PITTSBURGH – The Patriots are on the board with a solid road victory against the Steelers on Sunday at Acrisure Stadium.
New England earned a 17-14 win by playing a cleaner game on both sides of the ball. Although it wasn't perfect, the Pats made Pittsburgh's offense earn every yard, and the offense also made positive strides.
Defensively, the Patriots still have the level of sophistication you'd expect from Bill Belichick. They might lose some matchups in the secondary, but they're a cohesive unit that forces offenses to drive the field by avoiding coverage busts and playing gap-sound football in the trenches.
After struggling in the opener, the Patriots offense had a good plan against the Steelers man coverages and returned to a downhill rushing attack.
Following the win, a few offensive players pointed out the game plan wrinkles and "scrapping" some things that weren't successful either over the summer or last week in Miami. As we know, we could see those other things return in specific matchups, but there are positives to build the scheme around moving forward as the coaches learn their personnel.
The coaching staff deserved the criticism it received last week, but Sunday's performance was a step in the right direction for the now 1-1 Patriots, ending with a game-icing drive that elapsed 6:33 to kneel the game out on offense.
Here are ten observations from the Patriots first victory of the 2022 season in Pittsburgh:
1. Powerful Play of the Game Presented by Enel: Nelson Agholor's 44-Yard Touchdown Catch
Patriots wide receiver Nelson Agholor explained why it's important to beat man coverage so that defenses can't load the box against the run. Later in the game, New England saw the man-coverage beaters pay dividends as the running game came alive.
"It's huge. It allows us to run the ball well when we beat man-to-man because that is the defenses counter. If we run the ball well, they play man coverage to get an extra guy down there in the box, so if we are able to beat man, now they have to play zone and we are able to gash them a little bit more."
The Steelers play man coverage on Agholor's game-changing touchdown catch by roaring from a two-high safety structure into a one-robber scheme. The safety rotation leaves Agholor one-on-one against Akhello Witherspoon, so Jones gives his receiver a chance, and Agholor rewards him with a fantastic contested catch. Moss'd him.
2. Patriots QB Mac Jones Beats Man Coverage, Decision-Making Issues Continue
There are certainly moments where Patriots quarterback Mac Jones resembles the player we saw in his rookie season, and it's nice to see him attack single coverage on the outside. But Jones's decision-making under this new offensive regime is regressing, resulting in one interception and another dropped pick that he was lucky didn't go the other way.
On a positive note, Jones flashed strong ball placement and a willingness to give his receivers a chance against man coverage. Pittsburgh forced the Pats to beat them one-on-one in man throughout the afternoon, and New England mostly did by featuring crossing routes and fades.
However, Jones has too many "no chance" throws on plays where you see hints of uncertainty and isn't always seeing the field as clearly as you'd want.
For example, Jones's interception was a prayer to DeVante Parker against a cover-two zone on third down. To Mac's right, the Meyers-Agholor route combination works. Agholor's under route pulls the shallow zone defender out of the passing lane to Meyers, but Mac heaves a pass up to Parker that Minkah Fitzpatrick easily intercepts.
The Patriots quarterback also missed a wide-open Lil'Jordan Humphrey between the numbers off play-action (Humphrey said they couldn't see each other) and had a few poor reads late in the game (missed Meyers in the flat).
Putting his struggles into proper context is critical as Jones evolves with a new coaching staff and a tweaked system, but what once was a strength has slowly become a worrisome trend.
3. Matt Patricia Passes Second Test as Offensive Play-Caller
After rightfully receiving heavy criticism following last week's loss, offensive play-caller Matt Patricia gets a passing grade this week. Patricia called in some timely man-beaters, and the downhill rushing attack was the right call against this Steelers scheme. The Pats gave Jones crossing routes and one-on-one shots on the outside to attack a heavier man coverage plan from Brian Flores and the Steelers staff, and those were highly successful. Plus, the Pats had a nice wrinkle by using Lil'Jordan Humphrey as a bigger, faster body in three-receiver sets rather than having slower two tight end groupings. We even got an RPO and some more play-action. Coaching will be less of a problem if that's how it looks moving forward.
