “You know I can’t tell you that.”