The Pittsburgh Steelers lost 27-16 on Sunday at Heinz Field to the New England Patriots. It was an expected and fair result, but one that was less than satisfying for a Steelers team that rallied back from an early deficit and was right where it wanted to be, down only a point in the middle of the third quarter. But the Patriots put together back-to-back 75-yard scoring drives, the first taking just five plays and 2:25, the second, six plays and 3:00, and the Steelers never challenged, gaining only 56 yards in their last four possessions over the last 11:44. There were also some questionable personnel and in-game decisions by the coaching staff that hurt the Steelers cause.
I wrote on Friday that Landry Jones wasn’t going to be the Steelers’ problem. And he wasn’t. Jones wasn’t great and his first quarter end zone interception was a “crappy throw” as he termed it after the game, but Jones was more than passable. The much larger concern was the Steelers defense, and while they steadied after giving up 14 points on back-to-back, long first half drives, they still weren’t good enough. While they did create a turnover on the Patriots first offensive play, they again registered no sacks and couldn’t get off the field on third down allowing the Pats to go 6-for-8 in the first half and 7-for-12 for the game, with the lone second half conversion being a killer 36-yard touchdown pass to Rob Gronkowski.
The Steelers entered the game undermanned and there isn’t any reason to believe a healthy Steelers team can’t compete with the Pats in the playoffs, but that playoff road now almost certainly goes through Foxborough, Massachusetts.
*The Steelers came out of this game relatively injury free with Antonio Brown’s hip bruise the only one mentioned by Mike Tomlin following the game.
The inactive list consisted of Ben Roethlisberger, Marcus Gilbert, Markus Wheaton, DeAngelo Williams, Cody Wallace, Cameron Heyward and Shamarko Thomas—all injured. There is a possibility all of these players, along with Ladarius Green, who has been on the PUP list since the start of the season, and Sammie Coates and Eli Rogers who were very limited on Sunday, could be available for the Ravens game in two weeks.
The Steelers offense outgained the Patriots 375-362 and only turned the ball over one time, albeit a very costly one, but it was their failures in the red zone that contributed heavily to the loss. They went 1-4 in terms of scoring TDs in this one after entering the game having gone 12-14, second-best in the league. Also, in the second half they had three drives stall just outside the red zone, on the NE 28, 26 and 36, and came away with just 6 points.
*Landry Jones finished 29-47 for 281 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT. His 51-yard completion to Antonio Brown when the Steelers were down 14-0 was as good a throw as you’ll see by anyone. He dropped it right over a couple Pats defenders, hitting Brown in stride. He also had four other completions of 15 yards or more and a 14-yard TD to Darrius Heyward-Bey and another TD of the same distance to DHB called back. Jones wasn’t as sharp in the second half, but the Pats were able to basically force him to rely on check-downs when they had a late lead. Again, not great, but a passable performance.
*Before the game Bill Belichick went out of his way to praise Le’Veon Bell.
“Oh my god. Oh yeah, tremendous player. Great hands, catches the ball, very quick, makes people miss. Strong, breaks tackles. Excellent balance. Tough. Doesn’t run out of bounds … Bell’s as good as anybody we’ll play.”
Bell had another 149 yards from scrimmage against a defense focused on containing him, 81 rushing, 68 receiving, on 31 touches. He leads the NFL in YPG at 147.2, just ahead of Arizona’s own do-everything back David Johnson.
*Antonio Brown had 7 catches for 106 yards, by far his best game with Landry Jones, and another 13 yards on a reverse. Unfortunately, a hip bruise limited his effectiveness in the second half.
*The offensive line bounced back from a poor showing in Miami with a solid effort against the Pats. Penalties marred what would have been an outstanding game in which they allowed no sacks.
*Darrius Heyward-Bey and Cobi Hamilton stepped up in the absence of Markus Wheaton, Eli Rogers and Sammie Coates. They combined for 6 catches, 66 yards and the Steelers only touchdown. They have proved suitable replacements when called upon.
*The red zone failures and drives just outside the red zone mentioned above were the story of the game and the interception after the turnover early in the game was brutal.
*Offensive line penalties, pre-snap and holding, made things tough on the offense. The holding call on Chris Hubbard against Jamie Collins in the second quarter was close, as Collins appeared to be losing his footing. But Hubbard had him up high and was beat. The penalty cost the Steelers seven points as Boswell ended up missing a 42-yard FG after the touchdown was called back.
*Not a great day for Xavier Grimble who had a couple drops or Jesse James who missed on some blocks.
*With 0:43 left in the second quarter and the Steelers down 14-7, they faced a 3rd-and-3 from their own 45. Jones hit DHB on the right side for a first down. But instead of getting out of bounds, DHB cut it inside for a few extra yards. It took 18 seconds before Jones could spike the ball with 0:25 left. The Steelers ended up kicking a FG on second down with 0:06 seconds left from the NE 14. They cost themselves at least one play. (Much more on this below under coaching.)
The Steelers defense gave up touchdown drives of 80, 84, 75 and 75 yards and the Pats were 3-3 in the red zone and 7-12 on third downs. While they were able to create one turnover on the Pats first offensive play, the defense went their third consecutive game without registering a sack and got gouged again in the run game, particularly in the second half when they gave up 77 yards on just 12 carries (ex. Kneel-downs). The defense has allowed an average of 162 yards rushing with four runs longer than 20 yards and given up six pass plays of 37 yards or more in their three defeats (h/t Gerry Dulac). They wore down in the second half and weren’t able to do a good enough job shedding blocks throughout. Tom Brady picked them apart, finishing the day first in the league in QBR and third in passer rating. Were it not for a few drops he would have had an even bigger day.
*Jarvis Jones was outstanding in the first half forcing and recovering a fumble, the first turnover for the team since his interception against KC, and getting pressure on Tom Brady. One of his best halves as a Steeler.
*L.T. Walton had a tipped pass, his first contribution of the season in limited playing time.
*The line did get some pressure on Brady and Stephon Tuitt drew a couple holding calls. It was an improvement in terms of getting pressure.
*The Steelers did a good job in the first half with some of their coverage concepts, but they weren’t able to keep lead-footed Tom Brady in the pocket. Twice in the first half he scrambled for first downs on short third downs. The rushers have to do a better job of contain.
*Overall the run defense struggled again particularly in the second half. The Pats finished with 141 yards on 28 carries (ex. kneeldowns). Down 14-13 in the third quarter the Steelers had the momentum having forced a three-and-out and then kicking a FG on their possession. On the Pats ensuing drive LaGarrette Blount went for 11 and 25 yards on the first two plays starting at their 25 and the Pats scored a TD three plays later. Huge momentum swing.
*After limiting Gronk/Bennett in the first half the Steelers got torched in the second. On the TD to Gronk, Golden had coverage, but Sean Davis was supposed to bracket over the top. Davis left the middle of the field and Golden had no chance on a perfect throw from Brady.
*A really nice play causing a fumble by Steven Johnson on punt coverage in the fourth quarter put the Steelers in business down 11 on the Pats 43. Plays like that will continue to ensure he gets a helmet on gameday.
*The Steelers showed some life in the kick return game in the first time in forever. Fitzgerald Toussaint and Justin Gilbert returned three kicks for a 27.0 average, defeating the Pats attempts to pooch the kicks to the goal line and pin the Steelers deep.
*Jordan Berry got back on track with another excellent game. Five punts for a 48.8 yard average. After a 50-yarder with no return, Berry was forced to punt again because the Steelers lined up illegally. He followed up with a 55-yarder, no return.
*Excellent job by DHB to recognize that a Patriots’ punt just after the two-minute warning did not go out of bounds, but rather was touched into the end zone by a Patriots player. Rather than start on their own 6, the Steelers got the ball on the 20 and drove for a FG.
*Chris Boswell missed a 42-yarder and a 54-yarder. I never expect Boz to miss.
The genius of the Patriots preparation was evident in this one. In the first half, the Steelers left Lawrence Timmons on the field in passing situations allowing the Patriots to match up Julian Edelman on Timmons out of the slot. In the second half, the Steelers used Sean Davis, taking Timmons off the field, and the Pats exploited that by running the football and then getting Gronkowski more involved up the seam.
*I think Todd Haley’s offensive gameplan was sound. He tried to get Antonio Brown involved early and that was successful. Le’Veon Bell touched the ball 30+ times. The Steelers just didn’t execute in the red zone as the Pats defensive stiffened on their half of the field.
*I have no idea how Mike Tomlin choses to kick a 54-yard FG with 9:05 left down 27-16. Similar to the Jets decision against the Steelers a few weeks prior, it made no sense. The Pats had just gone 75-yards for TDs on consecutive possessions. As much as I like Boswell and expected him to make the kick, it was, at best, a 50-50 proposition. This is not second-guessing. All caps:
Tomlin has to know that is four-down territory. On second down Landry Jones underthrew Jesse James for 8 yards. A good throw and James runs for the first after catch, but he had to bend down to catch it and was pushed out of bounds. The third down call was a terrible decision. Throwing the ball out of an empty set made no sense. Hello, my name is Le’Veon Bell, I get the tough yards. Terrible in-game management. Then the field goal attempt. I don’t get it.
*This is a 4-parter about clock management in the first half:
1.) The Steelers wasted a timeout in the second quarter on a 13-yard completion to Gronk on third down. Tomlin got some really bad advice on this one because it wasn’t remotely close and the Steelers could have used the timeout on their final drive.
2.) After forcing a punt the Steelers started on their own 20 with 1:47 left and two timeouts, down 14-7. The Steelers are incredibly predictable here. I turned to my seatmates in the press box and said “Bell, wraparound draw, first play.” On cue Jones gave the ball to Bell for an 8-yard gain. The thinking here is the Steelers don’t want to throw a quick incompletion and then eventually be forced to punt, giving the Pats the ball with a lot of clock and good field position. I have zero issues with that strategy and play call. But once you’ve gained 8 yards, get to the line of scrimmage and get moving. You won first down and now have the advantage. The Steelers didn’t get the next snap off until 1:05 showed on the clock. 42 seconds later! After a completion over the middle to their own 38 they called their second timeout. They had gained 18 yards and used up 52 seconds. They were operating as if they were much more concerned about giving up points than scoring while down 14-7.
3.) Three plays after the second timeout DHB chose not to run out of bounds to gain an extra couple yards wasting pressure seconds in the process. (noted above)
4.) With 0:15 seconds left it would have been better if Jones could have spiked the ball instead of using the third timeout which was called from the sideline. With no timeouts the Steelers limited themselves to plays on the sideline or the end zone because they couldn’t stop the clock. They ended up kicking a FG on second down because they had mismanaged the time.
*The defensive personnel decisions were head-scratching. How is Sean Davis not part of the initial gameplan in this one? How is Lawrence Timmons on the field in passing downs the entire first half? I realize the defense doesn’t get to dictate every matchup, but this sure didn’t seem like the best approach.
Big Officiating Calls:
*The personal foul calls on both sides were unnecessary. There were questionable pass interference calls against the Steelers, particularly the one where Cobi Hamilton’s left arm was held down the right sideline.
Up Next: The Steelers have a bye this coming week. They will take on the Baltimore Ravens (3-4) at M&T Bank Stadium, Sunday, November 6. Kickoff is scheduled for 1:00 pm EST.
Reminder: You can hear me on the postgame show with Charlie Batch across the Steelers Football Network (WDVE, ESPN, steelers.com or the Steelers Gameday app) after every Steelers game and on weekdays on ESPN Pittsburgh 970 and 106.3 FM from 4-7 pm. You can follow me on twitter @DavidMTodd.