Hard Truths: Pats face harsh reality in Pittsburgh
A year ago, the Patriots pulled off a miracle win at Pittsburgh that sewed up the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Even though they had to jump through hoops to make it happen, there was an inevitability to the outcome. Sunday, the Patriots were knocking at the door again late in the game. The No. 1 seed wasn’t at stake – that’s flown by now – but a wind-beneath-their-wings win heading into late December and a clinching of the AFC East was. But this time, it was hope against hope. And hope lost. So did the Patriots.
When the Patriots ran
The Patriots didn’t have the ball enough to really establish balance and their running game in the first half, but when they made a concerted effort it worked. Unfortunately, penalties in the running game X’d out big gains and penalties overall kept backing the Patriots out of situations where they could maintain balance. They ran for 96 on 19 carries. The two most costly penalties were a hold on Trent Brown nullifying a 25-yard Sony Michel run and another hold on Shaq Mason when the Patriots had gotten down to the Steelers 2.
When the Steelers ran
After the Patriots performance against the run in the past two games and the assurances they’d get it fixed this week, what the Steelers did to New England on the ground was startling. Jaylen Samuels had 23 carries for 69 yards on the season coming into the game. The Steelers, who treated their running game as an afterthought, gave it to Samuels 19 times and he ripped off 142 yards.
When the Patriots passed
The Patriots got a 63-yard touchdown throw from Tom Brady to Chris Hogan when the Steelers had a bust in coverage. They later picked up 25 yards when two Steelers banged into each other and allowed Julian Edelman a 25-yard gain. Those 88 yards make Brady’s 279-yard, 25-for-36 day look a lot better than it was. Brady’s throwaway that turned into a pick in the third quarter and the pressure that unnerved Brady despite there being only one sack tips the scales in Pittsburgh’s favor.
When the Steelers passed
The Patriots kept Juju Smith-Schuster and Antonio Brown mostly in check. They combined for 89 yards on eight catches – well behind their normal output. And the Patriots kept up with two picks (both by Duron Harmon). But Ben Roethlisberger – afforded decent time except for a blip where the Pats came up with sacks on back-to-back plays – made use of his lesser-lights receivers and had enough impactful plays through the air (including a third-and-9 conversion on Pittsburgh’s final drive) to get the edge.
Steelers kicker Chris Boswell missed a chip-shot field goal. Stephen Gostkowski made his. The Steelers only punted twice; Ryan Allen dropped three of his punts inside the Steelers 20. There wasn’t much action in the return game so the Boswell miss counts for the lion’s share of the special teams grade.
The Patriots got flagged 14 times in this game. Seven of those were pre-snap penalties. The Patriots’ inability to play within the rules as the officials were calling them and their ineptitude in the red zone were major factors in the New England loss.