The Patriots came out of the gate firing and putting points on the scoreboard, building an early lead that they were able to hang on to through the second half, knocking off the Pittsburgh Steelers 21-18.
The win breaks New England's five-game losing streak and gives Bailey Zappe his first win as a starting quarterback this season. Zappe was outstanding early, throwing for three first-half touchdowns as he brought the passing offense to life with some well-delivered strikes, though it was more of a struggle to move the ball in the second half, when an interception and blocked punt made things interesting down to the game's final minutes.
It was another strong performance by the Patriots defense, which frustrated the Steelers offense for most of the game. However, second-half miscues by the offense and special teams put them in some difficult spots. They made one fourth-down stop off the first turnover but allowed a touchdown off the blocked punt. But, in the end, the defense made the final stops necessary to hang on.
Here are the key takeaways from the victory!
1. First Drive Score
The Patriots came out firing in this game, with Bailey Zappe connecting with Juju Smith-Schuster for a 37-yard gain that helped spark one of the team's best opening drives in recent memory. Zappe contributed an 11-yard scramble on the only third down that the Pats faced on their first drive, with Ezekiel Elliott finishing things off on an 11-yard reception as he leaked out of the backfield and got the corner for the score.
It was an unfamiliar and unexpected start to the game for the 2023 Patriots as they instantly established a 7-0 lead over the Steelers.
The Pats nearly had a chance to build on their lead with a J.C. Jackson interception, but Jackson was flagged for pass interference before the pick and that negated the takeaway and kept Pittsburgh's offense on the field. Three plays later the Patriots defense got a third-down sack from Mack Wilson to force a long field goal attempt. Chris Boswell connected from 56 yards out to make it 7-3, as there were a surprising amount of points on the board after each team's first possessions.
2. Peppers Picks, Henry Scores
After trading three total punts through the end of the first quarter, the Patriots got back their interception with Jabrill Peppers coming up with the pick off Trubisky and returning it deep into Pittsburgh territory. Peppers again showed why he's been one of the team's bright spots this season as he continues to make big plays for the defense while bringing great intense energy. It was Peppers' second interception of the season, with his first coming against Buffalo in the team's last win back in Week 7. The safety did a good job disguising his coverage on the play, as he bailed into the deep part of the field while Myles Bryant applied pressure on a blitz that helped force Trubisky into the mistake.
Just two plays later Zappe would hit tight end Hunter Henry in the back of the end zone with an impressive lofted throw. And just like that the Patriots had 14 points with Zappe throwing his second touchdown of the game, already more points than they had scored in the previous three games.
3. The Juju and Hunter Formula Keeps Working
With the Patriots defense playing lights out in the first half, containing the Steelers to just three first downs through their first five possessions, Zappe went back to what was working in this game on the Pats sixth drive, first hitting Juju Smith-Schuster for his third big play of the game, this one going for 28 yards. Then, on the next play, Zappe laid out a pass for the end zone, lofting it out to Hunter Henry, who made an excellent catch for his second touchdown of the game.
It was jarring how the Patriots were piling up the big plays after failing to even get past the 30-yard line last week against the Chargers. New England built a 21-3 as the boos rained down from the Steeler faithful who were unhappy with Pittsburgh's lack of energy and the slow start that resulted from it.
Smith-Schuster particularly had a strong start to the game, posting big gains of 37, 17 and 28 yards to give him a season-high 82 yards in the first half alone. Zappe finished the first half 14-of-21 for 196 yards and three touchdowns.
4. Steelers Strike Back
Down 21-3, the Steelers needed to respond before the game got away from them and did so with a big play of their own as Trubisky targeted Diontae Johnson downfield, connecting for a 25-yard touchdown with J.C. Jackson in coverage. It was an eight-play, 70-yard drive by the Steelers that they desperately needed, and it only required one short third-down conversion.
Big plays have been an issue of late for the 29th-ranked Patriots passing defense in EPA and it showed up here in the first half as the Steelers made things interesting with a scoring strike from just outside the red zone.
The Patriots took a 21-10 lead to the locker room on the heels of arguably their best half of football of the 2023 season.
6. Zappe Gets Picked, Defense Steps Up
The teams continued to trade punts into the third quarter until Zappe attempted to hit Smith-Schuster on a crossing route but former Patriot linebacker Elandon Roberts made a good play to get a hand in to break up the pass. The ball deflected into the waiting hands of Steelers cornerback Mychal Walker and Walker returned the interception to New England's 16-yard line. It was an unfortunate reminder of the mistakes that have cost the Patriots this season and after going turnover-free against the Chargers last week, Zappe's turnover gave the Steelers new life.
Off the quick change, the Patriots defense made it tough on the Steelers despite them taking over so deep inside Patriots territory. After a third-down stop, Pittsburgh elected to go for it from the New England eight-yard line on 4th-and-2 and the Pats defense stepped up and delivered a stop with Mack Wilson making the key tackle short of the sticks. It was yet another example this season of the defense supporting the offense after a mistake. The special teams on the other hand...
6. Special Teams Letdown
New England's offense couldn't do anything after the defensive goal-line stand, going three-and-out and looking to punt the ball back to Pittsburgh. But the punt was blocked and the Steelers took back over once again deep inside Patriots territory at the 26-yard line. A pass interference penalty in the end zone by J.C. Jackson, his second of the game, set up the Steelers first touchdown of the game as they didn't waste their second opportunity in two possessions inside the red zone. A successful two-point conversion then closed the score to 21-18 as Pittsburgh scored 15 straight points to make things interesting late in the fourth quarter.
Just as the Patriots looked to be in control of the game, mistakes by the offense and special teams helped get the Steelers back in the game. The Patriots special teams have had consistent issues throughout the season and this blocked punt was as impactful as any of them.
However, the Patriots defense continued to make the plays necessary for the win as the offense stumbled down the stretch, unable to pick up any first downs in crunch time that would have helped end the game on the Patriots terms. Needing to rely on the defense once again this season, the defense delivered a needed win.
7. Patriots are 3-10
With the win, the Patriots break a five-game losing streak and notch their third victory of the 2023 season, improving their record to 3-10. Powered by some big plays and a surprising emergence of Juju Smith-Schuster, the Patriots were suddenly throwing the ball all over the field. And not only that, but they were producing points on the scoreboard, a feat that has consistently eluded them for most of the 2023 season.
Hunter Henry, playing on his birthday, also turned in a strong performance, breaking a three-game scoring drought. But most notable was the play of the quarterback, as Zappe was ready to throw early and often, quickly helping New England build a double-digit lead. Combined with another strong performance by the defense that helped out by setting up the team's second score with an interception, the Patriots gave a small glimpse of the kind of complementary football play that has won a lot of games for them in recent years when their offense wasn't as dominating as it was in the last decade.
The second half wasn't much to trumpet for the Patriots on offense or special teams, they recorded just three first downs and made two big mistakes that could've cost them had the defense not stepped up once again. Given how 2023 has gone, maybe that's how it was supposed to be.
New England remains in the second spot in the draft and gets a rewarding win that offers a reprieve from the season-long struggles that have haunted them. Next up the Patriots get an extended mini-break over the weekend before returning to Gillette Stadium to face the Kansas City Chiefs next Sunday at 1 pm.