On Sunday night, the Patriots did two things they’ve gotten exceedingly good at since 2001. They unveiled a new NFL championship banner at Gillette Stadium, then dismantled the Steelers on their home turf.
Week 1’s 33-3 thrashing of Pittsburgh was a statement game from the defending champs. A smothering defense held a typically explosive Steelers offense to zero touchdowns and only 5.0 yards per play. Tom Brady looked as solid as ever on the other side of the ball, throwing for 341 yards and three touchdowns the week before Antonio Brown is set to join the team.
It was business as usual for Brady, who improved to 6-0 at home against Pittsburgh with 21 touchdowns and zero interceptions in that span. It was also business as usual for a reloaded defense, which has now given up six total points in its last two games dating back to Super Bowl 53.
New England came into its title defense with problems at wideout, along the offensive line, and with a defensive front that lost several key playmakers. Then the team went out and thrashed the Steelers in a game that was effectively finished by halftime. But even after Sunday’s display of dominance, there’s one question that may define the NFL’s 2019 season:
Have the Patriots fixed their fatal flaws?
Based on Week 1, here are the areas the Patriots have patched up.
The passing game showed no signs of slowing down with a 42-year-old QB
It was only August when it appeared New England may have a dearth of targets for Brady on its roster. Rob Gronkowski had retired, Josh Gordon was suspended indefinitely, and Julian Edelman was out for a big chunk of the preseason with a broken thumb.
Then, by the end of the first week of September, both Gordon and Edelman were back in the lineup. Another veteran All-Pro, the soon-to-debut Brown, is capable of replacing some of the third-and-long magic Gronkowski provided when his team needed him most.
But if Brown fails to pan out, it probably won’t matter. New England’s passing offense was stacked even before coming to terms with 2018’s receiving touchdowns leader.
Sunday night was proof, as Brady spread the ball to a long list of WR and RB targets to obliterate Pittsburgh’s single coverage downfield. Edelman reeled off six catches for 83 yards. Gordon showed he’s still a dynamic weapon, taking a short drag route 20 yards to the end zone for the game’s first score and later adding a 44-yard catch on a deep ball in traffic over the middle.
No one benefitted more from New England’s explosive passing attack than former Colts first-round pick Phillip Dorsett. The fifth-year receiver, acquired in 2017 in exchange for Jacoby Brissett, was left to thrive as the Steelers turned their defensive attention elsewhere, creating windows in single coverage Brady was eager to exploit.
Brady hits the man who will be either his 4th, 5th, or 6th wideout once Antonio Brown is activated for a gorgeous touchdown. 17-0, Patriots pic.twitter.com/HZgTp2NfTk— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) September 9, 2019
Dorsett also added a 58-yard touchdown on a play where the secondary seemed to forget he existed. If that’s happening now, imagine how overloaded opponents are going to be when Brown and Demaryius Thomas, who missed Sunday’s game with a hamstring injury, are in the lineup.
And this was all made possible because Pittsburgh’s pass rush struggled to keep plays from developing in the season opener.
The blocking, even without David Andrews and Trent Brown, remained tight
Brown, Brady’s 2018 blindside protector, signed the richest deal an offensive lineman’s ever seen to take part in the Raiders’ traveling circus this offseason. Four-year starting center Andrews is on injured reserve as he battles blood clots in his lungs and will likely miss the entire season. These two major departures, paired with injuries to 2019 draft picks Yodny Cajuste and Hjalte Froholdt, sent the Patriots scrambling to add three different linemen — center Russell Bodine, guard Jermaine Eluemunor, and tackle Korey Cunningham — via trade in the waning stages of the preseason.
Bodine lasted a week with the team before earning his release. Cunningham was inactive in Week 1. Eluemunor played only eight snaps on the line Sunday night, all of which came after Marcus Cannon left the game with an upper body injury.
This was not a problem for the Patriots.
Brady was only sacked once on 37 dropbacks and hit five times total. Isaiah Wynn, the 2018 first-round pick slated to replace Nate Solder last fall before tearing his Achilles, neutralized the Pittsburgh pass rush at left tackle, giving up only one quarterback pressure all night. Ted Karras, starting in place of Andrews, directed traffic for a New England offensive line that won the land battle all evening against a bitter rival.
It wasn’t all good. Sony Michel was bottled up for a meager 14 yards on 15 carries, which is concerning. But Rex Burkhead ran for 44 yards on eight touches, which is sort of like having your Mercedes stall out while your Honda Civic drives like a dream. That flexibility was a strength the Pats showcased throughout Week 1.
New England supplemented its limitations on the line by incorporating a bevy of non-lineman blockers to clear space outside the tackles. So while Michel struggled to find space between the hashmarks, Burkhead and James White bounced toward the sideline to move the chains with regularity.
Full game isn't on GP yet, so I'm gonna break down highlights for now and come back to any that need All-22.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) September 9, 2019
White showed flashes as a 3rd down rusher late last season, and his hot streak continued tn. Another headache for defenses.
Flash cracks Watt and Cannon blocks two guys pic.twitter.com/0dK6xKYg72
In the fourth quarter, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels took advantage of his line’s athleticism and his receivers’ ability to seal off running lanes to spring Burkhead for a 10-yard gain:
ANOTHER 3-WIDE I-FORMATION! This time NE with one of its bread-and-butter runs, a toss with the I/s-most play-side receiver cracking the ED and the OT pulling.
