The Patriots broke a five-game losing streak with their 21-18 win over the Steelers on Thursday Night Football, fueled by three notable offensive players who delivered some of their best performances of the year in the victory.
Of course, at the center of it all was second-year signal caller Bailey Zappe, who threw three first-half touchdowns that were enough for the team to hang on to through a less productive second half. Zappe's touch was on display early, as big passing plays to Juju Smith-Schuster and Hunter Henry helped the Pats establish a lead, while veteran running back Ezekiel Elliott was called upon to play a season-high 52 of 57 snaps as he stepped up in the absence of Rhamondre Stevenson and produced 140 total yards of offense.
Juju delivered the early spark, Henry delivered the red zone finish and Elliott did a little of everything, including the first touchdown of the game, as the trio played vital roles in the win.
"We started fast and that was a good change for us, put some points on the board, played from ahead," said Henry following the game. "Kind of what we've wanted to do, and to execute that in a hostile environment, that was big for us."
Henry finished with three catches for 40 yards and two touchdowns, one of which, a 25-yarder that was one of Henry's best catches as a Patriot, extended the lead to 21-3 in the first half. It was Henry's most productive day since Week 4 against Dallas.
"I think the win was obviously the most important thing," said Henry. "Gosh, it feels good, it's been a hard stretch, hard year, not what we wanted at all but this is a great step in the right direction."
Smith-Schuster's best performance of the year came at the right time as he faced his former team that initially drafted him, and where he spent the first five productive seasons of his career. His 37-yard catch on the opening drive was a spark for the initial score, while his 28-yard reception on third-and-3 from close to midfield helped deliver the team's third touchdown and the eventual game-winning points.
"JuJu had some really big plays today," Elliott said of his teammate following the game. "Two of the bigger plays of the game. I know it feels good for him to be able to come back and make plays where he was drafted and get a win. I'm super happy for JuJu."
"Getting the ball in his hands, letting him run with it, it was good to see him fly around, playing all those years here, I know he's happy with the win coming back here," commented Henry.
"It means a lot," Smith-Schuster said. "Honestly, started my career here and coming back here and getting a 'W.' Love being on this side of the ball, I'll tell you that."
"He's a physical player," said Bill O'Brien on Friday morning. "JuJu's a good guy, he's a really good team guy and he really tries to do all we ask him to do. It hasn't probably gone his way all the time this season. But last night, it was nice to see him go out there and be able to have some production."
While Henry and JuJu delivered some key plays at key moments, it was Elliott who was the most involved overall with 30 touches in the game. It was the kind of game that hearkened back to his best days with the Dallas Cowboys, as Elliott showed he is still capable of shouldering a significant role when needed.
"We needed him to step up and carry the ball today, and he did," said Bill Belichick after the game. "Carried the ball, a lot of plays, a lot of snaps. Short week. Got banged up last week. That was a pro performance today."
"He was a workhorse tonight," said captain David Andrews in the locker room after the win. "Really appreciate his effort. I've appreciated him all year. It's been fun to be around a guy like that with so much talent, and somebody you see so much of but don't really know. Really appreciate his effort."
Elliott's contributions were more than just his touches however, as offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien pointed out his tackle following Zappe's third-quarter interception as a game-changing play that allowed the defense to get a critical red-zone stop late in the game.
"[Zeke] played very physical last night, he played a physical football game," said O'Brien. "He didn't run for 200 yards but he ran for very important yards. And he did a really good job in the passing game, catching the ball out of the backfield, taking care of the football and then probably made one of the most important plays in the game when he tackled that guy after the interception. That was a great, great hustle play. So can't say enough about Zeke and what he's brought to the team this year."
Elliott has had his moments this year, but when opportunity arrived this week following Stevenson's injury he made the most of his opportunity, an opportunity that should continue for the foreseeable future.
"I'm glad I'm able to show you guys I've still got it," said Elliott.