7 Keys from Patriots win over Steelers
The Patriots came out of the gate putting points on the scoreboard, taking an early lead that they were able to hold on to in the second half, defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers 21-18.
The win snapped New England’s five-game losing streak and gave Bailey Zappé his first win as the starting quarterback of the season. Zappe was outstanding for three first-half touchdowns, as he sparked the passing offense with some well-delivered strikes, though it was more of a struggle to move the ball in the second half, when Made an interception and blocked punt. Interesting stuff until the last minute of the game.
It was another strong performance by the Patriots’ defense, which frustrated the Steelers’ offense for most of the game. However, the offense and special teams put them in some tough spots in the second half. They made a fourth-down stop on the first turnover but allowed a blocked punt for a touchdown. But, in the end, the defense made the final stops necessary to hang on.
1. The score of the first drive
The Patriots came out firing in that game, with Bailey Zappé connecting with JoJo Smith-Schuster for a 37-yard gain that helped spark one of the team’s best opening drives in recent memory. Zappe contributed an 11-yard scramble on the only third down the Pats faced on their first drive, Ezekiel Elliott ending things on an 11-yard reception as he burst out of the backfield and took the corner for a score. .
It was an unfamiliar and unexpected start to the game for the 2023 Patriots as they quickly built a 7-0 lead over the Steelers.
The Pats almost had a chance to take the lead with an interception by JC Jackson, but Jackson was flagged for pass interference before the pick and negated the takeaway, keeping Pittsburgh’s offense on the field. . Three plays later the Patriots defense got a third down sack by McWilson to force a long field goal attempt. Chris Boswell connected 56 yards to make it 7-3, as each team had surprising points on the board after their first possession.
2. Choice of Pepper, Henry Score
After trading a total of three punts by the end of the first quarter, the Patriots recovered their interception with Gabriel Peppers picking off Trubisky and returning it deep into Pittsburgh territory. Murch once again showed why he has been one of the team’s bright spots this season as he continues to make big plays for the defense while bringing great energy. It was Peppers’ second interception of the season, with his first coming in the team’s last win against Buffalo in Week 7. The safety did a good job hiding his coverage on the play, as he drove deep down the field. Miles Bryant forced a blitz that helped force Trubisky into a fumble.
Just two plays later Zappe would hit tight end Hunter Henry in the back of the end zone with an impressively high throw. And just like that the Patriots had 14 points with Zappe throwing his second touchdown of the game, already more points than had been scored in the previous three games.
3. The Jojo and Hunter formula continues to work.
With the Patriots defense lighting up in the first half, holding the Steelers to just three first downs through their first five possessions, Zappe went back to what he had done on the Pats sixth drive of the game, first to JoJo Smith- Shuster hit the third big play of the game, a 28-yarder. Then, on the next play, Zappe placed a pass for the end zone, pitching it to Hunter Henry, who made a perfect catch for his second touchdown of the game.
It was troubling how the Patriots kept piling up big plays after failing to get past the 30-yard line last week against the Chargers. New England won 21-3 as kisses were showered by the Steelers faithful who were unhappy with Pittsburgh’s lack of energy and the resulting slow start.
Smith-Schuster had a particularly strong start to the game, posting gains of 37, 17 and 28 yards to give him a season-high 82 yards in the first half. Zappe finished the first half 14-of-21 for 196 yards and three touchdowns.
4. Steelers strike back
Down 21-3, the Steelers needed to respond before the game got away from them and they did so with a big play of their own as Trubisky hit Diontae Johnson downfield, along with J.C. Jackson. Connected in coverage for a 25-yard touchdown. It was an eight-play, 70-yard drive by the Steelers that they desperately needed, and it only needed a short third-down conversion.
Big plays have been a problem for the defense as of late for the Patriots, ranked 29th in EPA, and it showed here in the first half when the Steelers made things interesting with a scoring strike from just outside the red zone.
The Patriots took a 21-10 lead into the locker room on the heels of their best half of football of the 2023 season.
5. Zappe picked up, took defensive steps.
The teams continued to trade punts in the third quarter until Zappé tried to hit Smith-Schuster on a crossing route, but former Patriots linebacker Alandon Roberts made a good play to break up the pass. The ball bounced into the waiting hands of Steelers cornerback Mitchell Walker, and Walker returned the interception at the New England 16-yard line. It was an unfortunate reminder of the mistakes that have cost the Patriots this season and after being turnover-free against the Chargers last week, Zappé’s turnover gave the Steelers new life.
From the quick transition, the Patriots defense made it difficult against the Steelers despite having possession so deep in Patriots territory. After a third down stop, Pittsburgh elected to go for it on 4th and 2 from the New England eight-yard line and the Pats defense stepped up and delivered a stop with McWilson shorting the sticks. It was another example this season of the defense supporting the offense after a mistake. On the other hand, special teams…
6. Special teams laydown
New England’s offense couldn’t do anything after a defensive goal-line stand, going three-and-out and looking to punt the ball back to Pittsburgh. But the punt was blocked and the Steelers took over again inside Patriots territory at the 26-yard line. A pass interference penalty in the end zone by JC Jackson on the second half of the game set up the Steelers’ first touchdown of the game as they didn’t waste their second chance inside the red zone on two possessions. A successful two-point conversion then knotted the score at 21-18 as Pittsburgh scored 15 straight points to make things interesting late in the fourth quarter.
Just as the Patriots seemed to take control of the game, mistakes on offense and special teams helped the Steelers get back into the game. The Patriots’ special teams have had consistent problems all season and this blocked punt was as impactful as any of them.
However, the Patriots defense continued to make plays necessary for the win as the offense continued to stumble, failing to pick up any first downs in crunch time that would have helped the Patriots end the game on their terms. Needing to rely on defense again this season, the defense provided the necessary wins.
7. The Patriots are 3-10.
With the win, the Patriots snapped a five-game losing streak and earned their third victory of the 2023 season, improving their record to 3-10. Bolstered by some big plays and the surprise emergence of JoJo Smith-Schuster, the Patriots were suddenly throwing the ball all over the field. And not only that, but they were putting points on the scoreboard, a feat that has not left them consistently for most of the 2023 season.
Hunter Henry, playing on his birthday, also had a strong performance, snapping a three-game scoring drought. But most notable was the play of the quarterback, as Zapp was willing to throw early and often, helping New England quickly build a double-digit lead. Coupled with another strong performance by the defense that helped set up the team’s second score with an interception, the Patriots showed a small glimpse of the kind of complementary football that has characterized them in recent years. For winning a lot of games when their offense wasn’t as dominant as it was in the last decade.
The Patriots didn’t have much of a second half on offense or special teams, recording just three first downs and committing two big mistakes that could have cost them if the defense hadn’t stepped up once again. Given how 2023 went, perhaps it should have been.
New England is ranked second in the draft and has a bonus win that relieves the season-long struggles that have plagued them. The Patriots get an extended weekend mini-break before returning to Gillette Stadium to face the Kansas City Chiefs next Sunday at 1 p.m.