Pittsburgh, PA – After a last-second victory over the Bills earlier this season, our message to Patriots fans was to enjoy the victory because who knows when the next win will come?
Although then-starting quarterback Mac Jones finally orchestrated a signature win with plenty of season left to build on the momentum, the Patriots did the opposite, losing five consecutive games to tumble out of any playoff conversations. Since that Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium, Jones lost his grasp on the starting quarterback job, and the conversation has quickly turned to future debates about the head coach's job status heading into the 2024 offseason.
On Thursday night, our message to Patriots fans is the same as in Week 7: enjoy it for one week because it could be a while until you taste victory again.
With a huge first-half performance on offense, New England snapped a five-game losing streak in a 21-18 victory over the Steelers on Thursday night in Pittsburgh. After scoring a combined 20 points in their last three games, quarterback Bailey Zappe led the Patriots offense to 21 first-half points to build an 11-point lead at halftime, and the Pats defense shut it down from there.
Let's pump the brakes on discussions about how one good start for Zappe means he would've changed the entire Patriots season if Coach Belichick had made the switch sooner. The offense woke up for two quarters, and that's all there is to say about it for now, significantly when they regressed to the mean in the second half. Long-term jobs are not won, and coaches aren't saved by one win; do it consistently, and then we can talk about the Fever.
For those worried about how this win impacts the #TheTank, don't fret, that's the best part! The Pats still hold the number two overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft due to still having the strength of schedule tiebreaker over the Cardinals (bye week), so just savor it. The Patriots won a football game on the road against a franchise we all love to beat. So take a brief hiatus from #TheTank and revel in a good win in Pittsburgh.
Here are eight observations as the Patriots improve to 3-10 on the season with a win over the Steelers on Thursday Night Football:
1. Powerful Play of the Game Presented by Enel: Bailey Zappe's Dot to Hunter Henry for a 24-Yard Touchdown in the Second Quarter
Let's lead it off with a shout-out to the birthday boy as Patriots tight end Hunter Henry turned 29 years old in style with a two-touchdown performance against the Steelers on Thursday night.
Along with feeding the birthday boy near the red zone, the Patriots also hit on a scheme where the last time they ran it, Jalen Ramsey was running in the opposite direction with an interception. This time, Zappe perfectly executes a "bluff" screen to hit Henry for six. On a bluff screen, the quarterback will pump fake to the screen while Henry sells a block for JuJu Smith-Schuster, and then Henry releases upfield after selling the fake.
"It's a read that you've really done your whole life. You pump the screen, and if the corner drives it, it's kind of like a hole shot. I didn't throw much of a hole shot. I kind of left it a little bit inside. But it was high enough that it got over the safety, and Hunter made a heck of a catch," Zappe told Patriots.com. "You try to make everything look the same [on the pump fake]."
Zappe's skill to use pump fakes and his eyes/hips to manipulate the defense is a trait that stands out, while Henry made a terrific catch on one of the Patriots best offensive highlights in a while.
2. Bailey Zappe Delivers Best Half of Quarterback Play in Nearly Two Years for Patriots
Aided by a great opening script by offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien, quarterback Bailey Zappe delivered the best half of quarterback play the Patriots have had in nearly two years.
The second-year quarterback added +11 total expected points (EPA) in the first two quarters, with three touchdown passes to build an insurmountable lead. Zappe's expected points added output was the most since Mac Jones's rookie season. To be exact, in Week 17, 2021, Jones led the Patriots to a 50-10 win over a very bad Jaguars team (3-14).
Zappe lit up a Steelers defense that came into the week ranked sixth in DVOA. Although they lost edge rusher Alex Highsmith and superstar LB T.J. Watt was limited due to injury, it was still an impressive two quarters by Zappe without lead-back Rhamondre Stevenson and three regulars at wide receiver. They were short-handed and still had their best offensive half of the year.
As he showcased on the Henry touchdown, the most impressive aspect of Zappe's first-half performance was his eye manipulation and decisive decision-making against a good Steelers defense.
On Henry's other touchdown, Zappe did an excellent job of holding Steelers ball-hawk Minkah Fitzpatrick with his eyes to keep him out of the passing lane to Henry, then put the ball in a spot where only Henry could get it. Zappe also connected with JuJu Smith-Schuster on an explosive play where he sniffed out a zone blitz by Pittsburgh in a cover-two defense where the coverage rotation made it difficult for the defense to fall into their spots in the zone before Zappe got rid of the ball.
Now, we'll need to watch the film to see what happened in the second half for Zappe. The Pats offense regressed to punt, interception, and four straight punts to end the game. Let's not completely rain on the parade, but you can't lose sight of that. On his interception, it looked like Zappe was sped up on the play and didn't let the high-low concept fully develop, throwing to the more covered receiver, admitting post-game that the correct read was to Henry on a second-level crosser.
Although the second half was more pedestrian, the Patriots can win games moving forward with that quarterback play.
