The New England Patriots still had a football game to play on Sunday night.
The opponent was aware of what had transpired the night prior.
But the Pittsburgh Steelers wouldn’t see six-time 100-catch and seven-time 1,000-yard wide receiver Antonio Brown during the visit to Gillette Stadium. The black and gold would instead see the unveiling of a sixth Super Bowl banner – and the unveiling of a New England attack that looked well beyond its first game of the season.
Here’s are six observations from what went into the 33-3 final score.
Ryan Izzo gets full workload as Patriots’ starting tight end
One tight end is better than none. And that was what the Patriots were left with after Matt LaCosse had been a limited participant in practice throughout the week and drew the questionable tag on the final injury report. LaCosse’s ankle sprain, which surfaced in New England’s preseason opener, did not keep him among the inactives 90 minutes before kickoff. But it was Izzo’s workload to handle.
The last pick in the Patriots’ 2018 draft class had spent the entirety of his rookie regular season on injured reserve. A strong blocking presence and August glimpses as a pass-catcher put Izzo atop the depth chart for Week 1, however. Ben Watson’s four-game suspension had a hand in that. As did Lance Kendricks’ one-game suspension. Yet Izzo held down the fort versus Pittsburgh.
Even if that fort was limited in terms of personnel diversity with no shortage of two-back sets. And even if it saw the redshirt freshman out of Florida State collect only one pass for three yards. LaCosse was in uniform, though not in the gameplan.
Phillip Dorsett connection headlines Tom Brady’s passing distribution
A certain All-Pro’s arrival figures to cut into Dorsett’s opportunities. But the latter wide receiver continued to make the most of his against Pittsburgh.
Dorsett caught four passes on as many looks for 95 yards and a pair of scores from quarterback Tom Brady. From Week 17 of last regular season on through Week 1 of this regular season, the former trade arrival from the Indianapolis Colts has caught five touchdowns over five games. The lone game that went without a trip to the end zone over that span for Dorsett was Super Bowl LIII.
But there was no favorite target for Brady on Sunday. The 42-year-old completed passes to four different targets in the first quarter, and finished having completed 24 passes to seven different targets. Wideouts Josh Gordon and Julian Edelman combined for 156 receiving yards, with No. 10 crossing underneath for a touchdown and deep down the field for a pickup of 43. Running backs James White and Rex Burkhead, meanwhile, combined for 97 receiving yards. And then there was the aforementioned Izzo and the NFL’s preseason receiving leader, undrafted rookie Jakobi Meyers, who both reeled in a throw apiece. A hamstring injury held five-time Pro Bowler Demaryius Thomas out, but Pittsburgh was forced to cover every blade of grass.
New England’s punt returns in good hands with Gunner Olszewski
Speaking of undrafted rookies, the lights still haven’t gotten bright enough for Bemidji State’s Olszewski, who served as the punt returner over the 33-year-old Edelman on Sunday. Olszewski cleanly fielded his first for a fair catch. And he’d cleanly field others.
But in between were a pair of returns that brought burst and vision. Both propelled him from a tryout at rookie minicamp to a survivor at the 53-man roster deadline.
Olszewski ran his first green-lighted punt back for 20 yards. The cornerback-turned-receiver ran his second punt back for 15 yards. Olszewski would close out his official NFL debut with that 17.5-yard clip. He shifted field position – and perhaps his position as Labor Day weekend’s 53rd man.
Patriots’ defense picks up where it left off
No member of the Steelers’ passing game surpassed nine receiving yards until late in the first half. Veteran cornerbacks Jason McCourty and Jonathan Jones alone went on to amass five pass breakups by the end of the second half.
And along the way, a defense that was without linebacker Kyle Van Noy due to the impending birth of his first child played like the one it did in February. Ex-Oakland Raiders third-round pick Shilique Calhoun made his first NFL start in Van Noy’s place, and the front made it difficult for rising Steelers runner James Conner to find space. Fellow linebacker Jamie Collins knifed through for a four-yard loss, and defensive end Deatrich Wise Jr. kept chasing to strip-sack the quarterback.
Conner gained 21 yards on the ground on 10 tries Sunday. Ben Roethlisberger went 27-of-47 through the air. He’d be picked off by free safety Devin McCourty in the end zone with five minutes to play.
Lead back Sony Michel takes backseat
No Patriots rusher garnered more carries than the No. 31 overall pick in last year’s draft. But Michel was held in check on the 15 he took versus Pittsburgh. Those plays netted 14 yards.
Even so, a handful got to carry the ball for New England. Edelman, while also joining Patriots alums Wes Welker, Troy Brown, Stanley Morgan and Rob Gronkowski in the 500-reception club, picked up eight yards rushing. Core special-teamer Brandon Bolden picked up seven yards on an end-around. As for White and Burkhead, both were part of the no-huddle shotgun sets and accounted for 70 rushing yards along the way.
New England’s damage was done through the air. Even if that was notable flip of the script from last postseason, when a Georgia product set the NFL’s record for rushing touchdowns by a rookie.
Strong night for O-line overshadowed by Marcus Cannon’s exit
Cannon went down clutching his left arm late Sunday evening. The starting right tackle, and longest-tenured Patriots offensive lineman, would be replaced by ironman left guard Joe Thuney while recent trade acquisition Jermaine Eluemunor subbed in on the interior.
Eluemunor had seen action in 17 games as a Baltimore Raven, and got the call with another recent addition a healthy inactive. But Korey Cunningham projects as the top swing tackle moving forward after starting six contests as an Arizona Cardinals rookie in 2018.
Cannon’s departure overshadowed what was an otherwise promising performance from coach Dante Scarnecchia’s group. A group that conceded only one sack to Pittsburgh. Isaiah Wynn held his own in his first post-summer start at left tackle after missing all of his rookie year due to a torn Achilles. Ted Karras, with the exception of the off-timed shotgun snaps, did the same while filling captain David Andrews’ shoes at center. The Patriots officially ruled Cannon questionable to return with a shoulder injury.