4. Patriots Zone Coverage Rotations Force Trubisky's Interception
The Patriots had mixed results in their zone coverages with too many yards allowed underneath. But as the rest of the league can attest, we are in an NFL world where limiting explosive play by forcing offenses to chip away is the name of the game, and that's what they did.
New England's disguising and spinning of their DBs also causes the first-half interception by Jalen Mills.
On the play, the Patriots put safety Adrian Phillips on the outside to disguise man coverage and then fall into a cover-two zone. Trubisky thinks it's man or at least post-safety zone and doesn't see Mack Wilson drop underneath the slant route. Wilson tips the ball in the air, and Mills is in the right spot for the pick.
The Patriots need to limit the damage underneath the coverage, but Trubisky averaged 5.1 yards per attempt and -0.12 EPA per play. This is the new NFL.
5. Patriots Safety Jabrill Peppers Flashes in Ten Snaps vs. Steelers
Although it was only ten snaps, Peppers brought energy and forceful tackles in short zones to the defense. In one instance, the Steelers ran a play-action fake to draw the defense in and then threw the ball outside on a receiver screen. Peppers read it out quickly, rallied to the ball, and made a stop for a short gain. The Pats defense needs more explosive plays and players like Peppers.
6. Patriots LB Matthew Judon Makes Huge Fourth-Quarter Pass Breakup
Typically known for his ability to pressure the quarterback, the Pats Pro Bowler made a fantastic "instinctual" play to force a Steelers punt in the fourth quarter. Judon sniffed out Steelers running back Najee Harris releasing on a wheel route, and jumped out of the rush to take Harris in man coverage. Judon's coverage forced an incomplete pass, and Pittsburgh's drive was cut short. Judon also added a nice chase-down sack of Steelers quarterback Mitch Trubisky earlier in the game. Once again, an all-around solid performance by the veteran.
7. Patriots Offensive Line Bounces Back With Improved Performance
Was the Patriots offensive line perfect in Sunday's game? No, and it never will be flawless. Still, outside of a bad sequence of plays on a first-half drive and a few pre-snap penalties, this was a step in the right direction. The Steelers didn't bring pressure as often as expected, which played a factor, but the pass protection wasn't an issue sans one free runner at Mac in the aforementioned sequence. We'll see how it looks on the film, but our live viewing saw plenty of clean pockets for the quarterback. The Pats were lucky that the officials only called two false starts, though.
8. Patriots Return to Power/Gap Running Game, Success on the Ground Follows
The Patriots have had two good run-game plans to start the season, and attacking the Steelers 3-4 front with downhill running schemes and a sprinkle of zone runs was highly successful. New England closed out the game on the ground with a 50 percent success rate on their 24 rush attempts by running backs (78th percentile). The pulling guards returned and hit a nice clip on power, trap, and counter schemes. Plus, Rhamondre Stevenson and Damien Harris ran the ball well with good patience behind their blockers. More power/gap, less zone. That formula has worked for this offense for 20-plus years and since the beginning of camp this season.
9. Pats WR Kendrick Bourne Plays 21 Snaps in Increased Role
After playing only two snaps in the opener, Bourne was on the field for 21 plays in the win over the Steelers and was open quite a bit. The Pats wideout made plays on in-breaking routes against man coverage and continued to create separation for quarterback Mac Jones.
In the post-game locker room, Bourne called last week "not a big deal" and said it was a "situational thing " more than anything. Bourne added that he doesn't like that the story has become about him. The Patriots will take this Kendrick Bourne.
10. Patriots Suffer Three Notable Injuries on Defense
The only disappointing takeaway from the Patriots win was that three key players on defense were injured during the game. Patriots DT Davon Godchaux (back), LB Ja'Whaun Bentley (back), and safety Kyle Dugger (knee) left the game due to injury. We did spot Dugger in good spirits in the post-game locker room.