After a preseason of lackluster offense the Patriots first unit experienced no such troubles when the games began for real. New England toyed with the overmatched Steelers defense throughout their 28-21 victory to begin the season.
Here are some random thoughts from the opening night.
BUTLER DID IT – Conventional wisdom heading into the opener suggested that Bill Belichick would not ask young Malcolm Butler to match up with the Steelers All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown one on one. But conventional wisdom was wrong because that's exactly what the second-year corner did early and often. He opened the game chasing Brown around while the wideout went in motion and lined up across from him constantly. The results early on were mixed as Butler applied solid coverage but still allowed some completions before really getting torched for 37-yard pickup late in the first half. His struggles continued after the break as Brown dominated to the tune of nine catches for 133 yards and a late touchdown. Eventually Belichick altered the scheme and gave Butler some help with zone coverages, but the damage was done.
LEWIS GETS THE CALL – The situation at running back was quite unsettled heading into the opener and with LeGarrette Blount sitting it out while serving his one-game suspension it was wide open. Dion Lewis got the call against Pittsburgh and surprisingly the diminutive back took on a heavy workload. He was on the field for 24 of the 29 snaps in the first half and had nine touches – six carries and three receptions – during the opening 30 minutes. He opened the second half in similar fashion, ripping off runs of 4, 11 and 9 yards on the Patriots third touchdown drive of the night. He finished with 15 carries for 69 yards and added four catches for 51 yards in an impressive debut that was only slightly marred by a fourth-quarter fumble that was recovered by Rob Gronkowski near the goal line.
EASLEY INJURED – Second-year defensive lineman Dominique Easley was shaken up early in the game and left favoring his left side. Replays showed Easley buckle while engaged with a Steelers lineman and he immediately reached for his left hip and was down for several minutes before walking quite gingerly to the sideline with the Patriots medical staff. Easley did not return. Rookie Geneo Grissom took plenty of snaps in his place throughout the remainder of the first half as the Patriots mixed and matched personnel liberally. Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones and Jabaal Sheard worked together in a front with Malcom Brown. Grissom appeared undersized as in interior lineman and got pushed around a bit, and it will be interesting to see how the coaching staff adjusts if Easley is seriously injured.
LINE SHUFFLE –With Ryan Wendell listed among the game's inactives it left plenty of snaps for three rookies and the relatively inexperienced Josh Kline. The Patriots opened with Kline at left guard, David Andrews at center and Tre' Jackson at right guard. The second series saw Shaq Mason enter the game at left guard while Kline replaced Jackson. The free substitution continued throughout and at one point all three rookies were in the game together, including on the team's final touchdown drive. Marcus Cannon saw time at both tackle spots as well, and Mason took a pair of snaps as the goal line fullback.
RUNNING CONCERN – The run defense did not get off to a great start as DeAngelo Williams shredded the Patriots with 21 carries for 127 yards. One reason for that was likely game plan related as Jerod Mayo was limited to goal-line defense while Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower served as the lone, true linebackers. Williams replaced the dangerous Le'Veon Bell, who was suspended, and perhaps the Patriots felt the emphasis was best served on dealing with Ben Roethlisberger and the passing game. And the Patriots were able display stout run defense when backed up near the goal line, forcing Pittsburgh to use three tries before scoring on one possession and following that with a pair of stops before the Steelers committed a false start, pushing the ball back to the 6. Overall it wasn't a great performance but it's too early to push the panic button. Of course next week in Buffalo the Bills will try to establish LeSean McCoy on the ground and a similar performance by New England's defense will be viewed differently.
FLAWED SCHEME –While Belichick's decision to single with Butler, it's hard to imagine exactly what Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Keith Butler was thinking all night. The Steelers consistently had trouble lining up and left several Patriots receivers uncovered. If some of those uncovered receivers were Aaron Dobson or Chris Harper it would be more understandable, but Gronkowski and Julian Edelman were left unattended all night long. Gronkowski's free reign was perplexing considering Pittsburgh's pregame vows to give the tight end extra attention and constant bumps at the line. Evidence of that plan was hard to find as Gronkowski finished with five catches for 94 yards and three touchdowns while Edelman added 11 grabs for 97 yards. Gronkowski's 52-yard reception in the fourth quarter was almost comical given the lack of Steelers around him. Tough to win when you fail to keep track of the game's most dangerous weapon.
FOUR TE LOOK –Gronkowski's second touchdown came on a play where Josh McDaniels used four tight ends near the goal line. Gronk was joined by Scott Chandler, Michael Hoomanawanui and Michael Williams, and the unique look resulted in an easy score.
SECONDARY DEPTH –The Patriots new-look secondary got off to a rocky start, and it wasn't just the guys who started the game. Bradley Fletcher was part of the subpackages and he struggled on the outside. Darrius Heyward-Bey got behind him for a 43-yard gain in the first half, and again on a play that should have resulted in a touchdown just before intermission. Heyward-Bey was all alone in the end after Fletcher got lost, but the wideout someone failed to keep his feet in bounds despite having plenty of time to get himself situated. Duron Harmon also was late on a few deep balls, as was Devin McCourty, and Patrick Chung was flagged for a blatant pass interference in the end zone. Overall things weren't smooth.
EXTRA POINTS – The Patriots improved to 3-0 in Thursday night season openers. … Brady improved to 12-2 in season-openers. … New England also improved to 24-10 in September over the past 10 years and 95-18 at home since 2001. … The Patriots led 14-3 at halftime and now sports a remarkable 67-0 mark when taking a lead into the break at Gillette Stadium since 2000. … With the victory Brady now has the most wins (161) as a starting quarterback with one team in NFL history, moving ahead of Brett Favre. He also set a franchise record with 19 straight completions. … Malcom Brown's first-career sack will make for a good trivia question someday as it came against Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown, who was attempting a pass. … Gronkowski's 52-yard reception matched a career best. … Andrews became the third undrafted rookie to start for Belichick's Patriots, joiningJace Sayler(2001) and Kenbrell Thompkins (2013).