Coming into Sunday’s game, the Pittsburgh Steelers knew they had an uphill climb as a rare home underdog against the New England Patriots. Considering the Steelers had the daunting challenge of facing arguably the best team in the NFL without their franchise quarterback, their best defensive player and a number of other key contributors, it’d be fair to say expectations were tempered for Steeler Nation.
Although Pittsburgh kept the contest close, backup quarterback Landry Jones was unable to convert multiple red zone opportunities into touchdowns, while the defense was gashed for 140 rushing yards in a 27-16 loss.
The loss drops the Steelers’ record to 4-3 as they head into a much-needed bye week before traveling to Baltimore for a key divisional matchup.
Let’s look at this week’s edition of “Three up, three down.”
Steelers’ pass defense shows more positive signs: If you were told ahead of time that the Steelers would hold Tom Brady to 222 passing yards, you’d feel pretty good right? Well, that’s exactly what the unit did — despite rarely getting pressure on Brady and ending the contest with no sacks.
Safety Robert Golden did get victimized by tight end Rob Gronkowski on a perfect seam route for a touchdown, and Golden was badly beat on another long pass in the fourth quarter, but, beyond those two plays, the group did excellent work.
Considering the secondary was viewed a potential Achilles heel for the team heading into the season, it continues to play above the line. And who knows how much better this group could be if the Steelers’ front seven actually got to the opposing quarterback occasionally.
Bell quietly amasses 149 total yards: One of the staples of Bill Belichick-coached teams is his team’s ability to take away the opponent’s best offensive player. However, running back Le’Veon Bell had another solid performance that included nine catches out of the backfield and 149 total yards on the day. Unfortunately, he was shut out of the endzone and never really put down a big play down; his biggest gain was 12 yards.
Jones shows life against the Patriots: It’s been a pretty rough go for linebacker Jarvis Jones since he was picked in the first round four years ago, but yesterday was one his better performances in recent memory. Jones was everywhere on the field — especially in the first half — was able to force a fumble of the first play of the game, had a big tackle for loss and amassed seven tackles for the game.
Granted, there’s still a lot of work (and production) needed by Jones the rest of the way, but one can at least his trajectory is heading in the right direction with the bye week ahead.
Miscues, questionable decisions and penalties derail upset bid: The Steelers needed to execute in all phases to pull off an upset against the Patriots. Instead, it was a performance marred by missed opportunities and mental gaffes.
Backup quarterback Landry Jones had a respectable showing filling in for the injured Ben Roethlisberger, but his first-quarter interception cost the Steelers early points and an opportunity to get early momentum in the game. Jones forced a pass into the endzone to Antonio Brown, but New England cornerback Malcolm Butler was in perfect position to make the play. It was one of the few big mistakes of the day for Jones, and it was costly.
Another key sequence happened in the second quarter when, what would have been Darrius Heyward-Bey’s second touchdown catch, was negated by a holding call on backup tackle Chris Hubbard. To add to the misery, kicker Chris Boswell, who had only missed four field goals in his first 20 games with the team, missed a 43-yard attempt shortly after. This was the first of two misses for normally reliable Boswell for the night.
The second miss, a 54-yard attempt in the fourth quarter with the Steelers trailing by 11, had some questioning the decision by head coach Mike Tomlin to attempt a kick instead of going for it on fourth down, needing just three yards to convert. Despite the earlier miss by Boswell, it’s obvious Tomlin has complete faith in his kicker, and a conversion there still makes it a one-score game, so it’s hard to kill him for the call.
However, the decision to challenge what was an obvious catch by Gronkowski was inexcusable and cost the Steelers a valuable timeout that would come back to haunt them on their last drive of the first half. Speaking of that drive, where was the urgency to get a score before half? Pittsburgh was way too nonchalant on that drive — you have to be aggressive, especially knowing the Patriots would start the second half with the ball.
For second-straight week, rush defense gets gashed: We all understand that defensive end Cam Heyward was out for a second consecutive week, and missing the unit’s best player hurts. However, the Steelers were downright abysmal against the run, this time surrendering 127 yards to fan-favorite LaGarrette Blount and giving up 140 total rushing yards for the game.
The Patriots’ offensive line opened up massive holes for Blount and, combined with some downright dreadful tackling, it’s hard to win — especially against the Patriots.
It’s fair to say the linebacking group simply isn’t playing well enough as a unit right now, and it’s especially apparent with the outside linebackers. Outside of Jones, they’re just not making plays. This needs to change, but will it?
Third down conversions for Patriots, red-zone failures for Steelers: The Steelers’ defense had multiple chances to force the Patriots to punt, only to have Brady convert key third down plays to keep scoring drives going — including three conversions made by Brady on runs. That simply can’t happen, and it cost the Steelers big-time.
While Brady was converting third downs and putting together long scoring drives that led to four touchdowns, Jones and the Steelers offense continually stalled in the red zone. Three field goals won’t get it done against the mighty Patriots. Sure, it’s more than fair to say that having Roethlisberger could have made a difference, but Jones needed to make plays in the red zone, and he came up short.
Image credit: Nancy Lane/The Boston Herald