By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — We’ve spent an offseason clamoring over how good the New England Patriots defense could be in 2019. After watching the group hold the high-powered Rams to just three points in the Super Bowl, it was hard not to salivate over the team’s defensive possibilities for the upcoming season.
With those great expectations comes the risk that maybe, perhaps just a tad, we overrated the group. Just a little bit. That doesn’t happen often around these parts, but it does happen.
Rest assured, there was no overrating the New England defense, at least for one week. The Patriots defense was downright dominant against the Steelers on Sunday night, essentially slamming the door on Pittsburgh by halftime of their 33-3 victory. The Steelers had the ball five times in the first half, and they punted away four of those possessions. On three of those, the New England defense forced them to go three-and-out.
The contributions came from every level of the D. Ben Roethlisberger had very little success throwing the football Sunday night, courtesy of Stephon Gilmore’s near lockdown defense on JuJu Smith-Schuster. Pittsburgh’s top receiver was held to just six catches for 78 yards, with 26 of those yards coming on one reception late in the game. The New England secondary threw all kinds of different looks and combinations on the field, and those multiple looks stymied Roethlisberger, who finished with 278 yards and zero touchdown passes.
New England’s linebackers and defensive line shut down Pittsburgh’s running backs early and often, with the Steelers picking up just 32 yards on the ground — total. James Conner carried the ball 10 times, and picked up just 21 yards. Any time he tried to run through a hole, he met a brick wall made up of Dont’a Hightower or Jamie Collins (and on one play, John Simon AND Collins). Both linebackers where everywhere Sunday night, feeding off each other, totaling six tackles apiece.
The defense made plays every time they needed to, allowing Pittsburgh to move the chains on just three of their 12 third-down plays.
“I thought our defensive players played well across the board,” Bill Belichick said after the victory. “It’s hard to get to Roethlisberger. He does a good job back there, but I thought we were around him and covered well, tackled well. Again, this is a very good group of skill players. Our players really competed hard against them. We had a couple of big third-down stops, fourth-down stops, a stop down around the goal line. We made some big plays when we had to.”
The fact this performance came without Kyle Van Noy, who was with his wife as she gave birth to their son, makes it all the more impressive.
“We’ve got a lot of guys that could start on a lot of teams in the NFL, and guys are very selfless,” said Patriots captain Devin McCourty, who picked off a pass from Roethlisberger late in the game. “Come out here, prepare when their number’s called and go out there and play, and I think we’ve just got to keep that mentality all throughout.”
Keeping the Steelers out of the end zone is always an impressive accomplishment, even if they lost two of their most dynamic playmakers over the offseason (one of whom will be wearing a Patriots uniform in the very near future). And more impressive Sundays are in the cards for the Patriots defense, with some rather soft offenses on the horizon. Matchups with the tanking Dolphins, the Jets (twice), the Bills, the Redskins, and the Giants in the coming weeks offer the Patriots defense a chance to sharpen their teeth before the tough part of the season arrives in November. What better way to let the defense jell and build their confidence than games against the likes of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Case Keenum and Eli Manning?
There is still a lot of work to be done and a whole lot of football left to be played. But from what we saw Sunday night, it’s obvious that this Patriots defense has a chance to be something special.