With the turmoil of “Deflategate” behind him, Tom Brady couldn’t have asked for a better start to his 2015 regular season.
The veteran quarterback threw four touchdowns, including three to tight end Rob Gronkowski, helping carry the New England Patriots to a 28-21 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers at Gillette Stadium on Thursday night.
The evening started out on a high note for the Patriots as the team unveiled its fourth championship banner prior to kickoff. Brady looked to be in championship form himself once he took the field, picking apart the Steelers secondary for the better part of four quarters.
The 38-year-old completed 25 of his 32 passes for 288 yards, including 19 consecutive completions during the second and third quarter.
Brady’s brilliant play helped the Patriots jump out to leads of 14-0 and 21-3 against a shorthanded Steelers roster that was without a pair of key offensive weapons (Le’veon Bell, Martavis Bryant) due to suspension. Pittsburgh cut the deficit to seven points early in the fourth quarter, but Brady responded with a 79-yard drive, capped by a one-yard touchdown pass to Gronkowski.
Three Things We Learned:
1. No preseason, no problem for Gronkowski - Second-year linebacker Ryan Shazier told reporters this week that the Steelers felt they could use their physicality to “slow” Gronkowski down in the season opener. The tight end made the Pittsburgh defense eat those words on Thursday night.
Brady’s favorite target caught five balls for 94 yards, including three in the red zone for touchdowns, showing no signs of rust after sitting out all four games of New England’s preseason. A 52-yard catch-and-run on New England’s final scoring drive was the play of the night, followed closely by a crucial fumble recovery at the Steelers’ goal-line later in the drive. With new teammate Scott Chandler (one-yard TD catch) lining up as a secondary receiver with size in the red zone, Gronkowski looks poised to make a bigger impact than ever this season.
2. Malcolm Butler holds his own in starring role - After top corners Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner found new homes in the offseason, the Patriots turned to the Super Bowl hero to take more of a leading role in the secondary. Butler faced a stiff test in his debut start against Antonio Brown, one of the top wide receivers in the league, but he stood his ground against the speedster.
Brown caught nine balls for a game-high 133 yards, but two of those catches came in the closing moments of the fourth quarter with the game out of reach. Butler contained Brown for much of the contest, ensuring Brown’s stellar ability did not become a game-changer within the Steelers’ offense. Butler has plenty of room to grow, but the second-year cornerback delivered a promising effort in week one.
3. Dion Lewis makes case for more opportunity - The 24-year-old running back took advantage of the absence of LeGarrette Blount (suspension) to impress as the team’s lead back. In his first NFL action since the 2012 season, Lewis showed versatility and shiftiness in the running game (69 yards on 15 carries). He also was a dangerous target for Brady coming out of the backfield (four catches, 51 yards). A fourth quarter fumble at the goal line could put him in Bill Belichick’s doghouse for the foreseeable future, but his overall production makes him a viable third-down option for the team moving forward.