The New England Patriots started their 2019 regular season in perfect fashion. After unveiling their sixth Super Bowl banner, the reigning world champions blew the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers out with a final score of 33-3 that shows just how the game went: New England was dominant in all three phases of the game, and pulled away quickly and decisively. The Steelers never stood a chance.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the players that still stood out on a Sunday night that saw some major contributions from almost ever player on the 46-man game day roster.
Winner: QB Tom Brady
For the past few years, every Patriots season started with one question thrown around in the national media: will Tom Brady (finally) fall off the proverbial cliff? If the opening game against Pittsburgh is an indication, he is still firmly away from it. Brady was dominant from start to finish and looked like his usual Hall of Fame self. He made sound decisions, moved extremely well in the pocket, and exploited matchups no matter where they presented themselves. At the end of the day, his stat-line — 24 of 36, 341 passing yards, 3 touchdowns — reflects just how well he played.
Winner: The starting secondary (Stephon Gilmore, Jonathan Jones, Jason McCourty, Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung)
New England’s secondary might be the best in all of football, and Sunday’s game against the Steelers was further proof of that. The entire unit was terrific, with the starters playing an outstanding game from start to finish: Stephon Gilmore and Jonathan Jones were in lock-down mode for most of the night; Jason McCourty bounced back well from surrendering a 45-yard pass early in the third quarter; Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung essentially forced two turnovers. All in all, the unit lived up to the hype.
Winner: DT Danny Shelton
The Patriots defense surrendered just 32 rushing yards on 13 carries, with the longest run of the Steelers’ night going for just 7 yards. While the course of the game contributed to this — Pittsburgh was in a hole early and had to turn away from the run — the performance of New England’s front-line players cannot be underestimated either. Among them, Danny Shelton stands out: the second-year Patriot was able to build on a strong summer by proving himself a stout presence along the interior defensive line. Him stuffing James Conner on a 3rd and 1 run in the early second quarter was one of New England’s best defensive plays.
Loser: RB Sony Michel
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels called a very good game and was intent on establishing a presence on the ground. The plan worked, but not all backs produced equally good results. Sony Michel, for example, had only 14 yards on 15 carries. While the run blocking up front had something to do with this — six of his attempts did either not gain yards or actually lost some — Michel was unable to get into the same rhythm other ball carriers did.
Winner: The linebackers (Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins Sr, Kyle Van Noy)
New England being able to shut down the run and consistently make Ben Roethlisberger uncomfortable in the secondary had a lot to do with the performance of the linebackers. Two stand out among them: Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins shared on-field signal calling duties during the contest, and both looked outstanding in the role. They made good calls, moved around the formation well, and set the tone for the entire defense.
At this point, a special shout-out to Kyle Van Noy is in place. Despite being a healthy scratch, he has to be listed among the winners: he missed the game because his wife gave birth to a child. That’s a whole different level of winning.
Winner: OT Isaiah Wynn
Up until yesterday, Isaiah Wynn had never appeared in an NFL regular season game. Needless to say that the lights were not too bright for the second-year man, who missed his entire rookie season due to a torn Achilles: Wynn showed not just his athleticism and near-perfect technique on an every-down basis, but also his conditioning by going wire-to-wire. His performance was very encouraging — while Tom Brady’s blindside is in good hands.
Loser: The offensive tackle depth
As good as Wynn played, the offensive tackle depth took a hit on Sunday: Marcus Cannon had to leave the game in the fourth quarter with what was later announced to be a shoulder injury. While he was in good spirits after the game, the 31-year-old missing an extended period of time would be a blow to a team that has struggled to build suitable depth behind its starting tackles. Yesterday, for example, Joe Thuney had to move over to fill Cannon’s role with Jermaine Eluemunor jumping into the vacant spot at left guard.
Winner: The X-receivers (Phillip Dorsett, Josh Gordon)
Even with Antonio Brown not yet on the team, the Patriots’ wide receiver group looked very good on Sunday. While Julian Edelman was his usual productive self, the X-receivers stole the show: Phillip Dorsett caught 4 passes for 95 yards and a pair of scores; Josh Gordon, in his first regular season game since last December, hauled in 3 passes for 73 yards and a touchdown. Both players were able to successfully stretch the field and provide reliable targets for Tom Brady. It will be interesting to see how the team uses them moving forward with Brown in the mix.
Loser: The red zone offense
The Patriots were near-perfect on Sunday, but there were still a few areas that can be improved moving forward. Take the team’s offensive performance in the red zone: three times, New England was able to move into the area inside Pittsburgh’s 20-yard — and three times, the team had to settle for field goals. While it ultimately did not make much of a difference, going 0-for-3 in the red zone is oftentimes not a winning recipe.
Winner: WR Gunner Olszewski
With the Antonio Brown arrival on the horizon, Gunner Olszewski is one of the players on high alert as a potential cut candidate. However, the undrafted rookie certainly showed his value to the team on Sunday: as the Patriots’ punt returner, he had five opportunities to run back kicks — twice he fielded them without calling for a fair catch, averaging an impressive 17.5 yards per runback (20 yards and 15 yards). Olszewski certainly is not going down without a fight.
Winner: K Stephen Gostkowski
After an inconsistent preseason performance, kicker Stephen Gostkowski was perfect against the Steelers: he made all seven of his place kicks — four field goals plus three extra points — and also looked good doing kickoffs. At least for one night, Gostkowski has shown that he can still be trusted to deliver when called upon. Now, he needs to take advantage of the momentum he built on Sunday night.