PITTSBURGH — Bill Belichick put the ball in his running backs’ hands to close out New England’s 17-14 win over the Steelers at Acrisure Stadium Sunday.
When it was over, the Patriots coach put the game ball in his owners’ hands — a fitting gift to cap off the 500th game in Robert Kraft’s tenure.
“He handed it to me, and it was really special,” Kraft told the Globe shortly after walking out of the locker room with the ball tucked in his arm. “We’ve had a lot of great moments and memories, and this is another.
“We had a bunch of players, Mac Jones and Damien Harris and some others, telling me they were going to get this win for me in No. 500 and they did," he said. “It was really, really special. You know, the Patriots are a community and I hope all of New England is happy about this win."
It was victory No. 342 for Kraft, who has collected 19 AFC East titles, 10 AFC Championships, and six Super Bowl wins since buying the franchise in 1994.
Olszewski’s gaffe a gift
Sunday’s special victory, turned coincidentally enough, on a special teams play when rookie Brenden Schooler recovered a muffed punt by Gunner Olszewski — who cut his special teams teeth in Foxborough.
Schooler blazed down the field untouched and was right in Olszewski’s mug as the Steeler tried to corral Jake Bailey’s high drive.
Schooler acknowledged he was surprised the Steelers chose to leave him unmarked.
“I was figuring that they had a super heavy box and Cody [Davis] was going to call me in to help block and it didn’t happen, and the ball was snapped,” Schooler said. “So, I was like, ‘All right, let’s go cover.’ ”
Olszewski’s hiccup and an unsportsmanlike call on Connor Heyward set up the Patriots at the 10-yard line and Harris scored three plays later to give the visitors a 17-6 lead they would never relinquish.
“I just dropped it. That’s on me,” said Olszewski, who has more experience fielding Bailey’s bombs than anyone under the sun. “Game that tight, you can’t have mistakes like that. It can’t happen. I didn’t get under it in time. Don’t feel good losing, especially not to them.”
All systems go for offensive line
It was a much-improved effort from the offensive line, which kept Jones clean (three hits, zero sacks) and unlocked holes to allow the backs to run (Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson combined for 118 yards).
The big uglies up front got into a rhythm and it really showed down the stretch when they were able to control the trenches — and the clock — by literally running out the final 6:33 as the Steelers helpless offense stood on the sideline.
“We got to the third and 3 at the end of the game and you’re going back to the huddle thinking, ‘Oh man, I hope they call a run here,’ " said center David Andrews.
They did, and Harris went around left tackle Trent Brown for a 5-yard gain to seal the win.
Rookie left guard Cole Strange was outstanding as he often teamed with Andrews on combo blocks to neutralize Cam Heyward, the Steelers All-Pro defensive tackle/game wrecker.
“It’s a point of emphasis to move those guys on double teams. You want to move them and create space, so that was really nice to see and feel that," said Strange.
Bourne’s role expanded
As he predicted Friday, Kendrick Bourne had an expanded role after playing just two snaps in Week 1. Unofficially, Bourne played 22 snaps and was heavily involved in the third-down packages as a target, decoy, and blocker. He had two catches for 16 yards.
“I’m a team player. I’m not trying to get the limelight," said Bourne. “… I’m just honored. I appreciate it. I’m just playing my role, really and excelling in my role."
Areas for improvement
The Patriots weren’t able to iron out all their wrinkles in the Iron City.
Jones had one bad interception (Minkah Fitzpatrick) and nearly threw another (Cameron Sutton dropped it).
“I’ll get that cleaned up," said Jones.
New England had seven penalties for 55 yards, including several presnap momentum killers (false starts, delay of game).
Rooting for the little guy
Slot corner Myles Bryant (5 feet 9 inches) did a bang-up job on Chase Claypool (6-4) despite giving up a few inches. Claypool had four catches for just 26 yards.
“Myles has a size discrepancy every week," Devin McCourty joked.
Bryant finished with a team-high eight tackles and a pass defensed as he rotated in with Jabrill Peppers.
Rookie Jack Jones rotated in at both perimeter corner spots to give Jalen Mills and Jonathan Jones a breather.
Injured Dugger misses second half
The Patriots suffered several injuries, the most significant to Kyle Dugger, who missed the second half with a knee problem. The safety was spotted leaving the locker room with a slight hitch in his step.
Defensive tackle Davon Godchaux and linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley each left with back ailments but returned and seemed no worse for the wear. At one point, Bentley came sprinting out of the locker room to the sideline and then right back into the fray when a timeout was called. He finished with five tackles.
Harris was nicked on his final carry but reported after the game he was fine. “Look at me,” he said with a smile.
Out of tune
Brian Hoyer was signing “Renegade” ― the Steelers unofficial second-half rally song — to no one in particular in the locker room. Called on it, a smiling Hoyer said, “They waited too long to play it." The Steelers blared the Styx hit at the two-minute warning while the Patriots were salting the win away … Jones’s 44-yard touchdown pass to Nelson Agholor was the longest of his career … Agholor (6 targets, 6 catches, 110 yards) had his first 100-yard game as a Patriot … Nick Folk’s 28-yard field goal tied the NFL mark for consecutive successful FGs under 50 yards at 56 … Mills’s interception was his first as a Patriot … After wearing a white windbreaker in Miami in Week 1, Belichick was back in his familiar blue duds for Week 2 … Steelers tight end Pat Freiermuth has developed a nice cult following here and the crowd bellows “Mooooooth” after his catches … Rookies Marcus Jones, Bailey Zappe, Chasen Hines, and Sam Roberts were the Patriots game-day inactives. Safety Joshuah Bledsoe had previously been ruled out as he deals with a groin injury.
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
- Christopher L. Gasper: Mitch Trubisky and the Steelers’ pop-gun offense is just what the Patriots needed
- ‘End the game:’ The Patriots’ clock-killing drive to seal the win is the type of progress they want to see
- How it happened: Patriots survive sloppy moments to beat Steelers for first win