BOSTON -- Ezekiel Elliott hasn't complained. Really, he hasn't. But he's let it be known numerous times throughout this season that he's been feeling great physically, as he's never gotten so few touches in his career.
So when Elliott got his shot to take over as the No. 1 back on Thursday night in Pittsburgh, you had to like the two-time rushing champ's chances to make the most of his opportunity.
And he did.
Elliott was on the field for 52 of the Patriots' 57 snaps. (His previous single-game high was 44 snaps last week, when Rhamondre Stevenson suffered his ankle injury. Prior to that, Elliott was averaging just 23 snaps per game, bottoming out with 15 snaps in Week 12.)
Outside of two Bailey Zappe scrambles and a QB sneak, Elliott handled every single rushing attempt for the New England offense. He did average just 3.1 yards per carry, but in a game where points were going to be at a premium, his dirty work between the tackles was an important part of the Patriots' victory. He also had the stamina to rush five times for 23 yards at the end of the game, when the Steelers' defense knew he was getting the ball.
But Elliott's greatest contributions came as a receiver out of the backfield. He caught seven passes for 72 yards and a touchdown, giving him a team-high 140 yards from scrimmage on the night.
He accounted for 27 of the Patriots' 75 yards on the opening drive, including the final 11 on his catch-and-run for a touchdown.
Safety Damontae Kazee had a chance to win a race to the pylon that play ...
... but he didn't even come close:
With only Ty Montgomery and Kevin Harris behind him on the depth chart, Elliott had to dial back the clock to his days as a No. 1. He came through on that, and even showed that he's capable of making some plays as a defensive player, too.
"I feel good, man. I feel really good," Elliott told NFL Network after the game. "I'm glad I was able to show you guys I still got it."
You'll surely recall that Elliott, after getting dumped by the Cowboys in March, remained without a job until mid-August, when the Patriots came calling with a one-year, $3 million offer. The 28-year-old is obviously not going to lead the league in rushing again, but he's proven he can handle the role of being No. 2 on the depth chart while remaining ready to seize the opportunity presented when the starter goes out.
He may not exactly break the bank with his next deal, but his performance on a national stage should at least be enough to ensure that he'll have an easier time finding employment -- either in New England or anywhere else -- next offseason.
Now let's hit the leftover thoughts from that unique 21-18 win by the Patriots.
--We obviously have to do the quarterback discussion, and fair being fair, this throw by Bailey Zappe certainly ranks among one of the best of the season by any Patriots quarterback:
It was aggressive, and it was risky. It could have been picked off if Kazee had made a better play on the ball. But guess what? He didn't. So it goes down as a touchdown, on the type of chunk play that's been sorely lacking from this Patriots offense all year.
Zappe's other touchdowns -- a pass to the flat to Elliott, and an 8-yard pass to a wide-open Hunter Henry -- weren't difficult passes, but again, those just haven't been there for this offense.
His other big positive play was an 11-yard scramble on third-and-9 on the opening drive, when he froze a defender with a quick pump fake before bursting toward the sticks.
--It was, by and large, basic stuff from Zappe. Nobody would ever be wowed or blown away watching that performance.
But by the standard of 2023 Patriots quarterbacking? It was exquisite. Mac Jones has proven incapable of doing even the simplest of quarterbacking tasks throughout the year, and Zappe was given a second chance to show that he can. As a result, I think you can expect to see Patrick Mahomes vs. Bailey Zappe next weekend at Gillette.
(Zappe also had an interception, plus a near-interception just before the blocked punt, and he threw behind Jalen Reagor on what should have been an easy completion. So it's not as if he lit the world on fire. But again, it's a sliding scale there.)
--Despite all of the poor quarterbacking we've seen this year, I do believe Mitch Trubisky has been the worst of the bunch. That's not to dismiss the work of the Patriots' defense overall, but my goodness. Trubisky probably wouldn't still be in the league if he weren't a No. 2 overall pick (those guys get a lot more chances than others do), and he absolutely sunk the Steelers in this one.
All he had to do was not this:
He ended up making a few plays, throwing a nice touchdown pass to Diontae Johnston to make things interesting late. He started the game going 3-for-8 for 13 yards and an interception on the Steelers' first five drives. It was remarkable, really.
--For as much as Trubisky was a problem, we've got to look at the play-calling decision on a fourth-and-2:
Yes, that was tremendous coverage by Jonathan Jones. Had he committed PI or gotten beat, we'd all be impressed with the aggressive play call by interim OC Eddie Faulkner. But, you know, ifs/buts/candy/nuts. That play might have had a 5 percent chance of resulting in something positive. Maybe the fallback plan of it being picked was appealing to the Steelers' coaching staff.
--This was another fourth-down play by Pittsburgh:
Just, again, we're working in hindsight. But if you were watching that game -- and specifically watching Trubisky -- then you were surely advocating for the Steelers to take the points.
