Following a disastrous 20-7 Week 1 loss to the Dolphins and with two games against playoff hopefuls in the Baltimore Ravens and Green Bay Packers on the horizon, the Patriots pulled out a victory that was about as close to being a “must-win” as any Week 2 game can be. It was hardly ever pretty, but the Patriots were able to gut-out a hard fought 17-14 win on the road against the Pittsburgh Steelers and showcased offensive improvements that seemed a world away during the preseason.
AN IMPROVED PLAN OF ATTACK
Whether it was because head coach Bill Belichick spent more time with the offensive signal callers during stoppages in play or because offensive line coach Billy Yates was out of a box and on the sidelines, there was a marked improvement in the Patriots’ offensive game plan.
The Patriots were able to carve up the Steelers’ traditional two high safety scheme with a variety of crossing routes. It was a game plan that wide receiver Jakobi Meyers was the primary beneficiary of. Hours after initially casting doubts to the Patriots offensive plan, the fourth year pass catcher hauled in nine catches on 13 targets that picked up a first-down’s worth of average yardage.
After only running a handful of plays with pre-snap motion against Miami, New England ran 18 plays out of pre-snap motion against the Steelers. After two weeks, New England still ranks last in the league in pre-snap motion but are at least in somewhat of a rising trend.
But the philosophical change that may have paid the largest dividends was the Patriots’ willingness to step away from the zone running scheme that they seemed married to during the summer.
Although they still ran a few outside zone plays throughout the day, the Patriots dusted off 10 of their old-school “power” run sets. The simple gap-creating runs up the middle that fans were more accustomed to seeing when Tom Brady was under center.
It wasn’t a particularly aesthetically pleasing plan of attack. But it was far more effective than what the Patriots’ were taking the field with throughout much of the summer
OFFENSIVE LINE IMPOSES ITS WILL DOWN THE STRETCH
That power run scheme was what ultimately propelled the Patriots to victory down the stretch.
The Patriots final clock-killing drive featured eight rushing attempts, most of them out of New England’s power-running scheme. Running backs Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson displayed great patience behind their blockers and the Steelers’ offense was forced to watch from the sidelines as New England picked up nearly 50 yards methodically over 6 minutes and 30 seconds of game time.
First-year left guard Cole Strange showcased the talents that made him a first round pick in April. A week after being briefly pulled from action due to a missed protection that ended in a Miami scoop-and score, the Chattanooga product held his own against the Steelers’ Casey Hayward, one of the NFL’s most highly-regarded pass rushers.
While the offensive line still had a handful of ill-advised penalties and still allowed their QB to come under fire at points, it was a much improved performance.
MACK WILSON MAKES HIS CASE
When the Patriots traded for linebacker Mack Wilson during the offseason, it seemed a clear indication that they were going to go smaller and faster on defense.
But Wilson was relegated to the bench for most of the Patriots’ Week 1 loss against Miami as Raekwon McMillan received the lion’s share of snaps as the complementary linebacker to Ja’Whaun Bentley.
On Sunday, the Foxboro newcomer made his first start in a Patriots uniform and showcased the skills that made him a desirable offseason target for Belichick.
In the closing minutes of the first quarter, Wilson made a diving attempt at a Mitch Trubisky pass to the middle of the field. The batted ball fell perfectly into the hands of Patriots cornerback Jalen Mills.
“He’s really an outstanding athlete. I don’t know how many people would have made that play,” said Belichick after the game.
Wilson finished the day with 38 snaps to McMillan’s 12. A possible sign that the Patriots have finally solidified their #2 linebacker spot.
While the offensive line in front of him showed marked improvement from Week 1, Quarterback Mac Jones still looked shaken at points and out of sync with his offense for extended periods. Leading us to a Sunday where the Patriots’ signal caller was the weak link on offense.
Jones’ first-quarter interception was a redux of his interception against Miami in Week 1. Another lofted “50/50″ ball for Devante Parker, Sunday’s INT was even more ill-advised because of the knowledge that Pittsburgh is almost always in a two-high safety set. Jones has to recognize that any “50/50″ ball in that situation is closer to a “75/25″ ball in the defenses’ favor when they have that many defensive backs lying in wait. Sure enough, the Steelers Pro-Bowl safety Minkah Fitzpatrick was able to easily pluck the ball out of the air.
Jones was also lucky a misplaced ball that he discarded on the run in the second half was dropped by a Steeler defender and not taken the other way. Near the 8-minute mark of the 4th quarter, Jones attempted to force a pass to a blanked Jonnu Smith while ignoring a wide-open Jakobi Meyers hanging around the first-down marker in the flat. A harmless play in the long term, but one representing how the Patriots’ young QB still could not find a rhythm offensively, even when the pace of the game was working in the Patriots’ favor.
What was a source of strength for the QB coming out of Alabama has become a worrisome trend entering his second year as a pro.
While the Patriots’ escaped Pittsburgh with a W, they didn’t do so entirely unscathed.
Defensive tackle Davon Godchaux, linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley and safety Kyle Dugger were all removed from the game with injuries.
With former MVP Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens coming into town next week, the Patriots would surely like to have their defensive unit as intact as possible.
BOURNE-MAC CONNECTION ON THE FRITZ
Kendrick’s Bourne 24 snaps was a heavy increase from the two he received in Miami. Despite seemingly working his way out of the coaching staff’s doghouse, Bourne was still invisible for much of Sundays’ game.
While the increased snap count is a sign that the WR that so often jolted energy into New England’s offense last year may still have a role, his QB will have to be more willing to feed him the ball. Despite gaining separation throughout, Jones seemed adverse to throwing the wideout’s way. He finished the day with only two catches, despite being open far more often than that.
The Patriots seemingly still have a long way to go to repairing a QB-WR connection that was a bright spot for them just a year ago.
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