FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Zeke's tackle: Running back Ezekiel Elliott's statistical output over his eight-year NFL career is naturally highlighted by his 8,759 rushing yards and 70 touchdowns, as well as his 336 receptions for 2,562 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Then there's this: four tackles.
The most recent, coming in the Patriots' 21-18 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday, was cited by coaches and teammates as a game-saving play that reflects his playing style and respect for the game itself.
"One of the most important plays of the game," offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien said. "That was a great hustle play."
When Steelers linebacker Mykal Walker intercepted quarterback Bailey Zappe at the Patriots' 46-yard line late in the third quarter, the right side of the field was wide open for him to sprint to the end zone.
But Elliott turned around at the 43, got his motor started in the opposite direction as the only player with a chance to make a play, and chased him down before twisting him out of bounds along the sideline at the 16. The defense then held the Steelers on the next four plays -- a critical stretch as the Patriots' control of the game was threatened.
When O'Brien reviewed the play on film, one aspect that stood out to him was the angle Elliott took in pursuit, which is something the team practices when an offensive play suddenly becomes one in which those on the field must become defenders.
And then there was Elliott's mentality, which O'Brien summed up this way: "He realizes the play's never over. He plays to the echo of the whistle."
Elliott's tackle sparked Patriots-centric memories of tight end Benjamin Watson chasing down Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey on a 100-yard interception in the divisional round of the 2005 playoffs -- a play that coaches and teammates have long cited as the standard for elite effort and competitiveness.
In all, Elliott played 52 of 57 offensive snaps on Thursday with coach Bill Belichick noting how, with top running back Rhamondre Stevenson (right high ankle sprain) sidelined, "We needed him to carry the mail, and he did. That was a pro performance."
Zeke is pumped. Still has life in those legs. pic.twitter.com/xIg2Nlrt9F— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) December 8, 2023
His 22 carries for 68 yards, and seven catches for 72 yards and a touchdown, reflected his effectiveness as a dual threat. Zappe said it "just shows he's still the old-time Zeke; he still has a lot left in the tank."
But it was the tackle that had most buzzing -- a play that helps explain why the 28-year-old Elliott has seamlessly integrated himself into the Patriots' locker room after spending the first seven years of his career with the Cowboys.
"Zeke is a good pro," O'Brien said.
2. Mac's fist bump: As Zappe waited next to a door that would take him from the celebratory visitors' locker room into the interview room Thursday night, he was approached by Mac Jones, who extended his right fist to him as a way of saying congratulations. The two fist-bumped. Jones has faded to the background since Zappe has stepped in (no media interviews), and it would be understandable if he had mixed feelings on how things have unfolded. The fist-bump, however, caught this observer's eye.
3. Zappe's calm: Belichick said Zappe has "earned playing time" and thus there's no reason to think Zappe -- who sizzled in the first half Thursday before fading in the second -- won't be starting again when the Patriots host the Chiefs in their next game on Dec. 17. Listening to players and coaches, perhaps the most important thing the QB switch has brought to the offense is a low-pulse approach. Zappe's demeanor was noted by O'Brien, who said, "Zap plays the game calmly."
4. BB with Navy: Belichick said having Saturday's Army-Navy game at Gillette Stadium was special for him, and since the Patriots played on Thursday, it also allowed him to experience everything around the game in a way he hasn't since his college days. Along those lines, Belichick arrived at the Boston hotel where Navy stayed on Friday night and addressed the team. Navy coach Brian Newberry told College GameDay: "He spoke to us for a long time. He had a lot of great messages -- play within yourself, do your job, play for each other, trust your teammates."
5. Draft status: According to ESPN Analytics, the Patriots' chances of landing the No. 1 pick in the 2024 draft dipped from 25% to 7% as a result of their victory on Thursday. They are now tied with the Cardinals for the second-worst record in the NFL, but would pick No. 2 if the season ended today.
6. Snapper infraction: To some, the Patriots might have caught a break when linebacker Jahlani Tavai wasn't penalized for jumping into the neutral zone on a fourth-quarter punt on Thursday night, with Clay Martin's officiating crew instead calling a false start on snapper Christian Kuntz. Patriots special teams coordinator Cam Achord said the crew relayed to the New England sideline that the call was made as a result of Kuntz "sliding the ball and moving his hand at the same time" -- something the league has been "harping on."
7. Run D: Opponents are averaging 3.2 rushing yards per carry against the Patriots, the lowest mark in the NFL and a measure of pride for defenders in a 3-10 season. Multiple players were talking about that in the locker room after Thursday's game. Then, on Friday, defensive line coach DeMarcus Covington said it starts with Davon Godchaux, who is "everything you want in a nose tackle" before he saluted outside linebacker Anfernee Jennings as a "staple" who perhaps hasn't received the appropriate credit.
8. Elliss intel: What type of player did the Patriots get in being awarded linebacker Christian Elliss on waivers from the Eagles? The 6-foot-3, 231-pound Elliss had significant interest across the NFL, with the Cardinals, Titans, Falcons, Broncos and Dolphins also putting in waiver claims, according to ESPN's Field Yates (the Patriots were awarded Elliss by having the worst record).
Elliss, 24, has primarily been a special teamer, but he played 34 snaps on defense in the season-opening game against New England and totaled four tackles. One NFL executive explained why Ellis had appeal to multiple teams: "He's young, can run, is athletic, could possibly play on third down, and is on a cheap contract."
9. They said it: "I don't want to pay for those tickets. I'm still on a rookie contract." -- Zappe, smiling, on why he didn't have any family or friends in attendance on Thursday night for his first NFL start in prime time.
10. Did you know? Zappe's 24-yard touchdown to tight end Hunter Henry on Thursday traveled 22 yards in the air, which was the Patriots' deepest touchdown pass of the season. They had been one of four teams yet to throw a passing touchdown with that many air yards, with the Falcons, Jets and Ravens the others.