FOXBORO, Mass. — A banner raising. Then, a butt-whooping.
After celebrating their Super Bowl LIII championship during a pregame ceremony Sunday night, the New England Patriots delivered a similarly dominant defensive performance, smothering Ben Roethlisberger and the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers in a 33-3 thrashing at Gillette Stadium.
“Well,” head coach Bill Belichick said afterward, “it’s always good to start off the season like that.”
Facing a Steelers offense that, while lacking the services of former stars Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, still boasts a top-tier QB in Roethlisberger and 2018 Pro Bowlers at receiver (JuJu Smith-Schuster) and running back (James Conner), the Patriots matched their defensive output from Super Bowl LIII, surrendering just one field goal over 11 Pittsburgh possessions.
The Steelers went 3-for-12 on third downs — including three stops on third-and-1 — and 1-for-3 on fourth downs. They didn’t run a play in Patriots territory until the final two minutes of the first half and reached the red zone just once. New England intercepted one pass (by Devin McCourty late in the game) and broke up eight others.
“I feel as though everyone was just doing their job,” safety Patrick Chung said. “When it comes down to it, it’s just everyone doing their job. As soon as one person becomes selfish, that’s when we give up the big plays. Everyone is just playing together, and hopefully we can do that for the remainder of the season.”
Smith-Schuster, whom J.C. Jackson kept in check when these teams met at Heinz Field last December, received the same treatment from Stephon Gilmore, who held Pittsburgh’s top target to four catches on six targets for 43 yards. (Smith-Schuster had two late catches against other defenders to finish with a more respectable six-for-78 line).
“Steph is just a silent assassin,” safety Duron Harmon said. “He doesn’t say much, but he goes out there each and every week, locked-in, focused and plays as hard as anybody on the team. We knew we liked that matchup. We were just going to leave Steph alone and let him do what he did.”
The Steelers’ other wideouts didn’t provide much support.
Slot man Ryan Switzer caught six passes but managed just 29 yards. Rookie Diontae Jackson had three catches for 25. Promising second-year pro James Washington did beat Jason McCourty for one 45-yard gain — easily Pittsburgh’s biggest play of the night — but caught just one other pass for 6 yards on six total targets. And McCourty bounced back with a pass breakup in the end zone on the ensuing play, one of a team-high three he made on the night.
The wooden spoon, though, went to No. 2 receiver Donte Moncrief, who finished with three catches for a paltry 7 yards on 10 targets.
Conner fared no better as a rusher, carrying 10 times for 21 yards in the loss.
All told, it was a thoroughly dominant performance by a Patriots defense that typically doesn’t hit its stride until midseason. Before Sunday, New England hadn’t allowed fewer than 20 points in a season opener since 2012 and hadn’t allowed fewer than 10 since 1997.
The 2018 Patriots surrendered 20-plus points in six of their first seven games and 30-plus in three of those before dialing in down the stretch.
Multiple players credited the group’s experience and familiarity for this early effectiveness. Eight of the Patriots’ 11 defensive starters Sunday played in Super Bowl LIII, and of the three newcomers, one is entering his second stint with the team (Jamie Collins) and another is entering his 11th pro season (Michael Bennett). Outside linebacker Shilique Calhoun, who was thrust into the starting lineup while Kyle Van Noy attended the birth of his first child, was the only true greenhorn in the group.
“It’s a step,” Harmon said. “At the end of the day, we’re going to go back and we’re going to look at the film. There’s some things that we’re going to feel like we did better and some plays that we’re going to want back. But any time you can start the way we started this week, it’s a good thing. It’s a good stepping stone.”
The Patriots will look to take another step forward next Sunday when they visit a Miami Dolphins team that opened its season with a 59-10 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
Thumbnail photo via Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports Images