PITTSBURGH -- Relief and exhaustion were written across Mac Jones' face as the second-year quarterback addressed the media following the Patriots' 17-14 win over the Steelers in Week 2. Sunday's win came after a trying week for Jones, who overcame illness and a back injury to lead New England to victory.
In outplaying his counterpart, Mitch Trubisky, Jones and his teammates rebounded from last Sunday's shaky season opener in Miami by defeating a Pittsburgh team that was flying high after its Week 1 upset win over the defending AFC champions. The Steelers weren't able to duplicate that magic on Sunday, however, with Jones doing his best Tom Brady impression in leading New England to victory.
"Obviously, we wanted to improve a lot of things," said Jones, who won his 11th start in the NFL. "We had a chance to do that throughout the week; that's where it all started. ... Offensive line played amazing, didn't really even get hit, so hats off to them. Run game, pass game, they made it work, so that was something I was really proud of. That's something that we've got to keep doing."
Jones not getting hit -- or sacked, to be more specific -- is not a good sign for the Steelers and coach Mike Tomlin, whose best player, T.J. Watt, was out on Sunday and will miss at least the next three games while on IR. Jones took advantage of Watt's absence, as he stood tall in the pocket while completing an array of completions through the middle of Pittsburgh's defense. Jones also went deep while delivering a massive blow just before halftime when he threw a 44-yard dime to Nelson Agholor that gave New England a 10-3 halftime lead.
Unlike their loss in Miami, the Patriots' early success throwing the ball (Jakobi Meyers had three big catches on New England's first drive that ended in a field goal) opened things up for their ground attack. Led by Damien Harris, the Patriots ran for a workmanlike 124 yards on 31 carries. Harris' 2-yard touchdown run in the third quarter gave the Patriots a 17-6 lead, three plays after Brenden Schooler's recovery of Gunner Olszewski's muffed punt gave New England the ball at the Steelers' 10-yard line.
"It allows us to run the ball well when we beat man-to-man, because that's a defense's counter," Agholor said of the importance of New England's success through the air. "If we can pass the ball when they go man, now they have to play zone, and we're able to gash them more down the middle."
Jones frustrated a Steelers defense that a week ago sacked Joe Burrow seven times while forcing five turnovers from the Bengals quarterback. While Minkah Fitzpatrick did come up with a pick in the first quarter to set up the Steelers' first points, Pittsburgh missed several other opportunities to come up with big plays against Jones. Jones made them pay during the game's final minutes, as his 5-yard run was one of three third-down conversions New England picked up before lining up in victory formation.
"He's a smart, above-the-neck type of guy who was making his reads," Steelers defensive back Tre Norwood told CBS Sports after the game when asked about Jones. "There's just things on the defensive side that we need to clean up to make sure we're more detailed with our assignments and things like that. Just making sure we're executing whenever we have a chance to."
While Sunday's game reinforced Jones' ability to win games for the Patriots, Trubisky was unable to win over the home crowd in his first start inside Acrisure Stadium. Both quarterbacks completed 21 passes while throwing one interception. But Jones threw for 252 yards to Trubisky's 168 on 33 attempts. It marked the second time in as many games that Trubisky failed to reach 200 yards through the air.
"They had some things set up, and I thought we did a good job of taking it away," said Patriots veteran safety and defensive captain Devin McCourty. "I thought they had a couple of plays where they had [Diontae] Johnson split the safeties and we did a good job of marrying up pass rush and coverage."
The big-play element, something that was missing last Sunday in Cincinnati, was again nowhere to be found inside the Steelers' offense. Rookie receiver George Pickens, a standout during training camp, finished the game with one catch. Johnson finished as the Steelers' leading receiver with just 57 yards on six catches. Najee Harris was second on the Steelers with five catches with nearly as many receiving yards (40) as rushing yards (49).
It was Trubisky's decision to throw short to Harris that drew the ire of the fans on several occasions, particularly during the Steelers' final two possessions. Both drives ended with Trubisky attempting short passes to Harris. Trubisky's final throw of the night, an incomplete pass on third-and-2 from the Steelers' 28-yard line, led to a punt with 6:46 left. The Steelers never got the ball back as Jones and the Patriots ran out the clock.
"We can be better at everything," Trubisky said after the game. "I can be better at decision-making. We had some missed opportunities. I had some missed throws. We had a couple where we weren't on the same page. Bottom line, we've to go score more points. ... It just felt like we missed opportunities by me and the offense. There's a lot we can get better at."
Steelers fans undoubtedly agree with their quarterback. But Bill Belichick, who improved to 13-4 against Pittsburgh since becoming New England's coach in 2000, came to the opposing quarterback's aid when asked about how his defense was able to prevent the Steelers from taking and completing deep shots downfield.
"Mitch did a great job of taking Najee on some of those checkdowns, and they had some gains there," Belichick said. "He read the defense well. We were back there, and he dropped it off. ... But I thought they took their checkdowns and certainly hit us on the perimeter with Johnson and the touchdown (from Trubisky to Pat Freiermuth in the fourth quarter). The checkdowns to Harris probably were a little more productive for him than the running game was."
One game doesn't define a season, but it's safe to say that Sunday's game offered clear insight as to where both teams are two weeks into the season. Both teams have good defenses that are capable of winning games, although the Steelers' defense will have to get back to putting the quarterback on his back after failing to do so on Sunday. The Patriots showed that, if Jones can get into a rhythm early like he did on Sunday, that can open up the rest of New England's offense, specifically the running game.
There's more to be concerned about from Pittsburgh's perspective. The Steelers continue to struggle to run the ball, and the lack of big plays from the passing game isn't making Harris' job any easier. If Pittsburgh is going to contend for a playoff spot this season, it's going to need more splash plays from the passing game, especially if the offensive line is going to continue to struggle to pry open holes for the running game.
Fortunately for the Steelers, they have 15 games left to right the ship. Pittsburgh's next game, a Thursday night showdown in Cleveland against the Browns, surely can't come soon enough, especially for the quarterback.
"When everybody gets their touches and we're moving the ball down the field, that's when it feels good," Trubisky said. "When you miss opportunities, that's when you have a feeling like this, and you just don't want to feel that again."
The Patriots have a full week before they take on the Ravens in their first home game of the season. And while he certainly won't bask in Sunday's win, Belichick was open about what an early-season win in a hostile environment can do for a team, particularly a young one.
"It reinforces the things that we're doing," Belichick said. "They way we prepared, they way we played, it was good enough to come in here and win against a good football team. ... The Steelers are tough. Coach Tomlin, this organization consistently puts out high-quality football teams, and it feels good to come in here and get a win.
"It's not easy, but we'll take it."