Takeaways from the Patriots’ Week 14 Win at the Steelers

The Patriots have broken their five-game losing streak after a surprisingly high-scoring affair in Pittsburgh. In a game where little was expected from either crumbling dynasty, several Patriots players stepped up and delivered in a tough road environment.

New England entered this game with a bare cupboard offensively. Rhamondre Stevenson will miss a few weeks, and possibly the season, after suffering a high ankle sprain. They added an extra body to the backfield, elevating second-year back Kevin Harris from the practice squad, but were severely shorthanded at wideout.

Demario Douglas and Kayshon Boutte missed their second straight game on a short week. Week 13’s top target, DeVante Parker, was ruled inactive with a knee injury before the game. This left a highly unproven receiving corps of JuJu Smith-Schuster, Tyquan Thornton, Jalen Reagor, Ty Montgomery, and Malik Cunningham.

Defensively, stopping the run was expected to be the top priority for New England’s top-ranked ground defense. Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren have been the league’s best backfield combo since November, and Kenny Pickett being out with an ankle injury virtually guaranteed a run-heavy plan.

Contrary to expectation, the Patriots offense came out firing on their first possession, scoring their only touchdown on an opening drive of the season.

The Steelers answered with a field goal powered by a Trubisky scramble and a JC Jackson penalty, but both offenses quickly returned to Earth.

After exchanging three-and-outs, an up-and-down drive from Zappe ended New England’s third drive. But a well-designed Patriots pressure sprung Kyle Dugger on a blitz, leading to a Jabrill Peppers interception on a poorly thrown ball.

The Patriots capitalized two plays later, with Zappe gifting Hunter Henry a touchdown on the reliable tight end’s 29th birthday. Zappe must’ve felt generous as he hit Henry on a frozen rope for another score three drives later.

Pittsburgh answered with its first touchdown on an eight-play, 75-yard drive, punishing an all-out Patriots blitz with a deep shot to Diontae Johnson.

The Patriots’ hot offensive start, which saw multiple players put up season-best numbers, began to stall during a two-minute drive. , with another takedown ending their first drive of the 2nd half.

This pressure seemed to affect Zappe’s processing, as he threw a bad pick on New England’s next possession. This miscue sparked an onslaught of sloppy football, nearly letting Pittsburgh back in the game. But Ezekiel Elliott’s best game as a Patriot and another strong defensive performance secured a 21-18 victory.

Team Tank may be devastated tonight, but winning has always been New England’s locker room goal. After the game, David Andrews told reporters, “No one’s quitting in this locker room,”  saying, “We’re fighting, we’re working, we’re trying to get better.” Jabrill Peppers stood up for Bill Belichick amid speculation that the team could move on its head coach, saying, “I feel good we could get it done for Bill and the rest of the coaches. … I don’t really like all the flak he’s been getting.” Peppers also highlighted the team’s preparation: “It’s on us as players to go out there and execute. I personally feel like the game plan has been phenomenal week in and week out.”

Team Tank may be in shambles, with the Patriots two wins away from the projected #1 overall pick and tying the Cardinals with three victories. Luckily, Arizona is on a bye and edged out by strength of schedule, meaning New England retains the #2 pick this week. So, for now, Patriots Nation can breathe a sigh of relief and enjoy a rare bright spot from a tumultuous season.

Here are my key takeaways from the Patriots’ win in Pittsburgh.

Inactives

  • RB Rhamondre Stevenson (ankle)
  • WR DeVante Parker (knee)
  • WR Demario Douglas (head)
  • WR Kayshon Boutte (shoulder)
  • CB Shaun Wade (illness)
  • OT Vederian Lowe (healthy scratch)
  • RB JaMycal Hasty (healthy scratch)

Penalties

  1. 3rd & 6 at 50 (9:03 – 1st)  J.Jackson, Defensive Pass Interference, 11 yards, enforced at 50 – No Play.
  2. 3rd & 7 at NE 28 (5:57 – 1st) H.Henry, Offensive Pass Interference, 10 yards, enforced at NE 28 – No Play.
  3. 2nd & 5 at NE 35 (3:44 – 2nd) K.Dugger, Defensive Pass Interference, 5 yards, enforced at NE 35 – No Play.
  4. Kickoff (2:50 – 2nd) B.Schooler, Unnecessary Roughness, 11 yards, enforced at NE 22.
  5. 1st & 10 at NE 36 (7:18 – 3rd) C.McDermott, Offensive Holding, 10 yards, enforced at NE 36 – No Play.
  6. 1st & Goal at NE 8 (11:55 – 4th) J.Jackson, Defensive Pass Interference, 7 yards, enforced at NE 8 – No Play.

