Dominance at line of scrimmage key to Patriots victory

RYAN MCBRIDE/Staff photoPatriots defensive lineman Michael Bennett bottles up Steelers running back James Conner, who couldn't find any room to run against a defensive front seven that won nearly every battle at the line of scrimmage on Sunday.

FOXBOROUGH — When was New England's opening night win over Pittsburgh all but assured? Was it when the Steelers settled for a field goal from the New England 1-yard-line trailing 20-0 early in the second half? Or was it when the Patriots answered with a 58-yard-touchdown to Phillip Dorsett immediately afterwards?

I'd argue it was before any of that, when Pittsburgh still only trailed by 10 with 7:46 to play in the second quarter.

Facing a 3rd and 1 from their own 44-yard-line, the Steelers just needed a short gain to keep their drive alive. Ben Roethlisberger tossed it left to James Conner, and in a perfect world the Pro Bowl running back would have been able to follow his blockers up the field for the first down, and Pittsburgh may have had a chance to cut the deficit to three points.

Instead, nearly the entire Patriots defense rushed into the backfield and Conner was immediately brought down for a four-yard loss. The Steelers punted, and three minutes later Dorsett was in for the 25-yard touchdown to make it 17-0. The Steelers never seriously threatened again.

That play more than any other summed up the root of New England's defensive dominance on Sunday, as the Patriots totally dominated the line of scrimmage from start to finish.

New England only allowed 32 rushing yards on the night, holding the Steelers to just three points while Pittsburgh only went 3 for 12 on third down conversions. 

How did they do it? It started with New England's deep and talented group of edge rushers, who continuously frustrated the Steelers in the running game while keeping Roethlisberger honest with pressure in the pocket. That complemented the interior defenders like Michael Bennett and Dont'a Hightower, and helped make life a lot easier for the secondary.

On the 3rd and 1 stop in particular, the play was doomed from the start when four different Patriots pass rushers either beat their blocker or ran untouched into the backfield. Bennett was first after racing between the center and left guard to seal up the middle, and then Jamie Collins rushed down the left to gobble up Conner for the big loss.

Even if Collins had missed the tackle, Conner would have found John Simon and Stephon Gilmore waiting for him, and if by some miracle he'd managed to cut all the way back to the right side of the field, Shilique Calhoun had maintained his position and would have caught him short of the line anyway.

More impressively, the Patriots were able to do it without starting linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who wasn't in attendance due to the birth of his child.

"We had planned on having five outside linebackers active, so fortunately that was a position we have pretty good depth at," Belichick said. "So the four guys there – Calhoun, [Chase] Winovich, Simon and Jamie – they did a good job. I mean, they all played and I think they all played fairly well on defense as a group. But it was fortunate that we had some depth there."

There were other noteworthy wins for New England at the line as well. A few plays earlier, Simon flattened the 6-foot-9 left tackle Alejandro Villanueva on a bull rush, opening a clear lane to Roethlisberger that forced a rushed throw for an incompletion — though a holding penalty on Ja'Whaun Bentley wound up negating the play.

Later in the second half, after the Steelers had driven to the Patriots six-yard-line, the edge rushers all dropped back into coverage on 1st and goal and locked their men down for more than seven seconds after the snap. That forced Roethlisberger to scramble looking for a man, and eventually Deatrich Wise came around and strip sacked him. Immediately afterwards, Gilmore met Conner at the goal line on second down, and the interior pressure on third down led to a harmless incompletion and the white-flag field goal. 

For all the attention that New England's offense and secondary get, this year's group of edge rushers might also rank among the league's elite. After playing a pivotal role in Super Bowl LIII against the Los Angeles Rams, the group looks even better than ever so far, and if the Patriots are going to potentially compete for a seventh Super Bowl title this winter, they will no doubt play a big part once again.

Mac Cerullo can be reached at mcerullo@gloucestertimes.com. Follow Mac on Twitter at @MacCerullo.

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