The Patriots expose Steelers’ troubles at quarterback while getting encouragement from Mac Jones

PITTSBURGH — Relief and exhaustion were written on Mac Jones’ face as the sophomore quarterback addressed the media after the Patriots’ 17-14 win over the Steelers in Week 2. Sunday’s win came after a busy week for Jones, who overcame illness and a back injury to lead New England to victory.

Outperforming colleague Mitch Trubisky, Jones and his teammates rebounded from last Sunday’s shaky season opener in Miami by defeating a Pittsburgh side who flew high after their surprise Week 1 win over the reigning AFC champion. The Steelers couldn’t duplicate that magic on Sunday, however, as Jones made his best impression of Tom Brady as he led New England to victory.

“Of course we wanted to improve a lot of things,” said Jones, who won his 11th start in the NFL. “We’ve had opportunities to do that all week; that’s how it all started. … The offensive line played fantastic, didn’t even get hit really, so hats off to them. Run game, pass game, they did it, so I was really proud of that. We have to continue that.”

Jones not getting hit — or more accurately sacked — doesn’t bode well for the Steelers and coach Mike Tomlin, whose top player, TJ Watt, was out on Sunday and will miss at least the next three games, according to IR. Jones took advantage of Watts’ absence as he stood upright in the pocket and completed a string of finishes in the middle of Pittsburgh’s defense. Jones also went deep when he delivered a massive punch just before halftime when he threw a 44-yard cent to Nelson Agholor that put New England 10-3 at halftime.

In contrast to their loss in Miami, the Patriots’ early success at throwing the ball (Jakobi Meyers had three big catches on New England’s first drive, which ended in a field goal) set the stage for their ground attack. Led by Damien Harris, the Patriots expertly rushed for 124 yards on 31 carries. Harris’ 2-yard touchdown run in the third quarter gave the Patriots a 17-6 lead, three plays after Brenden Schooler recovered from Gunner Olszewski’s muffed punt, New England put the ball at the Steelers 10 yard line .

“It allows us to run the ball well when we’re hitting man-to-man because that’s a counterattack from defense,” Agholor said of the importance of New England’s success through the air. “If we can pass the ball when they go to the man, now they have to play zone and we can keep hitting them in the middle.”

Jones frustrated a Steelers defense that Joe Burrow sacked seven times a week ago while forcing five turnovers on the Bengals quarterback. While Minkah Fitzpatrick made a first-quarter pick to take the Steelers’ first points, Pittsburgh missed several other opportunities to make big plays against Jones. Jones made them pay in the final minutes of the game as his 5-yard run was one of three third-down conversions New England picked up before starting in the winning formation.

“He’s a smart, breakneck guy who does his readings,” Steelers defenseman Tre Norwood told CBS Sports after the game when asked about Jones. “There’s just things on the defensive side that we need to clean up to make sure we’re more detailed with our assignments and things like that. We just have to make sure we do them whenever we have the opportunity.”

While Sunday’s game bolstered Jones’ ability to win games for the Patriots, Trubisky failed to impress the home crowd in his first start at Acrisure Stadium. Both quarterbacks completed 21 passes while throwing an interception. But Jones threw for 252 yards on 33 attempts to Trubisky’s 168. It was the second time in as many games that Trubisky had failed to get 200 yards through the air.

“They had some things set up and I thought we did a good job of taking them away,” said Devin McCourty, a veteran safety and defense captain for the Patriots. “I thought they had a few plays where they had [Diontae] Johnson shared the safety and we did a good job combining pass rush and coverage.”

The big-play element, something that was missing in Cincinnati last Sunday, was once again nowhere to be found on the Steelers’ offense. Rookie receiver George Pickens, a standout during training camp, ended the game with a catch. Johnson finished as the Steelers’ leading receiver with just 57 yards on six catches. Najee Harris finished second with the Steelers with five catches with almost as many receiving yards (40) as rushing yards (49).

It was Trubisky’s decision to pitch to Harris that drew fan ire on several occasions, particularly during the Steelers’ final two possessions. Both trips ended with Trubisky attempting short passes to Harris. Trubisky’s final throw of the night, an incomplete pass to third and second from the Steelers 28, resulted in a punt with 6:46 left. The Steelers never got the ball back as Jones and the Patriots ran out the clock.

“We can get better at everything,” said Trubisky after the game. “I’m better at making decisions. We’ve had some missed opportunities. I’ve had some missed shots. We’ve had a few where we weren’t on the same page. Bottom line, we need to get more points… It just felt that way , like we missed chances from me and the offensive. There’s a lot where we can get better.”

Steelers fans undoubtedly agree with their quarterback. But Bill Belichick, who has improved 13-4 against Pittsburgh since becoming New England coach in 2000, came to the rescue of the opposing quarterback when asked how his defense prevented the Steelers from making deep shots downfield to do and complete.

“Mitch did a great job taking Najee on some of those checkdowns and they had some wins there,” Belichick said. “He read the defense well. We were back there and he dropped her off. …But I thought they did their checkdowns and certainly hit us on the edge with Johnson and the touchdown (from Trubisky to Pat Freiermuth in the fourth quarter). The checkdowns against Harris were probably a little more productive for him than the game in progress.

A game doesn’t define a season, but it’s safe to say Sunday’s game provided a clear glimpse of where both teams are two weeks into the season. Both teams have good defenses capable of winning games, although the Steelers’ defense needs to get back to backing the quarterback after failing to do so on Sunday. The Patriots have shown that when Jones gets into a rhythm early, like he did Sunday, it can open up the rest of New England’s offense, especially the running game.

From Pittsburgh’s perspective, there’s more to worry about. The Steelers continue to struggle with passing the ball and a lack of big plays from the passing game doesn’t make Harris’ job any easier. If Pittsburgh is to contend for a playoff berth this season, it will need more splash plays from the passing game, especially if the offensive line will continue to struggle to open holes in the running game.

Luckily for the Steelers, they have 15 games left to fix the ship. Pittsburgh’s next game, a Thursday night showdown in Cleveland against the Browns, certainly can’t come soon enough, especially for the quarterback.

“When everyone gets their touches and we move the ball around the field, it feels good,” Trubisky said. “When you miss opportunities, you get that feeling and you just don’t want to feel that again.

The Patriots have a full week before taking on the Ravens in their first home game of the season. And while he certainly won’t bask in Sunday’s win, Belichick has been open about what an early-season win in a hostile environment can do for a team, especially a young one.

“It amplifies the things that we do,” Belichick said. “The way we prepared, the way we played, it was good enough to come here and win against a good football team. … The Steelers are tough. Coach Tomlin, this organization consistently puts out quality football teams and it feels good to come here and win.

“It’s not easy, but we’ll take it.” The Patriots expose Steelers’ troubles at quarterback while getting encouragement from Mac Jones

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