The Patriots escaped Pittsburgh with a 17-14 win on Sunday to even their record at 1-1. The immediate analysis after the game was that the Patriots defense is still good enough to win on its own; that the offensive line deserves a lot of credit for finishing out the final 6½ minutes; and that Mac Jones and the offensive coaches got bailed out of a subpar performance.
Here are five additional observations after rewatching the game on Tuesday:
1. The Patriots need to start going under center and using play-action.
The Patriots have scored just three touchdowns and rank 29th in points (12 per game). One reason may be the lack of creativity on offense, and it starts with the lack of play-action or putting Jones under center.
Until the final drive of the game, Jones went out of the shotgun on 50 of 55 snaps — and two of those five plays from under center were a quarterback sneak on third down, and Damien Harris’s goal-line touchdown. The Patriots also called just four play-action passes all game, with three coming from under center.
Play-action passing is proven to be the most effective way of creating separation for receivers and time for the quarterback in the pocket. Monday night against the Titans, Bills quarterback Josh Allen threw out of play-action on 61 percent of his passes in the first half, and was 10 of 14 for 145 yards and two touchdowns. Play-action would be especially beneficial for the Patriots, who have a young quarterback who needs time in the pocket and receivers who don’t create a lot of separation on their own.
The Patriots were effective with play-action on Sunday, with a 25-yard pass to Nelson Agholor, 11-yard checkdown to Harris for a first down, and a 6-yard pass to Jakobi Meyers. Yet they used play-action on just 4 of 38 passing plays.
The Patriots have instead forced Jones to operate a straight drop-back pass game out of the shotgun, and on Sunday he was consistently throwing into tight windows. One would think the Patriots offense would be much more effective with a run game from under center and a heavy dose of play-action passes.
2. Jones needs to see the field better.
There has been a screenshot floating around social media the last three days of Jones not seeing Lil’Jordan Humphrey streaking wide open down the middle of the field (how did Jordan get so open? It was a play-action pass, of course).
That was hardly the only time Jones had spotty field vision on Sunday. On his interception in the first quarter, Jones loved the matchup of DeVante Parker streaking down the middle of the field against a middle linebacker. But Jones never saw safety Minkah Fitzpatrick lurking in the background, and Fitzpatrick made an easy interception. Meyers was wide open over the middle, just underneath Parker.
Jones completed an 11-yard checkdown to Harris in the third quarter but never saw Parker streaking wide open across the middle. On a crucial third and 2 midway through the fourth quarter, Jones forced a pass to Jonnu Smith in tight coverage that fell incomplete, while never seeing Meyers running wide open just next to Smith. Even Jones’s 44-yard touchdown to Agholor wasn’t a great decision, as NFL Next Gen Stats said it had a 26.2 percent chance of being completed, which even then feels generous.
Jones is in his only second year, so the tunnel vision is part of his growing pains. But it does need to improve.
3. Not quite as good of a day for the offensive line as the stats suggest.
The Patriots rushed for 124 yards on 4.0 yards per carry, allowed no sacks and just three quarterback hits, and ran out the final 6:33 with 12 running plays and just one pass. But the unit still has some significant issues.
Right tackle Isaiah Wynn struggled again — a holding penalty, a false start that led to a missed field goal, and whiffing on a block of Alex Highsmith, which led to a 2-yard scramble.
Left tackle Trent Brown was inconsistent, too. On Jones’s interception, Highsmith got a free rush at Jones and delivered a massive hit because Brown didn’t recognize the delayed blitz. Brown also was cheating the snap count on several plays, and was lucky not to get called for a false start.
On Jones’s intentional grounding penalty in the second quarter, he was forced to get rid of the ball in a hurry because no one picked up a blitz up the middle. On a third and 2 on the final drive, the Steelers only rushed four but still got a free run at Jones, who was able to scramble away and pick up the first down.
David Andrews also was busted for holding, and Mike Onwenu was called for a false start. The only offensive lineman who appeared to play a clean game was rookie guard Cole Strange.
4. Bill Belichick has a lot of faith in his defensive coaches.
A shot of the Patriots sideline during the middle of the first quarter got my attention. While the defense was on the field, Belichick was on one knee, his back to the field, going over photos and other offensive notes with Jones and Joe Judge. It shows how much faith Belichick has in his son, de facto defensive coordinator Steve Belichick, as well as Jerod Mayo and the other defensive coaches, that he doesn’t have to micromanage the game when the defense is on the field.
Steve Belichick rewarded his father’s faith with a solid game plan, as the Steelers gained just 243 yards and scored one touchdown in eight possessions. The plan appeared to be to play vanilla defense on first and second down, then mix up the pass rush on third down.
Steve Belichick’s pass rush calls, in order, on third-down passing plays: rush 3, zone blitz 4, blitz 5, rush 4, blitz 6 in the red zone, rush 4, rush 3, rush 3, zone rush 4, rush 4.
The Steelers did convert 8 of 15 attempts on third down, including their lone touchdown, but the varied pass rush created two big sacks and kept Mitchell Trubisky off balance all game.
But Steve Belichick got bailed out after making a questionable call on the Patriots’ final defensive play in the fourth quarter. Matthew Judon broke up the pass to Najee Harris, but having Judon in pass coverage on a dynamic running back, on a crucial third down, is asking for big trouble. The Patriots got lucky that Trubisky made a bad throw.
5. Barely any mention of Brian Flores on the CBS broadcast.
Not one mention throughout the game of the Flores lawsuit against the NFL. Not one mention of Bill Belichick sending the errant text message that set the lawsuit into motion. And not one mention on the status of the relationship between Belichick and Flores, who coached in New England for 15 years. The only acknowledgment of Flores’s existence came late in the third quarter, when CBS showed a quick shot of Flores in the coaches’ box and announcer Ian Eagle noted that Flores coached in New England for a long time.
A CBS source said that there was no directive from the Patriots or NFL to ignore Flores’s lawsuit. Instead, this crew decided not to get into it during Patriots-Steelers because it already spoke at length about it when it broadcast the Steelers-Lions preseason game in August.
But considering the importance of the lawsuit, and how prominently Belichick plays a role in it, it was shocking not to hear CBS at least acknowledge the situation during Sunday’s broadcast.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.