PITTSBURGH — The New England Patriots aren’t freaking out. It doesn’t matter the year, the opponent or even the quarterback.
A sometimes lifeless loss to Miami in their first game was just that, a first game. A starting point that the Patriots knew would not define their season.
The answer was a performance that has become the norm for an organization that cares far less about style points and far more about winning by any means necessary: a clinical and largely selfless 17-14 victory over Pittsburgh on Sunday that kept New England without a 0-2 start in over 20 years.
A big throw from quarterback Mac Jones to Nelson Agholor just before halftime. A failed punt that ended up in the hands of Brenden Schooler to set up a game-winning touchdown led by Damien Harris. A leaping pass deflection by linebacker Matthew Judon in the fourth quarter, all capped off with 6:33 of pure physical dominance by an offensive line that left the Patriots emptying time en route to beating the Steelers for the 13th time in 17 meetings under coach Bill Belichick.
“We’re building an identity,” longtime Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty said. “To come to Pittsburgh and get a win, you start building who you are.”
An identity that could, in the end, turn out to be much the same as that of so many New England teams that have come before it.
Jones bounced back from a tough Week 1 performance to throw for 253 yards, including a 44-yard heave off a leaping Agholor that gave the Patriots a 10-3 lead at the break. The defense forced a pair of three outs in the fourth quarter after the Steelers tied in three. And the special teams took advantage of an error by Pittsburgh punt returner Gunner Olszewski, whose sleeve helped New England celebrate owner Robert Kraft’s 500th game like it has so many before it: with a victory based not so much on style as on substance.
“Hopefully this game is a stepping stone to where we are going,” Agholor said. “At the same time, I don’t want it to be, ‘Hey, this is our identity.’ It’s more ‘OK, we’re seeing good things.’ Now let’s get better at it.
Harris rushed for 71 yards, most of it coming on a timed drive in the final minutes that kept New England on the sidelines as Pittsburgh’s defense sagged late without a star at the back. outside of linebacker TJ Watt, who is out indefinitely with a left pectoral injury.
Mitch Trubisky threw for 168 yards with a touchdown and an interception for the Steelers, whose offense sputtered for long stretches as it struggled to find a sense of rhythm.
Trubisky hit Pat Freiermuth for a 7-yard touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter to draw the Steelers within three and briefly quiet the chants of rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett.
Those cheers aren’t likely to go away anytime soon, though, after the Steelers failed to land a single first down on their last two possessions while wasting a chance to tie or take the lead.
“We need that spark,” Steelers receiver Diontae Johnson said. “We have to bring that spark every week. We are well. We have to get off the ball with a goal and we will be good.
Good can be a short walk down the road. The Steelers finished with just 243 total rushing yards as the Patriots made a point of winning the through-passing game. A mix of a steady pass rush to Trubisky’s face and some hesitation from Trubisky to test the New England secondary led to a series of checks that sometimes moved the sticks but didn’t managed to build sustained momentum.
“We can be better in all areas,” said Trubisky, who has completed 21 of 33 games and been sacked three times. “I can be better at decision making. We had missed opportunities. I missed a few shots. … At the end of the day, we have to score more points.
The first meeting between two of the NFL’s flagship franchises to feature neither Tom Brady nor Ben Roethlisberger in years lacked the high stakes that have long defined the rivalry between the former AFC superpowers.
Instead, New England came looking for a jolt after a blah Week 1 loss to Miami as the Steelers are still in the early stages of the post-Roethlisberger era, a journey that began with a win. exciting and slightly bizarre on Cincinnati last Sunday.
The overtime victory was expensive. Without Watt, Pittsburgh failed to generate any kind of sustained pass rush against Jones. The Steelers failed to register a single sack after collecting seven against the Bengals, and while Jones wasn’t spectacular, he didn’t have to be while extending practices with throws responsible and safe in the middle.
Patriots: Host Baltimore next Sunday.
Steelers: Head to Cleveland to face the Browns on Thursday night. Pittsburgh swept longtime rivals AFC North last season.