The New England Patriots were coming off a historically poor offensive stretch heading into Thursday Night Football. They were poised to play a Pittsburgh Steelers team that was a wild card. Pittsburgh boasted a 7-5 record, but was also coming off a loss to the struggling Arizona Cardinals. Furthermore, the Steelers were without starting quarterback Kenny Pickett. So what was going to happen in this one was anyone’s guess.
The Patriots did enough to earn their third victory of 2023. The 21-18 victory leaves their record at 3-10 on the season. Pittsburgh falls to 7-6. With a surprising amount of action in the game, here are six takeaways from the battle between the two six-time Super Bowl champions:
New England Can Still Score
Last week’s shutout loss was the Patriots third game in a row allowing ten or less points, and losing them all. Nobody since the 1938 Chicago Cardinals had done that. The over/under for the Patriots-Steelers game was the lowest in the NFL in nearly 20 years. So, it was nice to see the New England Patriots still be able to score some points.
Bailey Zappe led New England’s opening drive down the field, hitting Ezekiel Elliott for an 11-yard touchdown to open the scoring. In the second quarter, Zappe threw two more TD passes. He found Hunter Henry for two scores. Henry was celebrating his birthday on Thursday, and his two touchdown game was certainly a nice present for the tight end.
— NFL (@NFL) December 8, 2023
New England did not score in the second half. But the Patriots 21 points was their second highest in a game all season. It was also eight points more than in their three previous games combined. Certainly not perfect, but encouraging.
Too Many Costly Penalties
Although the Patriots pulled out the victory, their lack of discipline easily could have come back to haunt them. They were flagged seven times for 59 yards. This is opposed to the one five-yard penalty Pittsburgh received (although it was both costly, and appeared to be a bad call against the Steelers).
Among the penalties were two defensive pass interference calls on J.C. Jackson, one which negated his own interception. Kyle Dugger also received DPI penalty. Hunter Henry was called for offensive pass interference, negating his own first down reception on the Patriots second drive. They ended up being forced to punt.
Along with the four pass interference calls were penalties for unnecessary roughness, holding, and a false start. Ultimately the penalties didn’t cost New England the game, but any of them easily could have.
Despite how well the Patriots defense has played this season, there are two areas they’ve struggled with. They have not forced many turnovers, nor generated enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Although Jackson’s interception was negated by a penalty, Jabrill Peppers managed to pick off Pittsburgh QB Mitchell Trubisky on the first play of the second quarter.
New England did a great job disguising the play and causing confusing. They also did a great job getting pressure on Trubisky (Kyle Dugger with a QB hit) and in coverage on the play. Peppers got the interception and returned it to the Steelers 11-yard line. The turnover set up Henry’s first touchdown of the game two plays later.
— NFL (@NFL) December 8, 2023
The Patriots only recorded two sacks in the game but were pressuring Trubisky throughout. The more uncomfortable a quarterback is, the better it is for the opposition. And Mitchell Trubisky looked plenty uncomfortable on Thursday.
Still Showing Pride
It’s easy for fans to say a struggling team should tank. However, as was stated here earlier in the season, tanking is not in New England’s DNA. That was evident against the Steelers.
On both sides of the ball there were players putting forth some of their best efforts of the season. Hunter Henry, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Ezekiel Elliott were among those who stood out for playing hard on offense. On defense, Jahlani Tavai, Jalen Mills, and Jonathan Jones were among those competing like the trip to the Super Bowl was on the line. Those players were not alone. It was great to see. Also indicated that perhaps Bill Belichick hasn’t lost this team after all.
Special Teams Far From Special
One of the more disappointing aspects of the Patriots win was their continued struggles on special teams. Brenden Schooler is supposed to be one of the key special teams players for New England. He is a core special teamer, in with every coverage and return unit. But on Sunday Schooler was the lowest graded special teams player on the Patriots by Pro Football Focus. Schooler committed a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty tonight. It was a foolish penalty after the play that could and should have been avoided. He’s now been flagged for four penalties totaling 35 lost yards on the season.
In addition, the Patriots special teams also created the biggest play of the game for the Steelers. A blocked Bryce Baringer punt in the fourth quarter led to the final Pittsburgh touchdown of the game. Momentum shifted completely, albeit temporarily, following the block.
— NFL (@NFL) December 8, 2023
Tavai also went offsides on the Steelers final punt, but Pittsburgh was penalized for a false start on the play. It seemed like little more than good fortune for the Patriots, as the special teams snafu could easily have extended the Pittsburgh drive.
Fortunately for New England they were able to hold on for the victory. However, it continues to be baffling that a source of such pride for Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots has been such a big disappointment the past two seasons.
2024 Draft Position Not Affected
Despite the win, the New England Patriots position in the 2024 NFL Draft was not altered. The Patriots are now 3-10, tied with the Arizona Cardinals for the second worst record in the NFL. The tiebreaker used by the NFL is strength of schedule, with the easier schedule getting the higher draft pick. As of now the Cardinals schedule is considered more difficult, therefore keeping the Patriots in the number two position.