Time is indeed just a flat circle, as the New England Patriots have defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in 15 of their last 21 dating back to the 1996 postseason. Not a picture-perfect performance for New England, but they unequivocally improved in the spots they needed to from last weekend, save for play action passing being null once again. Offensive line play was much improved, Rhamondre Stevenson and Damien Harris were much more of a factor in the game plan, and the defense was once again great, holding Pittsburgh to just 14 points and one touchdown.
Elsewhere the Patriots finally got a monster game out of Nelson Agholor, in addition to Jakobi Meyers as well. Maybe not as big as Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle over in Baltimore, but needed performances, nonetheless. As Mike Tomlin likes to say, “The standard is the standard”, and that is the Patriots dog walking the Steelers for the last quarter century.
Final Score: New England Patriots 17, Pittsburgh Steelers 14
McCorkle’s Mixed Bag
Mac Jones, after a rough start to the action and a bad interception to Minkah Fitzpatrick, was able to settle in after a little bit to have a solid performance on Sunday. Circling back to the interception, however, this is now the second time that an underthrown deep ball to Devante Parker has led to a turnover. In this instance, it was Jones failing to see Fitzpatrick shadowing Parker on his outside and letting him get a relatively easy pick. Jones also failed to notice some wide-open receivers in some short-yardage situations, which should hopefully not be the case moving forward, but it was noticeable.
Even more impressive than his touchdown throw to Agholor was his ability to adjust at the LOS on the put-away drive. We didn’t see Jones call many audibles, if any, during the preseason, that wasn’t the case in Pittsburgh in that sequence. Save for the three kneel-downs and hold on Meyers, there was just one play that went for nothing or lost yardage. Those eight net positive plays were for a combined 61 yards, and Jones was clearly seeing what Pittsburgh was trying to do defensively. Don’t just take my word for it, just ask Steelers’ defender, Malik Reed.
Offensive Line Bounce Back
Night and day difference from Week 1 to 2 would be the understatement of the century when talking about this offensive line. Save for a few false start penalties, this is exactly what they need to be from here on out. Mac Jones got sacked a grand total of zero times, and they led the way on the final bully ball drive to secure the victory. Trent Brown by all accounts was shaky against the Dolphins and entered this weekend with an ankle issue. Despite that, he was much closer to what Patriots fans have come to expect out of him.
With that said, Brown wasn’t even the standout performer of the group, but rather first-round rookie Cole Strange. Many Patriots fans, myself included, were skeptical at best with the pick for varying reasons. Still, he rewarded the Patriots scouting department/front office’s faith in him in a big way on Sunday. Strange saw a healthy dose of three-time All-Pro IDL Cam Heyward and proceeded to put him in the Steiner Recliner for four quarters. That was perhaps the single most impressive thing to come out of his tilt. Mac Jones was also quick to give props to his rookie left guard after the game as well.
Bend, Don’t Break
Make it two games and two great performances for this defense. The former game now looks significantly better given what happened to the Ravens on Sunday as well by the way. One of the few complaints was the lack of any forced turnovers in that Dolphins game. That was rectified on a tip drill pick on a quite frankly brutal throw by Mitch Trubisky. Starting down two defenders for multiple seconds and then throwing in that direction typically doesn’t end well.
Much like the Bengals did a week ago, the Patriots effectively made Najee Harris a nonfactor in the running game. For the game, he had just 15 carries for 49 yards, with an eight-yard gain serving as his game-high. Elsewhere, rookie sensation George Pickens wasn’t a factor at all, getting just one harmless 23-yard grab at the end of the first half. The only receiver that was a consistent threat was Diontae Johnson, who picked up 6 grabs for 57 yards. Give credit to Jonathan Jones and Co, Trubisky may not be great, but he has a legit supporting cast than can do some damage. Luckily that wasn’t really the case. Shoutouts as well to Matt Judon, Christian Barmore, and Jahlani Tavai for the three sacks on the day.
All Three Phases
Special Teams ended up being big for the Patriots in this game with a muffed punt recovery by Brenden Schooler. But a rare, missed field goal from Nick Folk and a massive error on a punt return by Myles Bryant could have cost the Patriots on Sunday. After muffing the Steelers' first punt of the game, he brought the ball back into the endzone without possessing it, which saved the Patriots big time. With that said, they have Marcus Jones who can slot in for Bryant both on punt return and defensive back duties. Would imagine that happens within the next few weeks.
The Agholor and Meyers Show
In the passing game, someone, or multiple players, had to step up and become playmakers. Devante Parker had just one catch a week ago, and Kendrick Bourne was effectively benched. Luckily Bourne got on the field a lot more this week, but Parker once again was a non-factor as was Hunter Henry, who had zero catches on Sunday, which was a surprise given how good he was a year ago.
That said, McCorkle found Agholor and Meyers early and often on Sunday for the Patriots. The duo was nothing short of cash money, combining for 15 catches for 205 yards and a touchdown. Agholor specifically was spectacular, bringing in all six of his targets for 110 yards, including a Mossing of Ahkello Witherspoon for a 44-yard score on a 3rd and 2. Jones maybe could have put it in a tad better spot for Agholor to get it, but on those 50/50 balls, someone must make a play, and luckily it resulted in six for New England. Was nice to see this out of Agholor specifically, guys in that locker room have said nothing but great things about him since he’s been here.
Looking Ahead: Once Upon a Midnight Dreary
If the title wasn’t a giveaway, next up for the Patriots is one of their best rivals, the Baltimore Ravens. They would be coming to Gillette Stadium 2-0, but they allowed 28 fourth-quarter points to the Miami Dolphins, in what was a dominant performance beforehand. Don’t let that collapse fool you, Baltimore is as good as they come this year in the NFL, I’ve had them tabbed as winning the Super Bowl for months now. Mainly due to them having a great offseason, crushing it both in free agency and in the draft, adding to what was already a loaded team beforehand. Also having Lamar Jackson doesn’t hurt them whatsoever. It might not be Baltimore, but someone is going to pay him a ton of money to lead their franchise when the time comes. The Patriots will no doubt have their hands full going into next Sunday.
Gaffney's Three Stars:
1st Star - Nelson Agholor (6 Catches, 110 Yards, TD)
2nd Star - Cole Strange (Clean blocking sheet)
3rd Star - Matt Judon (4 Tackles, 1 TFL, 1 Sack, 1 PBU)
Honorary 4th Star - Robert Kraft (500th Game as Patriots Owner)