PITTSBURGH — Things are changing for the Patriots. On Sunday, for them, change was good.
They got their first tally in the win column. They left Acrisure Stadium with more answers than questions about their offensive line. Their quarterback was healthy enough to joke with teammates in the locker room and chat about Steelers coverages with reporters after the game.
All changes from Week 1. All good.
There were some obvious in-game changes on the field as well that occurred in Pittsburgh. And it’s worth wondering whether or not some of those changes will become a consistent element of what is a coalescing Patriots identity for the 2022 season.
There were changes on the sideline.
Bill Belichick looked far more involved with adjustments on the offensive side of the ball compared to Week 1. There were moments on Sunday when the head coach had his back turned to the field while his defense went to work. Rare.
Instead, he took a knee in front of quarterback Mac Jones and went over pictures from the previous drive. At times — on a knee, by the quarterbacks, with the defense on the field — Belichick was in discussion with his top offensive lieutenants Matt Patricia and Joe Judge.
Another change to the sideline operation? Assistant offensive line coach Billy Yates was on the sidelines for the first half. He’d spent Week 1 and the preseason up at the press-box level for the first half of games before coming down to the field level for the second half. But in Week 2, he was on the sideline — available to help players in-person throughout the game — starting from the beginning.
Belichick said during the week that he liked the way things functioned with Yates upstairs early in the game, but clearly he opted for a change this week, and it looked like that change freed up Patricia to chat with multiple position groups — quarterbacks included — over the course of the game.
Then there were changes on the field.
After relying heavily on 12 personnel in Week 1 — with both highly-paid tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith sharing the field — the Patriots ran almost exclusively 11 personnel Sunday. On 65 non-kneel offensive snaps (including penalties), the team ran out their 12-personnel package just once. They had a 22-personnel snap on Damien Harris’ short-yardage touchdown.
Otherwise? All 11-personnel. Ninety-seven percent of plays came out of one personnel grouping. Over 80 percent of their snaps (54) came from out of the shotgun, too.
The Patriots also made some schematic changes. Though their plan was still not heavily focused on play-action — they ran four on Sunday as opposed to the two they ran last week — they did significantly alter their use of pre-snap motion. After just a handful of motions called in Week 1, they motioned 18 times before snaps against the Steelers.
They pivoted in the running game as well. After running almost exclusively zone runs and “crack” tosses in Week 1, the Patriots were more varied in Week 2. They still ran plenty of inside zone (seven plays) but they also mixed in several wide-zone plays (three) — including two to help the Patriots seal the game in the fourth quarter. Crack toss (two plays), meanwhile, became a much smaller part of the approach. Instead, Patricia called for 10 old-school “power” Patriots runs. Those are of the “gap” variety — not zone — and feature pulling guards.
Both rookie Cole Strange and third-year vet Mike Onwenu had a chance to rumble across the line and downhill to open up lanes for the running backs on power looks, and the Patriots averaged 5.5 yards per carry on those types of runs.
To boil it down: Belichick and Yates became more involved on the sideline with the offense between series; 12 personnel hit the cutting room floor; pre-snap motion dressed up well-worn shotgun formations; and though wide-zone runs finished off the Steelers, “power” runs were resurrected in a major way.
I asked center and captain David Andrews after the game if he felt as though his team was finding out what it did well, what its identity might be.
“I think so,” he said. “I think that’s what this is all for. We gotta figure that out. That’s what the first half of the season is. You want to keep building each week, keep building, keep building. Been on teams that have done that. Been on teams that have kind of rode those waves. You just really want to try to keep building each week, keep executing.
“Look, as a player, the schemes are sometimes going to change. Things are going to change. You just have to go out and execute every day. That’s the biggest thing. Doesn’t really matter. Scheme this. Scheme that. It’s just about execution at the end of the day.”
Kendrick Bourne acknowledged that the offense has evolved despite it still being early in the season.
“We’ve put in a lot,” he said. “We’re not even close, I think, to where we could be. I think that’s the biggest thing with us. There’s so much we can do. And the coaches are doing a good job of keep growing each week. I think they’re learning us as we go. It feels good …
“There’s plenty of things we’ve scrapped. Knowing what we do well at. Them knowing us. Just playing to our strengths. We’re learning that well. Today you could see that. We performed really well. It felt good.”
Jakobi Meyers has seen the adjustments, too.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say a lot of change,” Meyers said, per Andrew Callahan of the Boston Herald, “but I would say our coaches do listen to what we feel like (we) can do and they adjust off that. They’ve really been listening and just working with us and helping us get better so hats off to them.”
The expectation for those in and around the organization last week was that adjustments were coming after Week 1’s disappointment. They came quickly. And in some cases they were drastic. But, in a pass-fail league, they worked. And it seems as though the Patriots are now one week closer to understanding their identity for the 2022 season.
Here are the grades for Week 2 …
Mac Jones would tell you he didn’t play the perfect game on Sunday.
He didn’t see the coverage the way he wanted to on his interception, throwing into Pittsburgh’s “Tampa 2” look. He nearly threw a pick when he threw behind Hunter Henry along the sideline on the first Patriots drive of the game. Then he had another near-interception when he rolled out and had his pass dropped by the Steelers. He was called for intentional grounding. He missed Lil’Jordan Humphrey down the seam, it appeared, for a long gain on a play-action pass. He missed an open Meyers for a third-down conversion late.
But he gave Nelson Agholor a chance to make a game-changing play, he scrambled for a first down on third-and-short on the game-ending drive, and he found success on crossing routes with the Steelers dropping back deep. He also adjusted late to attack the Steelers where they weren’t.
