PITTSBURGH — With Styx’s “Renegade” blasting and the fans at Acrisure Stadium waving their terrible towels, Patriots running back Damien Harris had just one thought on his mind coming out of the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter.
“End the game,” Harris said. “That’s it. End the game.”
He did just that.
Hoping to preserve their 17-14 lead over the Steelers, the Patriots ran three plays — all rushes by Harris — to burn Pittsburgh’s remaining timeouts and convert a crucial first down. The sequence allowed quarterback Mac Jones to kneel out the game, capping a 13-play, 6½-minute drive to seal New England’s first victory of the season.
“It was just good that, offensively, we got to end the game with the ball in our hands, not give it back to them, and run out the clock,” Harris said. “The way we finished this game is a good stepping stone in continuing to become the team we want to be.”
Every offensive player agreed: That final drive, consisting almost entirely of run plays, is exactly how the Patriots want to finish games.
“That’s every team’s goal,” Jones said. “The teams that win in the NFL do that. You try to watch the NFL and see what teams did that well, if you can close out a game. If you do that — and you don’t have to score, you just got to move it and get first downs — the time just runs out. That’s usually how it goes. NFL games come down to the wire almost every week.”
“It just feels good to be able to run downhill and not put the ball in the air,” added wide receiver Kendrick Bourne. “To finish with running the ball just says a lot about our grit and how we want to be known in the league.”
The Patriots hope that final drive is something to build on as the team works to find its offensive identity following the departure of longtime assistant coach Josh McDaniels. Questions remain about the viability of New England’s sputtering passing attack — and the first 3½ quarters of Sunday’s game weren’t all that pretty.
In the first quarter, Jones decided to launch a pass deep into traffic for DeVante Parker, only to have it intercepted by Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Jones had both Jakobi Meyers and Nelson Agholor open on the play.
In the second quarter, with the Steelers blitzing on second down, Jones quickly had to throw the ball away. Officials flagged him for intentional grounding, forcing third and long. Then, on the next play, referees whistled left tackle Isaiah Wynn for holding while trying to prevent a sack, forcing third and even longer. The Patriots ended up punting.
The penalties on the offensive line were aplenty. Officials flagged center David Andrews for holding to wipe out a 10-yard reception. Wynn and right guard Michael Onwenu both committed false starts — and right tackle Trent Brown also had an incredibly obvious infraction that went unnoticed by the officials, much to the chagrin of the home crowd.
Jones made perhaps his worst decision of the day late in the third quarter, when he scrambled out of the pocket and threw a limp pass in the direction of Meyers. Steelers cornerback Cameron Sutton should have had an easy interception at midfield, but the ball fell out of his arms. The Patriots ended up punting two plays later.
During training camp, as the offense installed a new play-calling setup and streamlined scheme, the Patriots preached patience. Coach Bill Belichick repeatedly referenced a “process,” and Jones expressed unwavering faith that the team would figure things out.
Two weeks into the season, the offense has shown flashes. But there are still too many moments where the unit seems out of synch. On third and 8 on New England’s opening drive, for example, Parker lined up on the outside and put his hands up in confusion, clearly unsure of what to do. The Patriots ended up incurring a delay of game penalty and fell 2 yards short on the first down on the next play.
It’s clear the offense still has a ways to go. The Patriots scored just one touchdown against Miami in the season opener, and seemed on track for a similar result Sunday before old friend Gunner Olszewski muffed a punt, gifting New England extremely favorable field position.
The offense hasn’t shied away from its need for improvement, but they’re hopeful that the final drive in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game is just the start. New England’s next two opponents, Baltimore at home and Green Bay on the road, certainly pose a stronger challenge than the Steelers.
“It’s definitely a step in the right direction,” Harris said. “Obviously, we’re still not where we want to be. We have a long time before we get there, but closing the game out like that, being able to end the game with the ball in our hands as an offense, is a huge confidence booster. That’s just another step that we can take going into next week.”
Read more Patriots stories
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- Christopher L. Gasper: Mitch Trubisky and the Steelers’ pop-gun offense is just what the Patriots needed
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- 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
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