Phil Perry

Patriots-Steelers Report Card: Zeke Elliott gives vintage performance

Several players stepped up to deliver an upset in Pittsburgh.

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PITTSBURGH -- The Patriots weren't expected to score many points Thursday night in Pittsburgh. But not only did they score three first-half touchdowns, they upset the Steelers 21-18 at Acrisure Stadium for their third win of the season.

The offense was red-hot in the first half but cooled off considerably over the final 30 minutes of the game. Luckily for the Patriots, the defense was excellent yet again, particularly against the run. This group has held the opponent to 20 points or fewer in five consecutive games.

Special teams was the only phase of the game that really struggled for New England.

Overall, it was a solid outing for a Patriots team that had lost five conseuctive games entering Thursday. Which players and position groups stood out for good and bad reasons in Pittsburgh?

Let's get to our Week 14 grades...

Quarterback: C+

Bailey Zappe scrambled for a key first down. He scrambled and wisely threw one out of bounds to avoid a sack. He made accurate-enough throws to JuJu Smith-Schuster and Hunter Henry -- by his own admission, the 37-yarder to Smith-Schuster and the long touchdown to Henry weren't exactly where he wanted them -- for massive first-half plays.

His first touchdown to Henry was well-placed high to the back of the end zone.

But a second-half pick to go along with just 44 yards passing in the final 30 minutes made this winning performance an incomplete one.

Zappe also had some head-scratching first-half throws -- a throw-away from a clean pocket, a late slant, an odd floater placed between Henry and Smith-Schuster -- to keep this grade in the "C" range.

Running back: A

Ezekiel Elliott said after Week 13 against the Chargers -- when he had to shoulder most of the load with Rhamondre Stevenson injured -- that he felt fine physically. He looked better than that just four days later.

On his second touch, he picked up 12 yards as a receiver and forced a missed tackle with a quick lateral move. His effort to bee-line it to the end zone on this 11-yard touchdown catch showed a little juice, too.

He did have a drop on the lone target sent his way that didn't result in a completion. But he finished with seven grabs for 72 yards and 68 tough yards rushing on 22 carries. Additionally, his best play of the night might've been a tackle on Zappe's pick that prevented the Steelers from getting into the end zone. Huge effort play.

"I feel so good," he said after the win. Hard not to believe him.

Wide receiver: B

Tyquan Thornton was mostly quiet but checked in with a nice 11-yard grab along the boundary. But it was Smith-Schuster who stood out most with DeVante Parker, Kayshon Boutte and Demario Douglas all out due to injury.

He finished with a season-high 90 yards on four catches, highlighted by his contested 37-yard down-field completion that had to be wrestled away from his defender and sparked the first opening-drive touchdown of the season for New England. 

Tight end: A-

Hunter Henry's first touchdown, getting both feet in after leaping in the back of the end zone, was impressive. His second, outstretched down the field with a safety bearing down on him, was even better.

He finished with three catches, including a key first-down conversion, for 40 yards. And he was at the point of attack with fellow tight end Pharaoh Brown when Elliott was sprung for a 12-yard run that essentially iced the game.

The only reason this isn't a straight "A" is because of a pair of penalties Henry incurred, one offensive pass interference and one false start. Otherwise, not a bad way to celebrate a 29th birthday.

Offensive line: B

Getting the running game going was a bit of a chore, with Elliott averaging just a shade over 3.0 yards per carry in this one. But with Trent Brown and Conor McDermott platooning at left tackle… with Mike Onwenu coming off one of the worst games of his career just four days prior… this group had one of its best pass-protection days of the season.

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Yes, Alex Highsmith (neck) had to leave the game early. Yes, T.J. Watt was banged up on the first play of the game and limited all night. Still, to allow just two sacks — both of which came on stunts that stressed New England’s ability to communicate and pass off assignments — has to be considered a win.

Onwenu, a free agent this offseason, might’ve made himself some money keeping Watt off of Zappe and without a sack. 

Special teams: D

Blocked punt allowed by Ty Montgomery. Personal foul penalty by an emotionally overheated Brenden Schooler. Multiple touchbacks by Bryce Baringer who couldn’t consistently rein in his punting power when there was an opportunity to pin the Steelers deep. Just a rough night at the office for this group. And had they been flagged for offsides late in the fourth quarter — instead the Steelers were penalized for a false start when their long-snapper lifted his head — this grade would drop even further. 

Defensive line: A-

Thursday night in Pittsburgh was a party where everyone from this unit was invited. Contributions came from across the board, led by Christian Barmore (one sack, three pressures), Davon Godchaux (two run-stuffs, one pressure), Keion White (one quarterback hit, one pressure), Lawrence Guy (one run stuff) and Deatrich Wise (tackle for loss on a sniffed-out reverse).

To allow just 2.9 yards per carry is a credit to the work of this group as well. With a quarterback whose greatest strength is his legs in Mitch Trubisky and two backs with real talent in Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren, only 82 yards rushing is eye-popping.

Maybe it shouldn’t be anymore. This has been one of the league’s best run defenses all season...

Linebacker: A-

…And the linebackers in New England have had plenty to do with that as well. They were once again rock solid in the running game. Anfernee Jennings (tackle for loss) and Mack Wilson (sack) began the game with negative plays and this unit continued to roll from there.

Jennings had two more tackles for loss as a dominant edge-setter on early downs. Wilson had a fourth-and-2 stop deep in Patriots territory (following a Zappe pick) that kept the Steelers out of the end zone, and he also broke up a trick-play pass at the goal line that earned him a low-five from Bill Belichick.

Jahlani Tavai added a run stuff and 15 total tackles. Ja’Whaun Bentley added a quarterback hit and seven tackles of his own. 

Secondary: B+

Jonathan Jones has played some of his best football of the season over the last couple of weeks. He was the most fired-up person in the stadium when he helped break up a fourth-down fade he knew was coming his way on the second-to-last Steelers drive of the game.

“It’s gotta be big plays (for that outpouring),” he said. “We needed this one. It’s been a while. It’s gotta take a big play to get me fired up like that and I feel like that was one.”

He also stuffed a screen and a shallow cross for a total of one yard gained thanks to strong tackles. Kyle Dugger picked up a pass interference penalty but also broke up two Trubisky throws and generated a pressure as a blitzer that helped lead to an instinctive Jabrill Peppers pick.

Strong game from Myles Bryant, too, who had a tackle for loss and a half sack as a blitzer. Bringing this grade down was a pair of defensive pass interference calls on J.C. Jackson, who was also on the scene for Trubisky’s 25-yard touchdown pass late in the second quarter. 

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