If there is one thing that the Pittsburgh Steelers probably could not afford in this game, it was to get behind early. If there was another thing that they could not afford, it was to suffer an injury from running back Le’Veon Bell, who said after the game that he had been previously dealing with a groin injury that flared up tonight.
The reason for this is that the Steelers were able to mask a key season-long problem over the course of the past nine games by relying so much upon the running game. Over the second half of the regular season, and into the playoffs, Pittsburgh suddenly became the most balanced team in the league, but with Bell out of the picture, and with a deep hole to dig out of, the offense had no choice.
They had to count upon their young wide receivers, who were able to step up in select spots when they were needed, but the reality is that the Steelers spent most of this season without a number two target, and that showed in a major way against the Patriots.
While you can count Eli Rogers in that role, he is the slot receiver, so it has actually been first-year former practice squad player Cobi Hamilton as the primary beneficiary of the second outside receiver snaps, and that is a theme that continued tonight—which proved to be unfortunate.
I want to preface this by saying that Hamilton does not deserve a lot of the criticism that he has been getting from what I’ve seen. I’ve seen particularly overboard comments from the Post-Gazette crew lambasting a player for not continuing to play above his abilities when he should have never been in that role in the first place.
But the reality is that Hamilton dropped a touchdown pass, and then caught a touchdown pass that was negated because he ran out of bounds, and rendered himself an ineligible receiver. He then had a chance to haul in a fairly low-percentage fade pass on the next play on fourth down, but failed to do so.
He did finish off the game with a 30-yard touchdown pass, but by then the Steelers were already trailing by at least three possessions and there were fewer than four minutes remaining in the game.
On the day, Hamilton finished with just two receptions for 37 yards and the touchdown on five targets. They needed more than that from their primary outside wide receiver across from Antonio Brown, no doubt. But Hamilton should never have had to be in that position in the AFC Championship game in the first place. That’s what happens when you lose three of your top four wide receivers.