FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Amid all the excitement of this weekend – the start of the NFL regular season, unveiling of the sixth Super Bowl banner in Foxborough, anticipation of the arrival of Antonio Brown – there was a football to be played here at Gillette. That fact could have gotten lost, if this were any other team than Bill Belichick's.
On paper, both the Patriots and Steelers appeared to enter this contest stronger on defense than offense. The two rivals who met last December in Pittsburgh have since beefed up their Ds while losing vital cogs on their respective offenses: the aforementioned Brown for the Steelers and Rob Gronkowski for the reigning Super Bowl Champs.
This being the opener of the 2019 season, there wasn't much game film to go on when it came to preparing for Pittsburgh this past week.
"We knew they were going to have some stuff we didn't prepare for," safety Duron Harmon acknowledged, "but if you go back to your rules and fundamentals and playing with [good] technique, it'll get you where you need to get to. And that's what we did tonight. Everybody played good, fundamental, sound football. We were able to get off the field and limit them to three points."
New England was without one of its defensive playmakers, however, when LB Kyle Van Noy was a (somewhat) surprise inclusion on the 7-man inactive list 90 minutes before kickoff. His wife had been expecting to deliver their first child anytime this past week, so, it's likely she gave birth sometime today. Van Noy tweeted during the game that he was keeping tabs on his teammates, though.
Even minus Van Noy, the Patriots started strong defensively, something they've struggled with in seasons past.
"We just tried to play together as a team," CB Stephon Gilmore explained. "We knew they were going to make some plays, but as long as we played hard, tackled well, I felt like we were going to be okay. We have good communication. We pretty much know how each other is going to play. It took a whole to shut that offense down."
Both teams were eager to establish their running games on their respective opening drives, neither of which amounted to much, however.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels decided to open up the play-calling sheet on the second possession, calling for a double pass – QB Tom Brady threw what looked like a bubble screen to the right to WR Julian Edelman, who then threw back across the backfield to James White. The running back had three blockers and lots of artificial turf in front of him for a huge gain into Steeler territory.
Very next play, Brady found WR Josh Gordon wide open on a crossing route. Gordon fought through a couple of Pittsburgh defenders inside the 10-yard line to maneuver his way over the goal line for the game's first score.
The Patriots had a sustained drive on their next possession, which got them down into the Pittsburgh red zone. They were forced to settle for just three points off the foot of kicker Stephen Gostkowski to go up 10-0 in the early second quarter.
Yet, throughout much of the first half, Brady didn't look comfortable dropping back to throw. He finally found his rhythm in the mid-second quarter, connecting with Edelman on back-to-back passes totaling 40 yards, and then a 25-yard touchdown strike to WR Phillip Dorsett.
"For me it's just, always be ready, run the right route, be where [Brady] wants you to be. You never know when the ball's going to come to you as a receiver. The defense might bust a coverage," Dorsett told reporters. "It definitely boosted our confidence and helped us move down the field a little bit. It got us going. The first drive was kind of stagnant, but us going fast, adjusting like that, got us going."
Meanwhile, New England's defense held Pittsburgh on two consecutive, gritty short-yardage series immediately thereafter to force yet more Steeler punts. After stopping the Steelers on 4th-and-1 from near midfield, New England took over with two minutes to play in the first half and added a 41-yard field goal by Gostkowski to enter intermission with a 20-0 lead. The game was essentially decided by this point.
"It was a good game offensively," added Dorsett. "I feel like we did our job. We executed the game plan, but we probably left some plays out there."
If the Patriots had an issue on D, it was allowing Steeler receivers to get behind them on deep routes throughout the first half. Roethlisberger routinely overthrew them, though. In the third quarter, he finally connected with James Washington for 45 yards. Yet, facing a 3rd-and-goal from the NE 1-yard line, Roethlisberger floated an incomplete pass into the end zone and Pittsburgh kicked a chip-shot field goal to get on the scoreboard. That's the kind of night it was for Big Ben's offense.
"I think it goes back to the continuity we have – guys playing with each other for a while, a lot of veterans on the defense," observed Harmon. "You say one thing, everybody's kind of on the same page. When you have that continuity, that experience, a lot of good players, it makes your job very, very easy."
New England's defense was stingy all night, particularly when it came to short-yardage. Pittsburgh, meantime, allowed the Patriots to move the ball in big bunches, highlighted by Dorsett's second TD grab of the night, a 58-yarder on which the receiver was never touched and barely covered. This marked the first time in Dorsett's pro career that he's found the end zone on multiple occasions in the same game.
"Phil, he made some plays. That's why he's here, because he does that in practice," Edelman remarked about his teammate. "When you do it in practice, it becomes game reality. Great to see him make plays. Great to see Josh make plays. Jakobi [Meyers] came in, made a great catch. Gunner [Olszewski]'s making great plays in punt [returns]. It was good all the way around."
Gilmore matched up all night against Pittsburgh's replacement for Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster. Though he wound up catching six passes for 78 yards, they were mostly inconsequential.
On the o-line, Ted Karras made his first start at center since 2017, as he fills in for ailing regular David Andrews this season. The line appeared to survive the change just fine.
One sour note on offense came midway through the final quarter when starting right tackle Marcus Cannon appeared to suffer a serious injury to his left arm. He lay on the ground writhing in pain for several minutes while the medical staff attended to him before he eventually walked off to the sideline under his own power. Left guard Joe Thuney moved over to replace Cannon, and newcomer Jermaine Eluemunor debuted as a Patriot at Thuney's guard spot.
Cannon was later declared by the team to have a shoulder injury. It remains to be seen for how long, if at all, Cannon will be out of commission.
That aside, it was an overall successful night in New England. The Patriots didn't let the excitement of the weekend overwhelm them. They gave their fans something to celebrate both before and after this first game of the 2019 regular season.
"First game, we were anxious to get out there and finally play in a real game," said Gilmore. "We still have a long way to go to get better, but that's a good win for us."
"We made some plays. We left some plays out there," added Edelman. "It's never as good as you think it is; it's never as bad as you think it is when you watch it [on film]. It was good to go out there and get a win against someone in-conference, a Pittsburgh Steeler team, opening day.
"It's never as great as you want it to be. You don't have a lot of film on other [teams], so, it was good to establish what we did. Now we've got to move on and get ready for Miami."
As the reigning Super Bowl MVP indicated, now, it's on to Miami for Week 2. If they continue to play the way they did Sunday night throughout the season, they'll likely be back in Miami in early February.