When the Patriots ran
There was nothing particularly eye-popping about the Patriots running game in the opener: 24 carries for 80 yards (3.3-yard average) and no touchdowns. Even a successful Tom Brady sneak barely managed to move the sticks when normally the Patriots quarterback tacks on an extra yard or 2 to spare. But the way Dion Lewis maneuvered his way through the Steelers defense to the tune of 69 yards on 15 carries (a solid 4.6-yard average) was enough to earn the home team the nod. Lewis' misdirection runs caused problems for Pittsburgh, which had trouble tackling the 5-8 running back. When the Steelers did corral him, Lewis generally moved the pile with underrated toughness and physicality. The bodies moved forward when he ran, and his production was just enough to keep the defense honest and off balance. Lewis' performance was magnified when compared to Brandon Bolden, who received five carries and managed a measly yard. Clearly the Steelers were ready for him when he entered the game, but not so with Lewis.
When the Patriots passed
It was well into the second half before Brady misfired for the third time of the game. At that point he had completed a franchise-best 19 in a row en route to a sterling opening night line that read: 25 of 32 for 288 yards and four touchdowns and no picks. That translates to a 143.8 passer rating, and given the way his receivers ran free all night it's hard to imagine the numbers weren't even better. Rob Gronkowski continues to be the game's most glaring mismatch. He finished with five catches for 94 yards and three of those scores. The other touchdown was a 1-yarder that went to Scott Chandler for his only catch of the night. Julian Edelman showed no signs of rust and had a game-high 11 catches for 97 yards while Lewis chipped in with four catches for 51 yards. Brady used his tried and true method of spreading out the defense and getting rid of the ball quickly while operating behind a line that featured three rookies on the interior at times. Josh Kline started and saw plenty of action as well, but David Andrews went wire-to-wire at center while Tre' Jackson and Shaq Mason rotated with Kline. It didn't matter because Brady was in midseason form.
When the Steelers ran
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night was DeAngelo Williams, who racked up 127 yards on 21 carries for a healthy 6-yard average. Those numbers might have been better had the Steelers not been forced to abandon the running game in the fourth quarter while playing catchup. Williams ripped off runs of 28 and 18 yards and consistently carved up the Patriots front seven, often bouncing outside of containment and pressuring the edges with his quickness. With Le'Veon Bell serving a suspension Pittsburgh didn't figure to create many problems on the ground, but with the coaches choosing to limit Jerod Mayo to goal-line reps the veteran free agent addition was a going concern for Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins. The one bright spot for New England came near the goal line. It took Pittsburgh three tries to barely squeak Will Johnson into the end zone on a third quarter possession, and in the fourth quarter the Patriots stiffened on two plays from the 1 before a false start penalty moved the ball back to the 6, where Williams failed to gain anything on third down. Overall it was a lackluster performance by the front seven.
When the Steelers passed
Things weren't much better for the front when it came to applying pressure on Ben Roethlisberger or for the secondary trying to contain his receivers. Roethlisberger completed 26 of 38 passes for 351 yards with a touchdown and an interception. The final touchdown drive was meaningless but what took place during the previous three-and-half quarter was not. Generally the Steelers had receivers open – particularly Antonio Brown (nine catches for 133 yards, 1 TD) and Heath Miller (eight catches for 84 yards) – and Roethlisberger had plenty of time to find them. Malcolm Butler drew the unenviable task of tracking Brown and struggled. He was competitive at times but not so much on others and eventually the scheme called for more zone looks. If not for some shoddy work by backups Markus Wheaton, who still managed 55 yards on just three catches, and Darrius Heyward-Bey things could have gotten sticky. Heyward-Bey somehow couldn't keep his feet in bounds in the end zone on what should have been a 26-yard touchdown. Still, the Steelers recorded completions of 43, 37, 33 and 26 yards despite Bill Belichick pointing out earlier in the week the fact that Roethlisberger was one of the game's most accurate deep throwers a year ago.
This was not one of the home team's best nights on special teams, but since the opponent all but handed the Patriots momentum early by missing two field goals it gets the nod. Josh Scobee, the Steelers third kicker of the summer, pushed 44- and 46-yard field goals to the right and that immediately put the visitors in catch-up mode. Neither side did much in the return game but the Patriots were uncharacteristically sloppy with penalties in the kicking game. Captain Matthew Slater was whistled for a block in the back that negated a 15-yard Danny Amendola return. An illegal formation penalty took away a 63-yard Ryan Allen punt in the fourth quarter, allowing Pittsburgh to take over at its 36 instead of the 24, a 12-yard difference that could have been costly. The punt team earned its second penalty of the night when it was flagged for holding on Allen's next kick, which resulted in a touchback. Otherwise the Patriots coverage was sound and Michael Williams made a heads-up play to field Scobee's line-drive squib in the third quarter in wet conditions.