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Chad Finn | Unconventional review

We can’t call the Patriots’ win over the Steelers pretty, but we can call it progress

Nelson Agholor celebrates his 44-yard touchdown catch with Damien Harris (left).Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Welcome to the Unconventional Review, an instant reaction to standouts, stats, and story lines from the Patriots’ most recent game . . .

It wasn’t particularly pretty, but it was progress. And most important, the Patriots got a win.

I wouldn’t call their 17-14 win over the Steelers a 180-degree turn from their performance in the season-opening loss in Miami last week. It was more like, oh, let’s call it a 135-degree turn.

The offensive line, their most pressing problem, was much more connected and cohesive, and rookie Cole Strong practically looked like a Logan Mankins stunt double when he was blocking on running plays.

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Defensively, they were stout when they had to be, forcing the Steelers on a pair of three-and-outs in the fourth quarter and holding them to 243 yards of total offense all day. Considering that the Dolphins scored 42 points and Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle combined for 22 catches and four touchdowns against the Ravens Sunday, even the performance of the Patriots’ defense last week suddenly looks better.

Sure, there are still some things that need to be cleaned up, including penalties on the offensive line, some of Mac Jones’s reads, and the defense’s third-down efficiency.

But all in all? Progress, and a win. Couldn’t ask for much more than that.

Some further thoughts, upon immediate review . . .

THREE PLAYERS WHO WERE WORTH WATCHING

(Players suggested in Unconventional Preview: Trent Brown, Damien Harris, Minkah Fitzpatrick.)

Nelson Agholor: Even before the arrival of halftime, this was the most productive game Agholor has had as a Patriot. The veteran receiver, in his second season in New England, had four catches on four targets for 80 receiving yards in the first half, including a sensational 44-yard touchdown with 22 seconds left before the break in which he went up and over Steelers defensive back Ahkello Witherspoon, who appeared to have a decent angle on the ball. Agholor also hauled in a 25-yard catch in the third quarter in which he broke a tackle – not exactly his strong suit — to gain extra yardage. He finished his day to remember with six catches on six targets for 110 yards and the touchdown.

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Jabrill Peppers: A few Patriots defenders warrant citing here. Matthew Judon ran down Mitch Trubisky for a sack just before halftime, busted up a third-and-2 pass to Najee Harris in the fourth quarter, and looked awfully similar to his stellar form from the first half of last season. Christian Barmore picked up his first sack of the season. Jalen Mills had a pick. But I’m going with Peppers, because he epitomizes the all-around effort of the defense Sunday. Peppers saw the field more after Kyle Dugger was knocked out with an apparent knee injury in the second quarter, and immediately made a couple of impressive plays. Peppers buried Steelers receiver Diontae Johnson on a misdirection play on second down with 7:05 left in the half, then, on third and 8 at the Patriots’ 33, clobbered Jaylen Warren in the open field for no gain to force the Steelers to settle for a field goal and a 10-6 deficit.

Damien Harris/Rhamondre Stevenson: All right, so neither is going to put up 2004 Corey Dillon numbers individually. But in tandem, they give the Patriots’ running game an effective 1-2 punch, and for our purposes here, I’m counting them as one entity since they complement each other so well in the same role. Their relatively spare usage early Sunday — they combined for just 30 yards on six carries in the first half – kept them fresh for crunch time, when the Patriots held the ball for the final 6 minutes, 33 seconds as they converted first down after first down. Stevenson had back-to-back impressive runs with just less than four minutes left, gaining 6 yards and then 8. Meanwhile, Harris, who scored his first touchdown of the season on a 2-yard run in the second quarter, closed out the win, charging 5 yards on third and 3 with 1:38 left. All told, against a very good Steelers run defense, they ran a combined 24 times for 118 yards and touchdown.

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GRIEVANCE OF THE GAME

These so-called “50-50 balls” that DeVante Parker is supposedly so good at catching have been 0-100 balls this season. Jones’s interception occurred when he took a shot deep at a double-covered Parker on a third-and-5 situation late in the first quarter, only to have Steelers ballhawk Minkah Fitzpatrick pluck it away. It was not a great pass by Jones, but Parker’s reputation for being super competitive for the football has not shown up through the first two weeks. Last week, he got outmuscled by the Dolphins’ Xavien Howard on a play that also turned into an interception. If Parker isn’t going to make those kinds of plays, what exactly is his purpose in this offense?

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Minkah Fitzpatrick came up with the ball that was intended for DeVante Parker (left).Justin Berl/Associated Press

THREE NOTES SCRIBBLED IN THE MARGINS

(Predicted final score: Steelers 16, Patriots 13)

(Final score: Patriots 17, Steelers 14)

Mills collected his interception late in the first quarter when linebacker Mack Wilson Jr. made a terrific athletic play to deflect Trubisky’s throw. The interception was foremost an example of Trubisky’s limitations — he almost seemed to be staring a hole through Wilson before he threw the ball, but let it fly anyway — but it also was a welcome reminder of what a nimble linebacker can do . . . Agholor was the receiving star of the day, but Jakobi Meyers’s contributions must be mentioned. He caught nine passes for 95 yards on 13 targets. He’s not always the most efficient receiver — his 83 catches last season came on 124 targets — and he’s not particularly dangerous after the catch, but he was efficient and reliable Sunday . . . I hope Charles Davis, as usual a welcome presence in the CBS broadcast booth alongside Ian Eagle Sunday, is proven correct when he said, “We know the Patriots think Mac Jones is their quarterback for the next 10 or more years.” The Patriots have had just two quarterbacks play a decade here — Steve Grogan and his neckroll from 1975-90, and that fella caught smashing a tablet during the Bucs’ win over the Saints yesterday. If Jones is here that long, it means he kept getting better and better.

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Chad Finn can be reached at chad.finn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeChadFinn.