The Pittsburgh Steelers lost their season opener 28-21 to the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots on Thursday night at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts in the inaugural game of the 2015 NFL season. The overturning of Tom Brady’s 4-game suspension in relation to DeflateGate was the major storyline coming in, as Brady won his appeal in Federal court and was able to play. But some other key figures on both teams would sit this one out. Both starting running backs, Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrett Blount, were out due to drug suspensions, as was Steelers receiver Martavis Bryant. And both starting centers, Maurkice Pouncey and Bryan Stork, were placed on the injured reverse-designate list, and missed this one and will miss at least the first half of the season.
The Steelers came into this game with high expectations for the offense and big questions surrounding the defense. Reminiscent of many games last year, the offense delivered on the stat sheet but not on the scoreboard. On the defensive side the front seven was adequate, but the secondary was a gaping black hole. The Steelers lost the turnover battle 1-0, they continued to show an inability to manage the clock efficiently at the end of halves and they had major communication problems on defense. Nonetheless they still were in the game in the fourth quarter. But all the issues mentioned above sealed their fate and a TD with two seconds left was only meaningful in Vegas.
Sean Spence suffered an hamstring injury and Will Allen was being checked for a possible concussion. The extent of both injuries will be know later in the week.
Similar to much of last season the offense was incredibly productive when you look at the stat sheet. But the real answer, unfortunately, leads off “The Bad” segment below. Having said that, there were some notable positives.
*I don’t know what more to say about Antonio Brown. There isn’t a better wideout in the game. His first catch, wrestling it off a defender’s helmet, and his last catch, behind a defender in the corner of the end zone for a TD, are as good as you will see. In between he caught 7 more and finished with 9 for 133. I know it’s fashionable to mock his 5 catches/50 yards “record,” but he’s now done it for 33 straight games. No one else has ever done it for 20.
*I said repeatedly during the preseason that nobody was more impressive than DeAngelo Williams and he didn’t disappoint in his first Steelers start. He went for 18 on the Steelers first play from scrimmage and finished the night with 127 yards on 21 carries. He showed great vision, elusiveness and an ability to both run between the tackles and get around the edge. He looks to be an excellent addition to be paired with Le’Veon Bell when he returns in week 3.
*It wasn’t gold stars all-around for the offensive line as they were responsible for five penalties, but they did an excellent job of opening holes in the running game and giving Ben time to throw.
*Heath Miller and Markus Wheaton both had solid games. Miller caught 8-for-84 and drew a pass interference penalty in the end zone and Wheaton had 3-for-55 including an outstanding 26-yard catch down the right sideline.
I went back and read what I wrote about last year’s season-ending playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Here are the paragraphs that recapped that loss and perfectly summarize again what happened tonight:
I hardly need to alter what I wrote last week when commenting on “The Bad” from the offense Saturday night in the regular season finale. Here are the quotes from last week with my comments from this week in bold.
*While the individual stats continue to tantalize, it’s hard not to feel the Steelers offense has underperformed over the last six or seven games. They’ve only put up more than 20 points one time (excluding garbage points vs New Orleans). They are going to need to score more to have success in the playoffs.”
They didn’t. 193 yards and 20:55 of possession in the first half only led to three field goals and 9 points. The Steelers had the ball inside the Ravens 40 on six different drives but only scored 15 points on the night. Clearly not good enough.
More of the same against the Pats. The Steelers piled up 464 yards of total offense, but on their three drives in the first quarter they gained 145 yards but came away empty due to two missed field goals. Early in the fourth quarter, with a first down on the one after an interference penalty set-up a chance to cut the lead to 3, they ended up settling for field goal. The second touchdown came with 00:02 seconds left and the outcome decided. The stats look good. The points on the scoreboard don’t.
*Darrius Heyward-Bey had 4 catches for 58 yards including a nice 43-yarder down the right sideline, but he blew an easy touchdown catch in the third quarter not being fully aware of where he was in the end zone, catching the ball with a foot on the chalk. The Steelers ended up settling for a FG and went into halftime down 14-3 instead of 14-7.
*I find Ben Roethlisberger’s performance difficult to grade. He made some great throws, his receivers made some excellent catches and he finished with 351 yards on 26/38 and a passer rating of 95.4. But after a very good first half, Ben wasn’t nearly as good in the 2nd. Starting from his own 20 with 9:20 left in the game down 28-14 he made two of his worst throws of the night on 2nd & 3rd and 3. He followed that up with an interception on the next drive on a pass that was terribly underthrown. He also needs to relay a greater sense of urgency to the offense, getting them lined up more quickly when their is time pressure. We again saw a lack of urgency/clock awareness in this one. Some of that has to fall on the quarterback.
*The false start penalty on Kelvin Beachum on 3rd-and-goal from the 1 was a killer. Instead of 21-18, they settled for a FG and 21-14.
*Not a ton of defensive stars or highlights in this one. As a whole I thought the front seven played reasonably well. Bud Dupree got a sack on his first professional snap (yes, the Pats blew the blocking scheme, but that’s not Bud’s fault) and Will Allen contributed with a big sack on a safety blitz on a key third down forcing the Pats to punt.
*Both Steve McLendon and Ryan Shazier looked solid. Shazier registered five solos tackles and two tackles for loss and showed the explosiveness and sideline-to-sideline speed that made him a first round pick last year.
*Jarvis Jones showed a bull-rushing capability off the right side that we really hadn’t seen before in his young career.
*The Steelers secondary was terrible. It was the biggest concern for the team coming into the game and it is an even bigger one now. There were multiple blown coverages, many on Rob Gronkowski somewhat unbelievably, and a bunch of missed tackles. The players either don’t understand the scheme or aren’t able to execute it. Unfortunately I think it’s both. I could go through play-by-play and talk about the miscommunication, but I try to keep this recap under 2,000 words. Seven different defensive backs saw snaps in the game. Brandon Boykin wasn’t one of them. Presumed starter Shamarko Thomas played four snaps and Antwon Blake played 52 vs. 36 for Cortez Allen, the guy in the second year of a 5-year, $26 million deal. Not good.
*The Patriots were 7/11 on third down and 4/4 in the red zone.
*Did I mention the secondary?
*The Steelers coverage units looked good in limited opportunities.
*Not how Josh Scobee wanted to start his Steelers career.
*I liked the the offensive game plan. The Steelers repeatedly took shots down the field and had success. In the first half Ben hit DHB for 43 yards on 3rd-and-8 from their own 22. On the very next drive he hit AB for 37 yards on 3rd-and-6 from their own 21. The second play in particular was great play design, getting AB lined up in the slot for a favorable matchup.
*The running game was outstanding, gaining 134 yards on 25 attempts, 5.4 ypc.
*An excellent decision by Mike Tomlin to go for it on 4th-and-3 from the NE 35 with 48 seconds left in the first half. The Steelers converted, but it went off-the-rails after that.
Play-calling is everyone’s favorite topic and one I generally try to avoid, but there were two plays in this one that deserve mention.
*On the sixth play of the Steelers opening drive they tried a double-pass with Antonio Brown. On their first five plays they had gained 56 yards and three first downs and moved the ball to the NE 24. I’m a fan of gadget plays, so I don’t like to criticize this one, but it seemed to be an odd time for that call. Gadget plays that don’t work will always get crushed by the fans. Hard not to side with them here.
*Early in the 4th quarter the Steelers were facing a 3rd-and-goal from the NE 5 down 21-11. They ran a draw with D’Angelo Williams that got stuffed for a 1-yard loss. It’s unclear at this point whether Ben had a run/pass option and called the run play or it came from the sideline. Either way, in that game-situation, it was a poor call.
Clock management. #Clockmanagement. I have hammered this topic so many times, I’m actually tired of it.
*The Steelers made a terrible decision at the end of the first half not calling a time out after a running play from the Pats 31 with 43 seconds left. After running one more play, the TD DHB should have caught in-bounds, they didn’t get the next play off until there were 13 seconds left. Then, they used one of their two timeouts with the clock stopped. Now on 3rd-and-5 from the 26 they’re stuck. Get a first down and they’d have to most-likely use their last time out and only have time for a FG. They may well have left 4 points on the board. And that was the half that was the better of the two.
*The Steelers got the ball back on the NE 30 with 2:59 left in the game, all three, timeouts, down 28-14. After an incompletion that left 2:52 on the clock, the Steelers got off two more plays before the two-minute warning. In 52 seconds. Down 14. They had gained nine yards. Game. Set. Match.
*NE offensive coordinator totally out-schemed the Steelers around the goal line, creating easy mismatches for his big TEs. The Gronk TD over Terence Garvin was the highlight of a coach understanding another team’s tendencies and exploiting them to the fullest.
*Apparently Steelers TE coach James Daniel assaulted a fan at halftime.
Big Officiating Calls:
*The pass interference call in the end zone on Cortez Allen appeared somewhat questionable.
Up Next: The Steelers open their home schedule next Sunday, September 20th against the San Francisco 49ers at Heinz Field. Kickoff is 1 pm EST.
Reminder: You can hear me on the pregame show on WDVE before every Steelers game and on weekdays on 970 ESPN from 4-7 pm. You can follow me on twitter @DavidMTodd.