Some initial thoughts coming off of Thursday night’s New England Patriots 21-18 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers:
1) On the road in Pittsburgh in a tough environment, the Patriots needed a strong performance from Bailey Zappe and he certainly delivered. The second-year quarterback got into the win column in his second start of 2023, finishing 19-of-28 (67.9%) for 240 yards, including three touchdowns, all of which came in the first-half.
The biggest thing that stood out is the fact that Zappe took a big step forward coming off Sunday’s game in the rain against the Chargers. Some of his issues that we saw with his mechanics, his arm strength, have already improved in just two weeks since his tough second half against the Giants when he took over for Mac Jones during New England’s 10-7 loss at MetLife Stadium.
That’s a sharp contrast to Jones, who talked a lot about things he’s needed to fix, but the improvement didn’t come.
Instead, Zappe’s already looks like a more improved version of the player we saw last season, and he was terrific for much of Sunday’s game. The former Western Kentucky standout showed plenty of confidence, efficiently guiding New England in and out of the huddle while the offense appeared in rhythm during the majority of their offensive possessions.
When it came to his approach, Zappe said after the game that he took what he was given, and there wasn’t a lot of holding onto the football. If the first read was open he threw it, allowing his guys to make plays and move the ball.
“Just doing what I’m coached to do,’ said Zappe. “Going through my reads, first read’s open, take it. We have great playmakers. One-on-one with our guys, we take our guys any day. For anybody to come down to try and tackle Zeke [Elliott] and these guys one-on-one, we like that match-up. So to be able to give the ball to Zeke in the flat like on his touchdown is a match-up that we like.”
It worked out. The Patriots were aggressive early on and it absolutely set the tone.
2) Unlike last week where they played in a downpour, Zappe and the offense were working with much more favorable conditions on a dry cold night in Pittsburgh. He came up with a big throw early, lofting up a pass up the left sideline to JuJu Smith-Schuster on their opening drive, who went up and hauled in a 37-yard grab against Pittsburgh safety Damontae Kazee.
Just like that, they were in Steelers territory. Five plays later, Zappe found Ezekiel Elliott coming off the right side, with the quarterback hitting Elliott in stride near the sideline as he took it in for the touchdown, which gave the Patriots an early 7-0 lead.
Taking control early allowed them to play on their terms. As a result, they were aggressive and went after Mitchell Trubisky, who found himself under a fair amount of pressure for a significant amount of Thursday night’s contest. New England’s defense did a great job of mixing things up and getting him off his spot while also keeping him in the pocket.
That resulted in a fair amount of incompletions in key moments by Trubisky, and an even larger amount of boos that rained down from the stands. All the fans waving their “terrible towels” and thought the Patriots would be an easy victory quickly found out this game was definitely not going to play out that way.
All of that, as well as having to play from behind really disrupted Pittsburgh’s ability on the offensive side of the ball and it allowed the Patriots to maintain control of this one, despite the Steelers’ run at the end.
(PHOTO:Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)
3) Give New England’s defense a lot of credit. They were tenacious all game and really played with a lot of energy, which considering where we are at this point of the season, it’s impressive.
Coming into this game at 2-10, they could have easily folded but instead, it was business as usual. They looked the same this week as they’ve looked all year, likely to the disappointment of Trubisky.
They made him miserable all game long, constantly pressuring him and making it hard for him to escape and make plays with his legs.
For anyone doubting Belichick’s coaching, one thing that stood out was how well prepared they were for Trubisky’s little moves that he used to try to get out of the pocket and take off. They dropped him multiple times and clearly studied it, which was a little nuance that was absolutely noticeable.
However, the biggest moment for this group was when they managed to force what ended up being a key turnover in the game. Jabrill Peppers was the man who made that happen after he came up with a big interception off of Trubisky, which Peppers returned 32 yards down to the Steelers’ 11-yard line.
Two plays later, Zappe fired a strike to Hunter Henry in the back of the end zone, putting the ball up high and over the defenders, right where only the 6’5″ tight end could go up and haul it in for the score.
That caused a collective groan among the legions of the terrible towels at Acrisure Stadium as New England went up 14-3 with 14:14 left to go in the half.
4) One of the most impressive throws of the day by Zappe came later on in the second quarter. After Zappe hit Smith-Schuster for a 28-yard strike down the middle of the field to put them at Pittsburgh’s 24-yard line, he lofted up an unbelievable throw to the left side of the end zone that was just up and out of reach of the defender, and Henry made a terrific grab, pulling it in for the touchdown.
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That was Henry’s second touchdown of the game, which happened to fall on his birthday after the veteran turned 29 on Thursday.
That one also extended New England’s lead to 21-3 with 7:38 left to go in the half, and Henry was happy they finally were able to get in the win column after this one.
“Obviously, we were able to execute at a higher level than we had been and score some points,” said Henry. “So that was definitely huge for us. But starting fast was big, kind of gave us some confidence, and we were able to take advantage of some things early in the first half.”
(PHOTO:Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports)
5) What’s sort of astonishing about what transpired Thursday night was the fact that the Patriots managed to move the ball and have success despite the fact that DeVante Parker, Demario Douglas, and Kayshon Boutte were all inactive.
That left them with just Tyquan Thornton, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Jalen Reagor heading into this one.
Still, one thing to note is the fact they were obviously shut out in the second half, which allowed the Steelers to get back into the game.
After the Patriots went up 21-3, Pittsburgh put up 15 unanswered points and needed New England’s defense to make some plays in the final minutes to close this one out.
Overall, they just couldn’t get much going offensively in the second half. After running 33 plays in the first half, they ran 22 plays in the second half as Zappe completed 5-of-7 (71.4%) for 60yds, managing just 3 offensive first downs. They were also just 1-of-6 on third down over that span.
He also had a key miscue after Zappe forced one ball into coverage on a throw to Smith-Schuster, which was knocked up in the air after he was well-defended and the Steelers came away with it.
Ezekiel Elliott actually came up with a touchdown-saving tackle on that turnover, and that ended up being big because the defense miraculously stopped them from turning it into points and getting onto the scoreboard.
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin told reporters after the game that the fact the Patriots converted points off their turnover and the Steelers didn’t was ultimately what he felt was the difference in the contest.
Needless to say, what Belichick’s team did, despite how depleted they were, was impressive. So give Zappe credit for doing enough to win.
6) As for Elliott, he was unbelievable Thursday night.
The veteran back handled the workload in the absence of Rhamondre Stevenson and was just absolutely terrific.
Elliott finished the night carrying 22 times for 68 yards, as well as hauling in 7 passes for 72 yards along with a touchdown.
That’s 140 total offensive yards, with Smith-Schuster coming in next with 4 catches for 90 yards.
Zappe was impressed with that effort, which clearly played a big role as he improved to 3-1 as a starter.
“To be able to do what Zeke today as far as the run game and the pass game just shows that he’s still the old-time Zeke,” said Zappe. “He still has a lot left in the tank.”
For now, Zappe and the Patriots will have some time off ahead of what’s going to be an interesting game when Kansas City visits Foxboro nine days from now on Sunday, December 17th at 1:00pm.
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