Mason, Cannon, Meyers and Edelman all pick up critical blocks pic.twitter.com/2WIsImXmzX— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) September 9, 2019
(Aside: if you’re looking for excellent Patriots film breakdown, Taylor is a must-follow.)
While offensive line depth may be worrisome, it’s clear New England can address that weakness with pulling guards and off-tackle runs that allow one of the league’s better blocking WR groups to pick up the slack.
The defense proved it’s strong from the trenches to the backfield
New England’s defensive plan Sunday night was simple. Bill Belichick trusted his secondary enough to roll with the single coverage that allowed the Pats to throw an extra man into their pass rush when needed. The club currently has a wealth of cornerbacks, led by Stephon Gilmore and ranging down to former undrafted free agents J.C. Jackson and the recently extended Jonathan Jones.
ah, so that's why the Patriots extended Jonathan Jones right before the season started pic.twitter.com/mWNu661BGl— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) September 9, 2019
The aging safety duo of Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung helped limit the Steelers’ over-the-middle passing game, leaving tight end Vance McDonald without a reception until late in the fourth quarter.
These were all known strengths coming into the season, but the real question the Pats had to answer was whether a defensive front that lost Trey Flowers, Malcom Brown, and Adrian Clayborn could provide enough penetration up front to help a defense that was mediocre in pass-rushing situations and often awful against the rush last year.
It was only one game, but so far the answer is yes. New England held Pittsburgh’s tailbacks to 25 rushing yards on 12 carries. The Patriots stopped James Conner on third-and-1 runs on back-to-back drives in the first half. This was enough to convince Mike Tomlin to call a pass play on third-and-goal from the 1-yard line later in the game, then kick a 19-yard field goal once that failed.
So the rich seem to have gotten richer, turning three of their biggest weaknesses (run stuffing, passing targets, and offensive line departures) into strengths.
What can still go wrong for the Patriots?
Let’s run down the list.
It could be the Pats’ lack of tight end depth
The 2018 seventh-round pick didn’t have much of an impact as a receiver in his first regular season game, but demonstrated his value as a linebacker-nullifying blocker in the running game. That’s the role he’ll be counted on to fill even after Ben Watson returns to boost the passing game.
The Watson-Izzo-LaCosse trio is far from a sure thing. Watson will come back to the lineup in Week 5 after a PED suspension. He’ll also turn 39 years old this December and only had 35 catches in the Saints’ pass-happy offense in 2018. LaCosse may be due for a breakout, or he may be the guy Denver didn’t fight to retain after last year’s 24-catch performance. Other stopgap measures — Lance Kendricks, Eric Saubert, Austin Seferian-Jenkins — have already been expunged from the roster.
This won’t be too drastic a problem as long as whomever hits the starting lineup can block and add a safety valve presence as a receiver. If Brown can return to form in the lineup, Thomas and Dorsett currently stand to be fourth and fifth (though not in that order) in the team’s pecking order for targets. That means a below-average tight end rotation won’t be a problem as long as the guys they do have can block.
But the bigger concern is a lack of dominant pass rusher
The Patriots pressured Pittsburgh into rough situations by leaving their defensive backs on an island and bringing an extra pass rusher to overload the Steelers’ line. While this didn’t lead to many sacks Sunday night, it still kept Ben Roethlisberger from getting comfortable in the pocket in a poor performance.
That can work against a wideout corps that features JuJu Smith-Schuster, a drop-heavy Donte Moncrief, and a handful of unproven targets. It will be harder to pull off against the Chiefs’ three-headed monster of Tyreek Hill (once healthy), Sammy Watkins, and Travis Kelce or the Texans’ potent passing attack, two teams they’ll play during the regular season and potentially again in the playoffs. If New England needs to focus more on padding its defensive backfield, it will have to create pressure with a four-man front instead of the five- and six-man units that hassled Roethlisberger.
This could be an issue. Michael Bennett remains a versatile force on the defensive line, but the Steelers’ blockers were able to keep him off the box score Sunday night. Shilique Calhoun, who turned an impressive preseason into some solid plays early and played more snaps than anyone else in the front seven, has 0.5 career sacks. Other names like John Simon, Deatrich Wise Jr., and rookie Chase Winovich are dependable supporting cast members, though none is a proven down-to-down pass-rushing threat.
The Patriots relied on their defensive backs to provide the coverage that allowed their defensive line more time to get upfield, but there will be games where that’s not a viable option. Giving a quarterback like Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson extra time to find targets downfield or the room to break contain and run upfield is a recipe for disaster — and it may be the most likely way an opponent exploits New England in 2019.
The defending champs don’t have many weaknesses. Even their big-ticket problems — Gronkowski’s retirement, Andrews’ blood clots — seem to have successful solutions. That doesn’t mean they’re invulnerable. New England was able to keep the Steelers out of the end zone, but there’s evidence to believe a more complete offense can carve out space against what looks like the league’s top secondary.
Will that be enough to derail a franchise that planted its flag atop the way-too-early power rankings by thrashing a familiar AFC foe? It’s too soon to tell — but at least coaches across the league have an idea of how they can topple Belichick and Brady in 2019.