Brady, Patriots cash in on all their chances in opening win over Steelers
There were pregame concerts, an on-field appearance from Robert Kraft, fireworks, the raising of a championship banner ... and after that, there was even a little football.
The New England Patriots opened their title defense in style, downing Pittsburgh on Thursday night, 28-21. Here are three thoughts on the game:
1. The Patriots cashed in all their chances. Pittsburgh did not.
A brief recap of how the Steelers shot themselves in the foot on Thursday night:
• They killed their promising first drive with an inexplicable trick play—Ben Roethlisberger threw a lateral to Antonio Brown, who then was sacked before he could throw a pass himself. A holding penalty on the next snap pushed them even farther back.
• Josh Scobee missed a pair of field goals in the first half, one on that initial possession and another midway through the second quarter. Both failed attempts came from between 40 and 49 yards, a range from which Scobee missed two kicks all of last year.
• Darrius Heyward-Bey lost track of where he was on the field while attempting to catch a potential touchdown pass from Roethlisberger, allowing his foot to slip out of bounds before making the grab.
• They settled for three points in the fourth quarter after a pass interference penalty gave them a 1st-and-goal on New England's 1. Following an incompletion and a Will Johnson run for no gain, the Steelers were whistled for a false start—Roethlisberger argued that the Patriots' line had simulated a snap, which would have been a penalty on New England instead. On 3rd-and-goal from the 6, Roethlisberger appeared to audible as the play clock wound down to a run up the middle, which netted nothing.
Slightly less egregious was a Roethlisberger interception with seven minutes left and Pittsburgh down 14. The Steelers' QB had played an outstanding game to that point, but left a deep ball for Heyward-Bey well underthrown, allowing Duron Harmon to make the interception.
There were no such mistakes on the other side of the ball. New England crossed the Pittsburgh 40-yard line on four separate occasions and scored four touchdowns, all via Tom Brady passes. The performance overall from Brady was surgical: 25-of-32 passing for 288 yards.
Brady was sacked twice but that, plus a couple of penalties, marked the extent of any New England miscues on offense.
2. There's no stopping Gronk.
It is difficult enough to slow down Rob Gronkowski with a coherent, disciplined defensive strategy. The discombobulated Steelers, in their first game with Keith Butler as coordinator, had absolutely no shot.
Gronkowski scored three times on his five catches, with a 52-yarder mixed in for good measure. The big gain came when rookie linebacker Bud Dupree, rather clearly expecting some safety help, allowed Gronkowski to release uncovered up the seam. The assistance never came and Brady dropped in an easy completion.
Pittsburgh also botched its coverage on Gronk's second TD grab, a 6-yarder off a beautiful Brady play-fake. Will Allen failed to slow Gronkowski's release off the line at all, and safety Mike Mitchell bit on the misdirection, allowing Gronkowski to find room near the back of the end zone. Brady hit him for an easy six.
New England's unstoppable tight end also saved his team from enduring any fourth-quarter drama by pouncing on a Dion Lewis fumble at the Pittsburgh 1. That play came with the Patriots holding a tenuous 21-14 lead.
Credit, as usual, to the Patriots' offensive game plan for putting both Gronkowski and wide receiver Julian Edelman in favorable spots. (One might argue that there is no way for a defense to force Gronkowski into a mismatch benefiting the defense.) New England shifted Gronkowski and Edelman all over the field, in rapid order, taking full advantage of Pittsburgh's communication issues.
On a series of three plays which ended with Gronkowski's first score, the Patriots utilized no-huddle and three very different looks. Edelman moved from the right slot, with Gronkowski lined up off his inside shoulder, over the left slot and then back to the right, this time with Gronkowski split wide of him. By the third play Pittsburgh somehow had managed to lose Gronkowski entirely.
Oh, and Gronkowski, of course, recovered an onside kick to end the game.
3. Good running backs ... and bad run defenses.
Both the Steelers and Patriots' starting running backs were suspended for this game (LeVeon Bell and LeGarrette Blount, respectively). It was hard to tell anything was missing.
DeAngelo Williams, a cheap free-agent pickup this summer, rushed for 127 yards in relief of Bell—his best performance since a 210-yard showing on Dec. 30, 2012. And New England received a stunning 120 total yards (69 rushing, 51 receiving) from Dion Lewis. That's just 72 yards shy of Lewis's career total from 2011-14.
Lewis is just the sort of gem New England has a habit of uncovering ... and the type of move that can leave the rest of the league shaking its collective head. The Patriots signed Lewis to a futures contract this off-season, after he was injured for all of the 2014 season.
Part of the reason Williams and Lewis had so much success, though, harkened back to the defenses. The Steelers held up about as well as could have been expected, especially considering how porous their defense looked during the preseason.
New England's inability to slow Williams was more unexpected, and will be concerning moving forward. At least for Week 1, Bill Belichick's team appeared to feel the brunt of Vince Wilfork's off-season departure, as it was unable to do much between the tackles. The Patriots also found it difficult to box in Williams, on myriad occasions allowing the rejuvenated back to turn the corner outside.
One more note on the defensive side of things, and it concerns Malcolm Butler. He'll wind up on the wrong end of some highlights out of this game, but he held his own in mostly one-on-one situations with Antonio Brown. Brown finished with nine catches for 133 yards and a garbage-time TD.