Dominant Defense Shuts Down Top Running Back Duo

All week I’ve been highlighting the Patriots’ decade-best run defense vs the dynamic backfield duo of Jaylen Warren and Najee Harris. Harris’ knee injury may have held him back a bit tonight, but New England asserted themselves throughout the game against both backs.

Harris averaged 2.4 yards on 12 carris. Warren, who continues to be underutilized, averaged just 1.6 on seven carries.

Anfernee Jennings proves weekly that he’s one of the league’s best run defenders. His hot streak continued with a whopping three tackles for loss.

Jahlani Tavai led the defense with six tackles and was consistently near the football. Ja’Whaun Bentley wasn’t far behind with five tackles of his own.

Deatrich Wise and Myles Bryant also showed excellent awareness shutting down a reverse that Pittsburgh showed esrlier in the game.

If Bill Belichick wants to make a case for returning, his run defense’s toughness and effort throguhout the season would be a great place to start.

Hunter Henry Gets a W and 2 TDs for His Birthday

Hunter Henry had three catches on his big day, but he made them count. Two went for scores, and he was directly responsible for Ezekiel Elliott’s touchdown that first put New England on the board.

With the Steelers playing man coverage in scoring territory, Bill O’Brien made a perfect call and used Henry to pick Elliott’s defender.

Given space and a head of steam, the big back dove into the end zone for six.

His first touchdown was a nice display of route running, using a pair of fakes to get wide open in the back of the end zone.

His second score was a thing of beauty, feigning a block on a fake RPO before taking off and extending for an impressive snag.

Really cool seeing Henry get a W and a pair of scores for his birthday.

Zeke Eats Good in Pittsburgh

Ezekiel Elliott was tasked with being the Patriots’ entire run game tonight with Rhamondre Stevenson out of the mix. Despite Kevin Harris being elevated from the practice squad, Elliott was the only person other than Bailey Zappe to register a carry, and his 22 carries were a season-high. He also led the team with eight targets, setting more season highs with seven grabs and 72 yards, as well as his first touchdown as a Patriot on the afroementioned pick play.

Bill Belichick was proud of his new top back’s efforts, saying, “We needed him to step up and carry the mail today, and he did. ..that was a pro performance today.”

Elliott’s 3.1 yards per carry average won’t wow from afar. But like his similarly efficient performance last week, he seemed to make up for some failings up front and consistently churned out more than what was blocked for him. He also continues to eat on screens and looked spry on a catch where he slipped a couple of tacklers.

Elliott’s effort and effectiveness have stood on their own as reasons to retain the soon-to-be free agent. But his effort on Zappe’s interception, which saw him chase down Mykal Walker for a score and game-saving tackle, may have wrapped it up. He’s been a joy to watch and a plasure to cover.

Bailey Zappe Cools Down After Hot 1st Half

Bailey Zappe entered tonight with just under 300 passing yards and two picks in five appearances this season. While his 1st half tonight wasn’t perfect, it was by far the best we’ve seen from a Patriots quarterback in 2023. He threw for 196 yards and three touchdowns, trying the most passing scores from Zappe or Mac Jones in a single game through 14 weeks. His touchdown throws to Henry were especially impressive, keeping Minkah Fitzpatrick out of his throwing lane on the first and delivering a perfect pass outside the safety’s reach on the second. He also had a scramble to convert an early 3rd & 9.

Zappe regressed to the mean in the second half as pressure increased, committing two turnover-worthy plays on inaccurate passes and being picked off on one.

His erratic placement and declining decision-making (and poor protection) led to a more conservative script in the final two quarters. While I think the latter half of the game is closer to the true Bailey Zappe, I’d love for the second-year signal caller to prove me wrong and build on this performance.

