PITTSBURGH — Thank the Football Gods for Mitch Trubisky and the pop-gun offense of the Pittsburgh Steelers. They were exactly the elixir the Patriots needed to cure a crisis of confidence and to keep choking down the old Belichick Kool-Aid.
Winning is the ultimate cure-all, and the Patriots got a dose of it at Acrisure Stadium, thanks in large part to Mediocre Mitch and Co. Such a prosaic, predictable opponent was just what Dr. Bill Belichick ordered.
The Patriots put the “Ugh” in ugly win here. But post-Brady we’re beyond grading on style points. Those are first-world football problems for Buffalo and Kansas City.
“It’s about finding a way to win,” said Patriots safety Devin McCourty. “I wouldn’t say this is the best game we’ve ever played.
“Games aren’t perfect, but it’s about how you take advantage of situations and make winning plays. I thought we did that today, and the result was a win. It’s always better correcting the film when you win. I think it’s important that we understand that we got to keep getting better.”
Running in place since training camp, this version of the Patriots was desperately in need of positive reinforcement, some positive vibes, and a positive outcome. They got all of the above in a 17-14 victory, dodging a disastrous 0-2 start.
Going winless in the first two games would’ve sent antsy fans and players unconvinced about the competency of their coaching staff heading for the lifeboats. Instead, the Patriots can feel good about themselves after closing out the final 6 minutes, 33 seconds of the game with a classic clock-killing drive.
Belichick needed to generate buy-in from this group in a bad way. Winning is the only way to do it.
“It was just good to reinforce the things we’re doing,” said Belichick. “The way we prepared, the way we played was good enough to come in here and win against a good football team, a team that had a big win last week coming in for their home opener. It’s good to come in here and get a win. It’s not easy.”
Nothing is easy for the offensively challenged Patriots, which is why they’ll celebrate any win while their offense sports a pardon our appearance sign.
Lucky for them they were playing a bridge QB in this city of bridges and a Steelers defense sans sack-machine T.J. Watt.
The much-maligned Patriots offensive line didn’t allow a single sack with Watt out, although they did yield a free rusher on Jones’s interception — another wishing well deep toss to DeVante Parker.
Still, the Patriots never trailed and never faced a real dynamic offensive threat. Trubisky completed 21 of 33 passes, but for a meager 168 yards with a touchdown and a first-quarter interception in New England territory.
He tried to jam a ball into coverage like someone squeezing one more shirt into a suitcase crying no mas.
That’s exactly the type of game the Patriots are built to win right now until they get their offensive sea legs under de facto offensive coordinators Matt Patricia and Joe Judge.
‘End the game:’ The Patriots’ clock-killing drive to seal the win is the type of progress they want to see
It was notable that Belichick was seen kneeling with his back to the field talking to Judge and Jones multiple times while the defense was on the field, DIY offensive coordination.
Early on, this one lived up to its advance billing as a 3-3 tie. Indicative of the offensive futility of both clubs was Pittsburgh’s tying field-goal drive conducted at VCR rewind speed, 48 yards in 16 plays.
What a difference a play makes, though.
Facing third and 3 from the Pittsburgh 44, Jones saw single high safety coverage after Minkah Fitzpatrick, who had intercepted him earlier, rotated down. Mac threw up a 50-50 ball for Nelson Agholor. The receiver elevated over Ahkello Witherspoon and took the ball and the air out of the House Formerly Known as Heinz Field with 22 seconds left in the first half.
The 44-yard strike to Agholor, who notched his first 100-yard receiving game as a Patriot (six catches for 110 yards) put the Patriots up, 10-3, at the half.
With such unprolific offenses that felt like an insurmountable advantage.
One of the most striking elements of the Patriots’ season-opening defeat in Miami was self-inflicted wounds. That’s supposed to happen to the Other Guys. Belichickian order was restored Sunday.
In a game where points were at a premium, old friend/ex-Patriots pet project Gunner Olszewski handed them to the Pats. The former find couldn’t find the football after he muffed a punt at his 20 with the Patriots leading, 10-6.
An unnecessary roughness penalty set up the Patriots with first and goal at the 10. Damien Harris (15 carries for 71 yards) plowed in from 2 yards out for a 17-6 advantage with 2:47 left in the third.
Pittsburgh rallied to make it 17-14 on a Mediocre Mitch TD toss and 2-point conversion catch by Diontae Johnson with 14:58 left.
But the Patriots plugged up Pittsburgh for a pair of three-and-outs before Harris and Co. closed the game.
Thankfully, Jones showed no signs of a bad back in a workman-like performance (21 of 35 for 252 yards). He credited the coaching staff but stated the obvious.
The Patriots have to score more points to score more wins.
“They’ve really done a good job there cleaning everything up. We just got to execute better,” said Jones. “We have to get more points, and it won’t be as close of a game. So, that’s the big thing, put more points on the board and continue to grow.”
Still, it was all post-win afterglow in the locker room.
Even exiled wide receiver Kendrick Bourne, who played a bigger role after earning just two snaps in the opener, was preaching buy-in.
Winning does that.
“Yeah, big difference. Guys’ energy is different. It’s just different. When you’re losing it can take over a locker room,” said Bourne. “When you’re winning it can take over a locker room.”
Belichick got something more important than 2022′s first victory. He got a fire extinguisher to prevent any embers of doubt from spreading through his team like wildfire.
Read more Patriots stories
- Dan Shaughnessy: Yes, OK, the Patriots won, but so far what have we learned about Mac Jones?
- On Football: The Patriots’ offense is struggling, but at least the defense can still win a game
- ‘End the game:’ The Patriots’ clock-killing drive to seal the win is the type of progress they want to see
- Between the hash marks: Patriots celebrate a special (teams) victory in 500th game for owner Robert Kraft, and other observations
- How it happened: Patriots survive sloppy moments to beat Steelers for first win
- ‘I just dropped it:’ Against his former team, Steelers’ Gunner Olszewski’s error swung the game in the Patriots’ favor
- Patriots safety Kyle Dugger misses second half with knee issue
Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.