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The Patriots’ offense is struggling, but at least the defense can still win a game

Nelson Agholor outmaneuvered the Steelers' Ahkello Witherspoon for a 44-yard touchdown in the second quarter.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Instant analysis from the Patriots’ 17-14 win over the Steelers:

▪ At least the Patriots still have a solid defense that can steal a win.

The offense is a mess and has many issues to resolve. But the defense, which entered this season with many questions after getting shredded by the Bills in the playoffs, definitely has enough talent to stifle bad offenses like the one it faced Sunday in Pittsburgh.

The game plan seemed simple enough — sit back and wait for Mitch Trubisky to make mistakes. And that’s pretty much what he did, with Trubisky throwing for just 168 yards, including a bad interception and several throws that had little chance of success.


But the Patriots’ defense deserves a lot of credit, too. The secondary was outstanding again, corralling the Steelers’ talented receivers and limiting the Steelers to just one play of more than 20 yards all day. The Patriots tackled really well, with Jabrill Peppers, Myles Bryant, and Lawrence Guy making nice plays in the open field. New linebacker Mack Wilson showed tremendous athleticism in jumping into the passing lane and tipping a pass that was intercepted by Jalen Mills.

▪ Give the Patriots credit for finishing the game with a dominant drive by the offensive line. Taking over with 6:33 left, the Patriots ran out the clock with several punishing runs by Rhamondre Stevenson and Damien Harris, and several great blocks by the offensive line. The unit struggled for most of the day, particularly right tackle Isaiah Wynn (two penalties for 15 yards), but the end of the game was a real positive for the offense.

▪ Otherwise it was another rough day for Mac Jones and the offensive coaches. The offense lacked creativity — running almost exclusively out of the shotgun, with three wide receivers on the field (”11″ personnel). The Patriots struggled with the play clock, getting called for one delay of game and burning two timeouts to avoid others. And Jones made several ill-advised throws that nearly cost his team.


The Patriots did gain 376 yards, and had a few outstanding individual plays (mostly by Nelson Agholor). But the story of the Patriots’ offense came midway through the fourth quarter: They got the ball at the 50, went three and out, and punted.

▪ Jones, especially, got bailed out. Agholor made an incredible play on a jump ball over Ahkello Witherspoon for a 44-yard touchdown. Jones shouldn’t have even thrown that ball on third and 3, and he was lucky it wasn’t intercepted.

Jones also was bailed out by a couple of bad Steelers’ mistakes. Cornerback Cameron Sutton dropped an easy interception in the third quarter, and Gunner Olszewski handed the Patriots a free touchdown by muffing a punt on his 10-yard line.

▪ Jones (252 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception) made a few nice throws down the seams, but was still too reliant on the 50-50 jump balls, one of which resulted in an interception on a pass for DeVante Parker. Jones was too focused on just two receivers — Agholor and Jakobi Meyers, who accounted for 19 of Jones’s 35 targets and 205 of 252 yards. And Jones needs to improve his situational awareness. He was busted for one intentional-grounding penalty, and has a bad habit of chucking deep on third and short. He missed a wide-open Meyers on third and 2 in the fourth quarter.


▪ Jones at least has an excuse, because he’s still not getting great coaching. He was throwing into tight windows all game. Matt Patricia and Bill Belichick aren’t doing much to get their receivers open.

Sunday’s game plan entailed going almost exclusively out of the shotgun and using a power run game — the opposite of all that preseason talk about the Patriots adopting zone blocking and the “Shanahan offense.” The Patriots rotated their receivers a lot, but not their personnel — it seemed more than 90 percent of their plays were shotgun, three receivers.

It’s baffling that the Patriots aren’t using more play-action in their offense, considering they don’t have a dynamic quarterback or receivers who are great at getting separation. It took the Patriots until five minutes remained in the third quarter to put Jones under center and run a play-action pass. Wouldn’t you know it, the play picked up 25 yards to Agholor.

▪ Belichick was too conservative, almost to the Patriots’ detriment. On the first drive, he kicked a 28-yard field goal instead of going for it on fourth and 2 from the 9. The Patriots had just driven 71 yards. Going for it could have been a huge confidence booster, but instead, Belichick got conservative. Belichick also punted on fourth and 2 from the Steelers’ 42 yard line midway through the fourth quarter, a punt that landed in the end zone for a touchback.


And you can bet your house that if the Patriots throw incomplete on first down, they’re going to come back with a run on second down.

The conservative coaching won’t inspire much confidence with the players.

▪ Agholor had his best game in two seasons with the Patriots, catching all six of his targets for 110 yards and a touchdown. Agholor’s 44-yard touchdown was the play of the game, but he also had nice catches of 25 and 16 yards and showed some good toughness in fighting through tackles.

▪ Let’s see more Agholor and less Parker moving forward. Through two games, Parker has one catch for 9 yards, while Jones has thrown two interceptions on jump balls to Parker.

▪ For all that talk about how much more Kendrick Bourne was going to play this week, he was still a bit player. He played just one snap in the first quarter, and finished the day with two receptions on three targets for 16 yards. He’s slowly coming out of the doghouse, but hasn’t fully escaped it yet.

▪ Why again are the Steelers playing Trubisky? He has no pocket awareness, can’t push the ball downfield, and he clearly is holding the team back. Backup Kenny Pickett was picked in the first round and had a great preseason. There is zero reason to stick with Trubisky at this point.


Poor Gunner Olszewski. On Friday, he said, “Any time you play the ex, you want to show out. Any time I get the ball, I want to do something with it. Playing the old team, the team that didn’t want you, sure I want to go out there and show what I can do.”

Instead, he took a punt off the facemask, giving the ball to the Patriots at the 10-yard line, leading to the game-winning touchdown. It won’t be an easy sleep tonight.

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Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com.