Regardless of the outcome, teammates seemed to rally around Zappe. Elliott told reporters arter the game that Zappe “commands our attention in that huddle.” That might be a surprise from afar, but it might not have been for Zappe, who apparenltly told the TNF crew he always knew he would be the starter. Whether or not he’s right, the guy’s got the right mindset.

Offensive Line Stalls Hot Start

I detailed in my scouting report how the offensive line’s communication and execution needed to improve against a formidable Steelers front. Zappe had all day to throw early due in no small part to T.J. Watt getting banged up early and Alex Highsmith leaving with a neck injury. But issues started creeping up before halftime.

After a promising start to the series, Sidy Sow missed former Patriot Elandon Roberts on a line stunt, giving the linebacker an unblocked lane to the quarterback. This turned 1st & 10 with 1:22 left in the 2nd quarter to an improbable 2nd & 20. New England would run on back-to-back plays before punting.

On New England’s first drive of the second half, a Conor McDermott holding penalty backed the offense up 10 yards after a 16-yard catch-and-run by Ezekiel Elliott, setting up 1st & 20. Elliott managed 13 yards on a pair of touches, but Sow and David Andrews quickly lost to a twist for another drive-killing sack.

As I mentioned earlier, Elliott also had his work cut out for him in the run game due to penetration up front. The unit has taken a step back recently, and I’m sure Adrian Klemm’s unfortunate departure has been a significant factor.

JuJu Smith-Schuster Shows Out vs Former Team

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s first season with the Patriots has been disappointing, but he had a breakout performance against his former team. The veteran wideout recorded a season-high 90 receiving yards on four catches.

The most impressive was a highlight-reel play where he came back to an underthrown pass and finished through contact.

He also caught a crossing route that Zappe missed last week and had a long run on a quick slant.

It’s too soon to expect this performance regularly, but it was nice to see a glimpse of the receiver New England paid over $25.5M for this summer.

Justice for J.C. 

I’ve been critical of J.C. Jackson for missed assignments in coverage, poor diagnosis, and questionable effort/decision-making since his return. I haven’t enjoyed it, as Jackson is highly accountable and has a history of success. Jackson struggled last week in ways that weren’t reflected in the box score, but I thought improved his performance overall. This week felt like the opposite.

The corner’s touchdown, where he got beat deep from Cover 0, was tough to excuse.

He appeared to get lulled to sleep early in the route, then waited too long before playing the hands, which I thought could’ve made the difference between a breakup and a catch. But that was the only blemish I noticed live.

His first penalty was just tough luck, as several high-level corners use the same tactic of using their backside arm to impede progress. But specific crews will call that more than others, and the margin for error felt slim tonight.

I thought the pass interference in the end zone was pretty whack, as Jackson was sitting on the route and broke on it with his eyes on the ball. Kyle Dugger was penalized in what I thought was a similar situation.

The tape will ultimately tell the tale, but I thought J.C. Jackson looked solid tonight.

Rough Night for Special Teams

Special teams have been an issue all season. They’ve fallen short of expectations since Joe Judge originally left New England. But when the prodigal son returned and switched to his niche on special teams, it was expected to change the course of a group that proved a severe liability in 2022.

Growing pains were expected with a rookie kicker and punter, but the addition of ace Chris Board and the retention of several primary special teamers were sure to balance things out.

That hasn’t been the case, with tonight being the most recent and glaring example.

Brenden Schooler lost his temper after a play, which has been a trend for him this season, and drew a costly unnecessary roughness penalty that backed New England inside its own 11-yard line with 2:46 left in the 2nd quarter.

Bryce Baringer put three punts inside Pittsburgh’s 20-yard line, but he also had two touchbacks, one landing well inside the end zone.

But these weren’t the headliners of a disastrous night in the game’s third phase. Ty Montgomery allowed a blocked punt on an individual loss, setting up the defense’s first +10-point game allowed in a month. Jahlani Tavai committed a blatant offsides penalty that was somehow called on the Steelers’ snapper, bailing New England out late in the 4th quarter.

Few cover special teams as highly as Bill Belichick. As tremendous as his defense’s effort has been, the lack of discipline and execution on special teams has been alarming for multiple years.

Taylor Kyles

Taylor Kyles is the lead NFL Analyst for CLNS Media covering players, schemes, and tendencies through a New England Patriots-centric lens.

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