The New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers entered their Week 2 clash on opposite ends of the turnover spectrum. Whereas the Steelers were at +5 coming off an opening day win over Cincinnati, the Patriots sat at -3 following their loss in Miami.
The first turnover of their game on Sunday, however, came courtesy of New England’s defense.
On a 1st-and-10 at the Patriots 42-yard line, Mitchell Trubisky tried a short pass over the middle intended for wide receiver Diontae Johnson. However, the Pittsburgh quarterback did not see linebacker Mack Wilson, who had dropped back and quickly reversed course to get into the passing lane.
Wilson was not able to pick off the pass, but he deflected it right into the arms of teammate Jalen Mills for an interception.
Mills’ part in the takeaway is obviously important, he finished the play and ran the pick back 13 yards. However, it would not have been possible without Wilson getting a hand on it in the first place — something Patriots head coach Bill Belichick also pointed out after the game.
“It was a play-action pass, kind of pop pass over the middle. Made a great reaction to it,” Belichick said during his postgame press conference.
“That’s a play that’s becoming a very popular play in the league. We run it, so I know they’ve seen it in practice. Miami ran it, Pittsburgh. And he’s really an outstanding athlete. He was able to — I don’t know how many people would have made that play, but just his athleticism and ability to get his hands on it and tip if to Mills. That was a big play for us.”
The Patriots did not cash in on the interception, but rather ended up throwing one of their own on the ensuing possession. However, the pick still helped New England keep its narrow 3-0 lead by thwarting a promising Steelers drive right on the edge of field goal range.
It was therefore no surprise to hear Belichick sing Wilson’s praises again during a media conference call on Monday.
“Mack made an outstanding play of dropping to his left, to the outside and then planting and coming back and reacting very quickly to get his hands on the ball to Mills,” he said.
Two games into his Patriots career, Wilson is already making a positive impact on the team. A trade acquisition from the Cleveland Browns this offseason, the fourth-year man played 35 percent of defensive snaps in his debut versus the Miami Dolphins before being on the field for 64 versus the Steelers — the highest play-time share among the team’s off-the-ball linebackers that day.
Wilson has six tackles to his name so far, and now one assisted interception as well; he’s also seeing regular playing time in the kicking game. While his numbers may not stand out, his early performance is still an encouraging one.
There is one reason in particular why that is the case: his impressive athleticism. The Patriots, of course, were trying to get faster and more athletic at linebacker this year. Acquiring Wilson in exchange for fellow linebacker Chase Winovich was a key part of that strategy.
On Sunday it was not hard to see why.