Not his best. But enough to win. Hard to know if he felt rushed after getting pummeled at times behind the line of scrimmage in Week 1. But perhaps a look at the film of his offensive line this week will help him feel more comfortable and confident that he has time in the pocket in Week 3 and beyond.
Running Backs: A-
Rock-solid performance from both Harris (4.7 yards per carry) and Rhamondre Stevenson (5.2). Neither was a major factor in the passing game with Ty Montgomery out — they combined for three catches for 20 yards — but neither seemed to have any pass-protection blunders.
The one miscue here was Harris sliding on the second-to-last run of the game to stay in bounds and keep the clock moving. Not a terrible idea, given the situation. But he slid too soon, about two yards before the first-down marker. Stevenson picked up his teammate, though, and plowed ahead for a game-ending first down on the next snap.
Wide Receivers: B+
Nelson Agholor cracked the 100-yard mark (110 on six grabs) and Jakobi Meyers nearly did the same (95 on nine catches), making this one of the more productive wide receiver days for the Patriots in the early Mac Jones Era.
That there was more left on the table should be encouraging for this group. But it doesn’t get into the “A” range for a few different reasons. Meyers was called for a hold that backed up the Patriots and threatened to end the game-finishing drive before it started.
DeVante Parker’s performance also docked this grade. Only so much he can do to connect with Jones — he told me after the game, the misses on jump balls have been a “timing” issue with he and Jones — but he appeared confused on a route early in the game that led to a delay-of-game penalty on third down and an eventual field goal.
Kendrick Bourne, meanwhile, played 22 snaps and caught two passes for 16 yards.
Tight Ends: D
Henry was curiously only targeted once in this one, and it came on the first drive. Jonnu Smith saw three targets, but he didn’t catch any of them. This group seemed to do just fine in the blocking game — the Patriots sent Smith on the move across the formation to lead the way on a “power” look or two — but for the money they’re making, coming away from a game with zero catches hurts. And it doesn’t seem as though their roles are increasing. After the Patriots worked hard to get them on the field simultaneously in Week 1, that effort was all but completely abandoned in Week 2.
Offensive Line: A-
Jones called the work from this group “amazing,” and maybe he had a point. Jones was really walloped only once, when Trent Brown appeared to allow Alex Highsmith to breeze into the backfield after Highsmith feigned dropping into coverage. Otherwise, he was largely kept clean. And the Patriots were able to run the ball when they needed to, at the end, when the entire stadium knew they were going to run the ball. With a variety of different types of runs.
“As offensive linemen, we got to third-and-three at the end of the game right there, and you’re going back to the huddle saying, ‘Oh man. I hope they call a run here,'” Andrews said. “We went back to it, and finished it. As an offensive linemen it feels really good to end the game that way.”
Special Teams: C
It’d be interesting to see how the Patriots and special teams coach Cam Achord would grade things from this one. His group narrowly avoided disaster when Myles Bryant nearly turned a muffed punt into a safety for the Steelers; it was a touchback. Later his group was gifted an explosive play when Pittsburgh chose not to block gunner Brenden Schooler and then muffed a punt of their own (this one courtesy of former Patriots return man Gunner Olszewski) to put the Patriots in field-goal territory.
The Patriots missed a kick from 53 yards and two of Jake Bailey’s punts went for touchbacks. But, after his gaffe, Bryant had a nice punt return of 16 yards. Kyle Dugger had a 37-yarder, and rookie Pierre Strong took one back 26 yards. It was a bit of a roller coaster day. The gentleman’s “C” here feels right.
Defensive Line: A
The stat line will tell you that the Steelers averaged a pedestrian 4.1 yards per carry in this one. But without an Olszewski end-around for 18 yards — which probably wasn’t on the big bodies on the interior of Bill Belichick’s defensive line — Pittsburgh picked up just 3.5 yards per attempt.
Christian Barmore came up with a sack and Deatrich Wise seemed to be a handful for the shoddy Steelers offensive line all afternoon. Davon Godchaux suffered a back injury in this one, and the Patriots will have to hope that doesn’t impact him moving forward, but that was about the only negative thing you could say about this group over the course of the day, and it had nothing to do with anyone’s play. Nice day for this unit.
This group played penalty-free and managed to come up with several game-changing plays. Matt Judon and Jahlani Tavai both had sacks. Mack Wilson came up with one of the plays of the day when he deflected a Mitch Trubisky pass into the arms of Jalen Mills. And Judon showed up late with a pass deflection on a third-and-two snap late in the fourth quarter when he ran up the sideline with Najee Harris and was in position to let his back (maybe the back of his head?) break up Trubisky’s throw. The Steelers never got the ball back again.
Diontae Johnson picked up a third-and-10 conversion in front of Jonathan Jones early in the second quarter. Moments later, he converted a third-and-17 in front of Jalen Mills. Not exactly an immaculate day for this group, but it was statistically pretty eye-opening.
On a whopping 33 attempts, Trubisky was able to pick up just 168 yards (5.1 per attempt), and Belichick’s defensive backs did their part by limiting yards after the catch. Chase Claypool had just 1.5 yards after the catch per reception, according to Next Gen Stats. Johnson sat at a meager 0.6 yards after the catch per reception. (Agholor, for comparison, was 10th in the league in that category for Week 2, going into Sunday Night Football with 6.9 yards after the catch per reception.)
Mills came up with a turnover, and Adrian Phillips — limited in practice this week with a rib issue — came up with a key third-down tackle in the fourth quarter to force a three-and-out with the Patriots leading by three.