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Curran: Patriots' offense gains much-needed traction vs. Steelers

NBC Sports
Damien Harris

Helllllooooooo, offensive competency!!!

Man, it’s good to see ya. Been waiting for you to show up consistently for, hell, I don’t know … since the end of July? Yeah, end of July. Anyway, not sure how long you can stay. But thanks for stopping in!

Facts is facts, and the Patriots' win in Pittsburgh was by no means a jaw-dropper. We had them winning 13-9 in a rock fight. Most everyone else felt the same.

And it says something about our offensive expectations when we’re mildly giddy even though the Patriots have only two touchdown drives of ordinary length in 18 possessions this year.

We’re not gazing upon the football Rembrandts that we’d see produced weekly by the Brady-McDaniels pairing.

But Sunday’s game -- the final quarter in particular -- was Matt Patricia’s finger-painted masterpiece.

Patriots Talk: The Aftermath: Patriots, Patricia get some vindication in Pittsburgh | Listen & Subscribe | Watch on YouTube

Leading 17-14 after Pittsburgh scored on the first play of the fourth, you could easily envision the Patriots having control of the game pried loose. They needed Patricia, their play-caller/de facto offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, to pull the right levers and push the right buttons. Otherwise, an 0-2 start and a truckload of negativity were in his immediate future.


The Patriots got an eight-play drive that went from their 28 to the Steelers 40. It consumed nearly four minutes and included a third-and-8 third-down conversion after a sketchy holding call on David Andrews put them in second-and-17. The series ended when a back-shoulder throw to DeVante Parker came up short on third-and-5. User error.

The Patriots defense -- which has allowed only two sustained touchdown drives in two games -- spit Mitch Trubisky off the field in three plays. Now 9:40 remained. The Patriots went three-and-out. Disappointing. But no big deal because again the New England defense forced a three-and-out.

Taking over at their own 30 with 6:33 remaining, the Patriots overcame a second-and-13 after a hold on Jakobi Meyers by getting a third-and-2 conversion on a Mac Jones scramble. They then ripped off runs of 6, 8, 16, -2, 9 and 5 yards against a Pittsburgh defense that knew -- KNEW -- it was going to be run against. The final two of those runs were the stretch-run plays with zone blocking that the Patriots floundered with during install. They’ve come a long way, baby.

Perry's Report Card: Offensive changes pay dividends in Pittsburgh

Outsmarting a defense is fun. Overpowering it is a different level. The only overpowering thing about the Patriots offense in August was the stench rising when they tried to run the football and got stuff, stuff, stuffed repeatedly.

For them to go into Pittsburgh a week after a tepid showing in Miami and close the game on the ground was a huge step. Was it vindication? Does this put to rest all conversation about whether the bubble gum-and-popsicle-stick repair to the offensive coaching staff was a bad idea? Oh no.

But it does serve as validation that, A) the Patriots have the capability and the personnel to execute the wide-zone runs, B) the patience Bill Belichick requested was rewarded in Week 2, and C) a complementary win on the road was possible.

A one-play touchdown drive to ice Sunday’s game would have been less rewarding than what the Patriots executed.

But, as wide receiver Nelson Agholor indicated, this was a step. Not a destination.

I hope that this game is a stepping stone towards where we’re headed. ... I want it to be, 'OK, we see some good stuff. Now let’s get better from here.'

Nelson Agholor

"I hope that this game is a stepping stone towards where we’re headed," said the wideout, who had his best game as a Patriot (six catches on six targets for 110 yards and a TD). "I don’t want this to be like, 'Hey, this is our identity.' I want it to be, 'OK, we see some good stuff. Now let’s get better from here.'"

"Better" in Week 2 consisted of erasing the cataclysmic plays Belichick fingered as being the reason for the Week 1 loss. For instance, there were no offensive line breakdowns, period. To do that against a defense that had seven sacks and four picks in its season-opening win over Cincy and had former Patriots defensive coordinator Brian Flores in the house helping? That’s a vast improvement.


Meanwhile, one has to have a new sense of appreciation for the defensive job the Patriots did against Jaylen Waddle and Tyreek Hill in Week 1. They combined for nine catches on 17 targets for 163 yards and a TD in the Dolphins' 20-7 win. On Sunday, they caught 22 of the 32 passes Tua Tagovailoa sent their way against the Ravens with 361 yards and four touchdowns between them. HA!

There’s more than enough for the Patriots to keep sorting out.

They almost have too many options in the passing game right now and -- as a result -- Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry and Parker came out of Sunday with zero combined catches on six targets.

The sideline operation sometimes seems to be sideways, resulting in the play clock dwindling too often.

Jones’ C-level arm strength anytime he’s even a little off-platform remains. His lone interception Sunday came on a throw that begged to be on a lower trajectory over the helmet of the linebacker, not on a throw with the amount of arc he put on it.

But after a summer of discontent, focusing on anything but an optimism-generating win is missing the forest for the trees. Happy Monday.