Just like last year, the Patriots treated this game like a 5th preseason game for the team. The Patriots were rotating offensive linemen in and out, playing Geneo Grissom at defensive tackle, and experimented with a 3-safety nickel package at times. Some of the camp battles from the preseason were left unanswered with the current 53-man roster and probably won't be definitively answered until late October. Injured and suspended players will return later on this season, each of them changing what the Patriots can throw at an opponent.
On the injury front, the Patriots have Dane Fletcher, Brandon LaFell, Chris Jones, and Bryan Stork able to return later in the season. All of them would provide a significant boost to the team as either extra depth or an impact starter. Stork was the Patriots starting center really since the day they drafted him, although UDFA David Andrews was terrific in his NFL debut. Brandon LaFell should add an extra element to the offense, which used only Julian Edelman, Dion Lewis, and Rob Gronkowski to shred the Steelers' porous defense. Give Tom Brady a 4th dynamic weapon in the passing game and the Patriots will be the top offense in the league.
So what did I see from tonight's game? Dion Lewis had a mini-breakout game with 69 rushing yards and 51 receiving yards. He was the Patriots best running back in the preseason and could be primed for a larger role with the team in the near future. He offers more burst than Shane Vereen in the running game and is very elusive in the open field. He and Blount could create a 1-2 punch in the backfield that drives opposing defensive coordinators nuts. It should be interesting to see how the RB position shapes up once Blount is back on the field. Blount represents a power back option and Lewis is a scat back, but has enough burst to run the ball inside and run through arm tackles.
Another player who shined was UDFA center David Andrews. In his first career start, Andrews was phenomenal. The Patriots opted to play him at center because he had the most experience at the position during the preseason. Andrews had a very good preseason and it translated into this game. He's got a tougher challenge in Week 2 with the NFL's newest $100M man Marcell Dareus across the ball. Andrews and the rest of the interior OL shut down Cameron Heyward and the Steelers interior DL, who were non-factors in the game. Even though Stork is out until Week 9, the Patriots can afford to plug in Andrews at center for the time being.
It looks like the secondary is stabilizing itself. Malcolm Butler is the Patriots' #1 CB and played like it tonight. Even though he gave up 9/10 passes for 133 yards and a garbage time TD that affected the gambling industry more than the Patriots. That stat-line looks bad without context and is an example of how the box score can lie. Butler was able to run with Antonio Brown for most of the game, save a couple plays where Butler bit on double moves. It was the case of being beat by perfect passes to the best WR in the NFL. Butler is aggressive and unafraid to get physical, two things that bode very well for him in the future. If he plays with the same effort against Sammy Watkins, Watkins probably doesn't catch 5 passes and doesn't even sniff 100 yards.
So what's next for the Patriots? The first thing they need to figure out is picking the three guys for the interior. Andrews is not a likely solution at guard, so it basically comes down to Josh Kline vs. Shaq Mason at left guard. Neither guy really separated themselves, but I think Kline gets the nod in Week 2 against the Bills with Mason rotating in at guard. The secondary is fairly settled and a couple players emerged as legitimate options moving forward. The next game is a big gut check for the Patriots, who will be facing Rex Ryan and the Buffalo Bills on the road. In the words of Bill Belichick, "We're Onto Buffalo".