Well, that didn’t go anywhere near as planned.
Right from the start Tom Brady and the New England Patriots simply dominated the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game Sunday evening, rolling to a 36-17 win, clinching a spot in their ninth Super Bowl in franchise history.
This will be a solemn grades piece as I’m still trying to digest what I just watched.
QB — A-
For the most part, I thought Ben Roethlisberger was terrific when the Steelers absolutely needed him to be as Roethlisberger threw for 314 yards and a touchdown, but did throw one costly interception in the second half on a deep ball that was well underthrow.
Without Le’Veon Bell for much of the game and a lack of a running game overall, Roethlisberger turned in one of his better games of the season, marching the Steelers up and down the field, but unfortunately No. 7 and the Pittsburgh offense couldn’t finish enough drives to stay in the game.
RB — B-
Bell went down early in the game with a left groin injury, finishing with just six rushes for 20 yards in the loss, but credit to DeAngelo Williams, who stepped up in a big spot after seeing limited action down the stretch after returning from injury.
Williams rushed for 34 yards and a score on 14 carries and added seven receptions for 51 yards in the loss, giving the Steelers some semblance of a threat out of the backfield, keeping the Steelers somewhat balanced.
WR — C-
Too many drops, a massive fumble and just not enough production early in the game to keep the Steelers going. That’s tough.
Antonio Brown finished with seven catches for 77 yards, but much of that came in garbage time, while Eli Rogers added seven catches for 69 yards. However, Rogers’ fumble early in the second half really turned the game on end, putting the Patriots well in the driver’s seat.
As for secondary receivers in Cobi Hamilton and Sammie Coates, who we saw get some snaps at wide receiver for the first time in weeks, drops were a killer.
On the first drive of the game Coates had a ball go right through his hands on a deep ball on 3rd and 1 forcing a Pittsburgh punt, and he had a few other ones slip through his grasp later in the game.
Hamilton did finish with a touchdown in the loss, but he had one hit him right in the gut in the second quarter that he dropped, resulting in a field goal for the Steelers. That was big swing in points for the Steelers.
TE — B+
Jesse James had another strong game as a receiver, finishing with five receptions for 48 yards, providing Roethlisberger with an outlet in the short flat and boundary areas.
As a blocker though James failed to make much of an impact in the running game, while David Johnson struggled to get a push at times as well.
I definitely think an upgrade is coming at this position this offseason.
OL — B+
Overall I felt the offensive line did a great job of protecting Roethlisberger, allowing just one quarterback hit in the entire game, but this unit was just unable to get a push up front against a stout New England front seven, which mostly rendered the Pittsburgh offense one dimensional for much of the game.
After dominating on the ground for such a long stretch this season, it was very disappointing to see the starting five up front come up a bit small in the biggest game of the year.
Maybe the change for Bell’s style of running to Williams’ was tough to adjust to in-game, but just a disappointing showing on the ground by the front five.
DL — A
Holding the Patriots to just 2.7 yards per carry in the loss was quite an accomplishment as guys like Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave played very well all night long. But in the end, outside of Hargrave’s one sack early in the game, there just wasn’t much of a pass rush to speak of from the down linemen in the loss.
Tuitt finished with one quarterback hit, while Hargrave dominated the middle of the line for stretches, finishing with five tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack.
L.T. Walton continues to emerge as a viable rotation option for the Steelers, seeing the field quite a bit on Sunday evening, finishing with two tackles. Ricardo Matthews returned to action but was mostly a non-factor up front for Pittsburgh.
LB — C-
Lawrence Timmons had a whale of a game in what could possibly be his final game in a Steelers uniform, recording a game-high 14 tackles to go along with two tackles for loss.
Ryan Shazier finished with seven tackles in the loss, while James Harrison and Bud Dupree combined for nine tackles off the edge with just one tackle for loss.
Harrison did a ton of dropping into coverage, which was puzzling, while Dupree struggled to get anything going off the right side as a pass rusher.
Timmons and Shazier were alright in coverage, holding it down in the middle of the field, but the lack of a pass rush was mostly discouraging against Brady and company.
DB — D
Mike Mitchell was burnt toast on Chris Hogan’s second touchdown, while Robert Golden looked lost in zone coverage on Hogan’s first touchdown.
Artie Burns, Ross Cockrell and William Gay struggled to stay disciplined in zone coverage and know what their assignments were with so many crossing routes.
Adding insult to injury, Burns and Sean Davis — despite recording nine tackles for the Steelers — really struggled to come up with tackles after the catch, allowing the Patriots to roll up yards after catch numbers.
This was a bad time to have mental lapses in the secondary, but such is life against Brady and New England.
Special Teams — D
Jordan Berry was pretty solid for the Steelers, downing two punts inside the 20-yard line, but it was bizarre to see him punt from New England’s 39 yard line with the Steelers trailing big. Strange coaching decision.
In the return game, Coates and Justin Gilbert were mostly terrible yet again, likely signaling the end for Danny Smith in Pittsburgh, while Brown was a non-factor as a returner.
Chris Boswell shanked an extra point for his second miss in three games from that distance, but the second-year kicker converted a 23-yard field goal to get Pittsburgh to with 17-9.