Mike Tomlin explained his thought process there.
"We play to win. We wanted to be aggressive," Tomlin said. "And we just didn't get it done."
Not sure that qualifies as being aggressive.
--OK, one more thing on the Steelers' offense: I had this thought during the game.
I still have that thought, to be quite honest. What an impressive feat. It's hard to do. Eleven plays, 32 yards, three first downs, punt. Just an incredible waste of time. Couldn't do it if you tried.
It's no wonder that seemingly every single Steelers fan in attendance spent the whole night booing.
--Let's appreciate some sports photography for a moment:
Nice. Way to go. Nice job appreciating the photography, everybody.
--The Patriots did get away with one on Trubisky's interception:
Yet just like when J.C. Jackson's pick got called back (for Jackson's own penalty), I was fairly certain that even if this had been flagged, Trubisky would have persevered and thrown a back-breaking pick at some point.
--The biggest break, though, was obviously the bizarre call of this being a false start:
That is ... not a false start? Who knows, though. These people seem to make it up as they go along.
Had that been properly officiated with an offside penalty on Jahlani Tavai, the Steelers would have had a first-and-10 at their own 43-yard line, trailing by three points with 5:06 left in the game. (And Tavai's reaction showed that he clearly believed he had jumped offside. Defensive players always point at anyone they believe might have flinched early after jumping, but Tavai instead was just beside himself for his own error.) But it wasn't. Patriots caught a break.
(We can't pretend the Steelers would have continued their drive and scored if that had been ruled an offside penalty. We just cannot do that.)
--Anfernee Jennings is kind of panning out. He had a tackle for a two-yard loss on a second-and-6 midway through the first quarter, and he overpowered his blocker again for a five-yard tackle for loss early in the second quarter. (Putting the Steelers behind the sticks is an effective way to beat them.)
Three of his four tackles were for a loss, making his presence known. He now has 46 tackles on the season, including eight for a loss.
--Something I believe we all underestimated heading into this game was the JuJu in Pittsburgh factor. JuJu Smith-Schuster entered the game with 170 receiving yards on the entire season. He ended up with 90 receiving yards in this game, including a 37-yarder on the opening drive that he had no business catching:
He also had this 28-yard catch-and-run, one play before the touchdown pass to Hunter Henry:
This was his first game against Pittsburgh after he spent the first five years of his career there. We should have seen it coming! Shame on us!
--OK, I said I'd stop dumping on the Steelers' offense, but I cannot stop!!!
Why would you run that play? Do you know how easy it is to simply not run that play? Extremely easy! One of the easiest things in the world to do is to not run that play. And yet there the Steelers were, running that play.
--This was bad.
Sometimes, the punt team just has a total bust and leaves a rusher unblocked. This time, though, it was just Ty Montgomery getting overpowered by Miles Killibrew. That led directly to the Steelers getting eight of the 18 points they scored all night.
--If you're into the whole draft pick race thing, I have some advice for you: Relax. The players are going to play and the coaches are going to coach, so the Patriots were bound to win again. They were not going to end the season on a 10-game losing streak. They're bad, but not even close to that bad.
And the Cardinals will likely win again, too. They're 2-2 since Kyler Murray reentered the picture four weeks ago, with one of those losses coming by five points. They still have the Bears on their schedule. The 4-9 Commanders could win in either of the next two weeks -- at the Rams, at the Jets. And the 4-8 Bears have a couple of winnable games left on the schedule.
The Patriots won't be "catching" the 1-11 Panthers for the top spot. That's not going to happen. So the Bears, who own the Panthers' pick, can start celebrating. But the rest of it? The Patriots will undoubtedly end up with a top-five pick, and they're very likely to land a top-three pick, and they've got a chance still to land the No. 2 overall pick. It's probably best to just observe and let it all play out instead of obsessing over every development every week. (It is a free country, though, so you do you.)
What really will be fascinating is Week 18. The Jets, who are currently 4-8 and may well be 4-12, will be rolling into Foxboro. The weather's probably going to be gross. The quarterback matchup is anyone's guess. The Bill Belichick future speculation will be humming along. The stadium may be 65 percent full. And some real draft positioning may be on the line for both teams.
That game currently does not have a set date or time. I hereby propose the NFL to schedule it for Monday night. Teams aren't ever scheduled on that last Monday, because some teams will be playing in the postseason the following weekend. But the Patriots and Jets won't. Might as well make a spectacle out of that thing. Bring in Joe Buck, Troy Aikman and the Manning brothers. Hire a halftime performer. Let Rex Ryan stand at the 50-yard line and roast the home fans. Make it a big deal. It's never been done before, but that's a terrible reason to not do it.
Do it, Roger. You won't.
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