PITTSBURGH -- Here are five quick-hit thoughts from what transpired between the Patriots and Steelers on Sunday night . . .
RUN DEFENSE CAN'T FIND FOOTING
The Steelers were averaging just a shade over 50 yards rushing per game over the last month. They'd racked up more pass attempts than any team in football over the course of the season. They were without their top back James Conner (not to mention their expected top back of 2018 Le'Veon Bell). But even the Steelers -- who usually "do what they do," for better or worse -- knew they could run the ball against New England. With three minutes left in the game, they'd run for 160 yards on 24 carries (6.7 yards per attempt). The Patriots de-activated defensive tackle Danny Shelton as a healthy scratch for the third consecutive game, and had no answers up front for Jaylen Samuels (142 yards on 19 carries) and the Steelers offensive line.
THREE-HEADED MONSTER QUIETED
One of the bright spots from last weekend's game against the Dolphins was that the Patriots had Josh Gordon, Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski all up and running well simultaneously. Sunday? Not so much. Edelman dropped a pair of passes and had penalties on back-to-back plays in the third quarter. Gronkowski was held without a catch until the fourth quarter. Gordon dropped a Brady pass on a third down early in the third quarter. Gronkowski showed signs of life midway through the fourth when he powered through a tackle to pick up a third down in the red zone, but it was for naught. Moments later Brady threw a killer pick off his back foot to end the scoring opportunity. With two minutes left in the game, Gordon and Gronkowski (seemingly doubled in big spots by a robber crashing down from the safety level) combined for 40 yards receiving.
The biggest blunder of the day was Tom Brady's ugly interception in the fourth quarter, but the Patriots were uncharacteristically sloppy in picking up penalties throughout. They were called for 14 for 106 yards. Holds by Trent Brown and Marcus Cannon put the Patriots in perilous spots in the second quarter. Edelman's back-to-back penalties in the third nearly submarined a drive before it could get started. Joe Thuney's false start at the two-minute warning -- just after the Steelers crowd lost its collective mind to "Renegade" by Styx -- put the Patriots in a tough spot on their final drive. Moments later Shaq Mason was called for a hold with 33 seconds left.
BIG RESPONSIBILITY FOR JACKSON
Think the Patriots trust undrafted rookie JC Jackson? He was locked up with JuJu Smith-Schuster throughout the first half, while corners Stephon Gilmore and Jason McCourty split the work on Antonio Brown. Jackson held up well enough as Smith-Schuster had three catches for 39 yards on a whopping eight targets in the first 30 minutes. On one 22-yard gain, Jackson was draped on Smith-Schuster but didn't turn his head around to see the football so the receiver plucked it off of Jackson's helmet. It's Smith-Schuster -- not Brown -- who led the Steelers in yards and catches coming into the game so, for Jackson, having the responsibility of shadowing one of the most productive wideouts in football represents a big step in the faith his coaching staff has in him.
NEVER UNDERESTIMATE HOME FIELD
We've written at length about how Ben Roethlisberger is a different quarterback at home versus on the road. But players aren't the only ones who can be influenced by their surroundings. It seemed as though Jeff Triplette's officiating team was baited into a penalty call by the Heinz Field crowd early in the second quarter. The back judge, from about 30 yards away, heaved a late flag on Jonathan Jones for a defensive pass interference that gave the Steelers 26 yards. On the following play, Roethlisberger hit Antonio Brown for a go-ahead 17-yard score. Because of the time it took between the end of the play and the flag being thrown, and because of the borderline nature of Jones' coverage, that felt like one that might stay in the officials pocket if the game was played at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots got one back in the third quarter when the back judge (and one other official) came flying in from long range with a pass-interference call against Chris Hogan that gave the Patriots one of only two third-down conversions to that point in the game. As far as the calls from New York went, the Patriots were on the wrong end of a challenge late in the second half when Cordarrelle Patterson was ruled down before converting a third-down pass from Tom Brady. They also had a downed-punt upheld by NFL head of officiating Al Riveron and Co.
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