The 2019 opener marked the last time that the New England Patriots crossed paths with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
On Sunday, the result was a 17-14 win for head coach Bill Belichick’s side.
Here’s a glance through what went into the 1 p.m. ET kickoff at Acrisure Stadium as the visitors return home with a 1-1 record.
From X-rays to illness, Jones throws for 252 yards
The second week of the regular season began with back X-rays and an illness for quarterback Mac Jones. But New England’s starter ended it off the injury report and on the field, where he completed 21-of-35 passes for 252 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
Nine connections for 95 yards to wide receiver Jakobi Meyers were among them. So was a shot into two-deep coverage that safety Minkah Fitzpatrick came down with. A scramble on third-and-2 would be in the cards, too. And after being subject to a pair of pivotal protection breakdowns versus the Miami Dolphins, Jones was not sacked.
Pittsburgh’s defense had picked off the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year, Joe Burrow, on four occasions and sacked him on seven occasions the Sunday prior. Yet the unit would be without 2021 Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt, who recently went on injured reserve with a torn pectoral muscle that won’t require surgery.
Punts provide sudden change
What could have been a touchdown or a safety became a touchback after the Steelers commenced Sunday with a three-and-out. Myles Bryant chased the ball to the warning track, yet the third-year defensive back avoided establishing possession as it rolled into the end zone.
But the Patriots responded with a 13-play, 71-yard drive that netted a field goal. And Bryant, who provided slot coverage in addition to the scare, returned his next punt for 16 yards before halftime.
Looking on in black and gold was Gunner Olszewski. A muffed punt followed for the 2020 first-team All-Pro in the third quarter. Undrafted rookie Brenden Schooler was there to recover it for New England. The sudden change set up a 17-6 lead.
Replacing Montgomery’s versatility
New England moved running back Ty Montgomery to injured reserve as Pittsburgh preparations got underway. And in the absence of the veteran, who had handled three catches, two carries, one kickoff as well as a touchdown in the opener, the stable moved forward with what it had.
Starter Damien Harris turned 15 handoffs into 71 rushing yards, two throws into 16 receiving yards and a touchdown plunge. Rhamondre Stevenson served as the change of pace with 51 yards from scrimmage through a combined 10 touches. The third downs were divvied between the tandem. So was the four-minute offense to grind the seconds away.
No standard elevations from the practice squad were made on the eve of the matinee. But rookie Pierre Strong Jr. would be active for his NFL debut. The fourth-round draft choice from South Dakota State took his initial kickoff return out of the end zone and took his next to the Patriots’ 28. That role had been in the hands of physical safety Kyle Dugger to begin Sunday before a knee injury left him questionable.
New England’s cornerback movement
Cornerback Marcus Jones found himself among New England’s inactives 90 minutes prior to kickoff. But fellow rookie Jack Jones and sophomore Shaun Wade, who appeared in three games last campaign, found themselves with the green light over the No. 85 overall pick. They would round out a group that started in the big nickel and with Jonathan Jones and Jalen Mills at outside corner.
Steelers quarterback Mitchell Trubisky went 21-of-33 passing for 168 yards with one touchdown and one interception from there.
The March arrival averaged 5.1 yards per attempt and was picked by Mills late in the first quarter. The turnover came on a tip by linebacker Mack Wilson Sr. that had been intended for wide receiver Diontae Johnson. The reigning second-team All-Pro selection later caught a two-point conversion opposite Mills after a score by tight end Pat Freiermuth.
Bourne resurfaces on Agholor’s day in the receiving order
A game removed from playing two offensive snaps and catching his lone look for 41 yards, Kendrick Bourne told reporters, “I just want to do everything right that I’m supposed to do.” The wide receiver finished with two receptions for 16 yards against the Steelers. His energy was in the huddle as early as the initial drive. But his first pass was caught on second-and-6 with a minute left before intermission. Later, a contested conversion was erased by a holding penalty on center and captain David Andrews.
Three others got the starting nod for New England’s wideout room on Sunday. Aside from the security blanket in Meyers, those starters were DeVante Parker and Lil’Jordan Humphrey. The former was turned to once more on a jump-ball interception and finished catchless. The latter had an 11-yard pickup after signing from the practice squad to the 53-man roster.
And Nelson Agholor, who also began on the sideline, plucked a touchdown off cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon’s facemask for a 44-yard touchdown. It was one of his six grabs on the afternoon. For the seventh time in Agholor’s career, it was also a century-mark afternoon.
Eyes on Pittsburgh’s No. 22
Steelers running back Najee Harris had the football in his hands 381 times during his Pro Bowl rookie year. The Alabama product got the ball 20 times on Sunday while coming off a foot injury. The volume began on the first down.
New England started Davon Godchaux, Lawrence Guy and Deatrich Wise Jr. along the defensive line. As for No. 22, he had averaged an even three yards per touch by halftime. And he finished with 49 yards rushing and 40 yards receiving behind a group of blockers that conceded a trio of sacks.
Those sacks arrived courtesy defensive tackle Christian Barmore, outside linebacker Matthew Judon and 2019 Detroit Lions draft pick Jahlani Tavai, who demoed a third-down blitz pickup for his first as a Patriot.