3. Patriots Defense Spins the Dial to Force Mitch Trubisky Into Critical Interception
With the Patriots defense on a roll lately, New England had a juicy matchup against Steelers backup quarterback Mitch Trubisky on Thursday night in Pittsburgh.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick's defense limited Trubisky to -0.19 expected points added per play, relying heavily on two-high safety shells and "buzz" coverages to close the middle of the field. Belichick told reporters after the game that Steelers wideout George Pickens was a player they had circled as someone they wanted to neutralize along with T.J. Watt. Pats defenders pointed to Pittsburgh's ability to hit explosive plays with Pickens and fellow WR Diontae Johnson, which brought on the two-high safety-heavy game plan.
On the runner-up for play of the game, safety Jabrill Peppers's second-quarter interception led directly to a Patriots touchdown. The interception came on an exotic disguised pressure, where the Pats simulate a three-man rush and then blitz nickel CB Myles Bryant and safety Kyle Dugger. In a short week, Pittsburgh wasn't prepared for the exotic look, which produced the interception and a sack later in the game with the same scheme.
"There's things that we always have in our back pocket that we might not have showed that much, and it's a short week. We didn't think they had enough time to prepare for some of the exotic things that we had," Peppers told Patriots.com. "That's a great pressure that has worked for us. The guys did a great job getting pressure to force a bad throw."
The Patriots defense also took pride in holding the Steelers rushing attack to a 39% success rate, with there being lots of buzz about running back duo Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren. Overall, the Pats defense continues to keep them competitive in games.
4. WR JuJu Smith-Schuster Has Best Game as a Patriots With Two Explosive Catches
When the Patriots signed Smith-Schuster to a lucrative free-agent contract in the offseason, this was closer to what they envisioned in March.
Smith-Schuster finished the game with a season-high 90 yards on four catches. JuJu had heady plays like the one in the section above to provide an answer to a blitz, while he made the Steelers pay for coming out in man coverage to begin the game.
With the Steelers mainly playing man coverage to start, the Patriots started in a tight bunch alignment to help Smith-Schuster release off the line without a jam. Pittsburgh is in a single-high coverage with the safety in centerfield, so JuJu ran a corner route, where he runs through the defenders' outside leverage with his speed, and Zappe drops it in the bucket for Smith-Schuster to make a great catch. Although he owned up to underthrowing the ball a bit, Zappe said he alerted to the route for Smith-Schuster based on the coverage.
Those are the types of targets that the Patriots need more of from their quarterback. Smith-Schuster has a step, so put it up there and let your guy make a play on the ball: good route, good ball, and great play at the catch point.
5. Patriots Hold Down Hobbled T.J. Watt, But Line Stunts Remain Major Issue for O-Line
Although he was sometimes limited on Thursday night, the Patriots, led by right tackle Mike Onwenu, held Steelers stud pass-rusher T.J. Watt to two hurries. Watt blew up a few gap schemes where they pulled to his side, no bueno, but this was a nice bounce-back game for Onwenu after allowing a season-high five QB pressures last week. Onwenu said the key this week was trusting his technique. The Pats right tackle told Patriots.com that he panicked at times against Khalil Mack last week, but he was more under control on Thursday night.
The one area where the offensive line still needs to improve is with line stunts. Pittsburgh sacked Zappe twice with a three-man stunt and an interior T/T stunt where Cam Heyward registered a sack. Line movement has been an issue for this offensive line all season, with rookie right guard Sidy Sow getting picked on by the Steelers. They need Billy Yates and Adrian Klemm to fix it.
6. Without Rhamondre Stevenson, It's the Ezekiel Elliott Show on Thursday Night Football
With the Patriots down lead-back Rhamondre Stevenson, Elliott played 52 offensive snaps with 140 scrimmage yards on 29 touches and a touchdown. Elliott had some key runs late in the game, while his contributions in the passing game were where he made the biggest impact.
On his touchdown, the Patriots get man coverage again from the Steelers. Elliott has a pick-flat route where tight end Hunter Henry runs a rub route to cause traffic for Elliott's man in coverage. Henry's route gets enough of the linebacker for Elliott to turn the corner, and Zeke does the rest.
Elliott has been a really solid addition to the Patriots backfield this season. He's been a great ball carrier on runs and yards after the catch, especially on screen passes, and was an effective option in the flat for Zappe in this game. Zeke has been a good signing.
7. CB Jonathan Jones Closes It Out for Pats Defense With Coverage on Diontae Johnson, LB Jahlani Tavai Registers Team-High 14 Tackles
For the second consecutive week, Jones was terrific for the Patriots defense. He made a great open-field tackle on third down to get George Pickens down short of the sticks and then covered Diontae Johnson on a fourth-and-2 go ball that fell incomplete. Jones told Patriots.com that he expected a slant given the down and distance, trusting himself to catch up if Johnson ran a vertical route. Jones has been playing lights-out ball recently. I'm usually not a big raw tackle totals guy, but 14 tackles is a big number for Tavai, who has been a rock-solid contributor this season.
8. In Latest Special Teams Snafu, Blocked Punt Swings Momentum in Steelers Favor in Fourth Quarter
The special teams snafus continue to compile for this team, with a blocked punt leading directly to a Steelers touchdown on Thursday night. The Patriots were also bailed out on an offside call that the refs deemed a false start, and rookie punter Bryce Baringer had a bad touchback on a plus-50 opportunity in the second half. This group needs to be better, and it starts with coaching.