When you lose, 36-17, in the manner in which Steelers did yesterday to end their 2016 season, there is enough blame to go around and any attempt to do anything but lambaste that performance comes off as excuse-making. Again, that’s to be expected given the nature of the defeat, given the soundness of the whipping, but the point here isn’t to make excuses so much as it is to point out that what’s obvious isn’t necessarily what’s most critical.
Any vision of the Steelers winning this game had them showing themselves capable of taking a punch from the Patriots, but then also gathering themselves and hitting back. Trading some punches early in the game so as to force New England to play an honest 60 minutes, instead of sprinting out to a lead and then taking advantage of the circumstances that a decisive edge on the scoreboard always creates. Examining the recent history of games between these teams, that’s what the Steelers don’t do, what they didn’t do again yesterday, and that’s why they can’t win these matchups.
Take yesterday as the most recent example. The Steelers defense makes New England settle for a red zone field goal on its opening offensive possession, but then the offense went three-and-out when
Eleven plays later, the ball is in the end zone, and the Patriots have a 10-0 lead. The teams traded touchdowns on the next two series, but the Steelers’ deficit increased to 11, 17-6, because
And as always happens in games vs. the Patriots, offensive failures turned the ball back over to Brady and Co., and it turned the ball back over to Brady and Co. without cutting into the New England lead. Then as usually happens, things began to snowball and the ensuing avalanche buried the Steelers’ chances at a comeback.
It seemed as though the Steelers got unlucky when Brady fumbled during a quarterback sneak on third-and-1 from the New England 45-yard line early in the second half. The officials didn’t see the ball come out and Hargrave recover it, and Mike Tomlin’s challenge was denied because there wasn’t a clear view of the fumble and Hargrave’s recovery, and so the call on the field stood. The Patriots turned that bit of good fortune into a 47-yard field goal, but if the Steelers had converted their own first-and-goal at the 1-yard line into a touchdown late in the first half, it still would have been a one-score deficit at 20-13.
The one-two punch the Patriots offense was delivering at this stage of the game was what the Steelers hoped to have for themselves, but after a 1-yard run by Blount for one score and then a third touchdown pass from Brady that came four plays after
Certainly, the Steelers defense could have bowed its back and stopped the Patriots in those situations, and in fact that’s exactly what was needed at the time. The defense failed, and as the game entered the fourth quarter the fact Brady was having his way with the Steelers’ plan to use mainly zone coverage in the secondary was painfully apparent. And while it’s 20-20 hindsight to rail against that plan and scream for a switch to man-to-man, trying that with three inexperienced defensive backs – rookies
The Steelers lost a game to the Patriots again, and they had their Super Bowl aspirations dashed by the Patriots again. Those who want to pin those frustrations solely on the Steelers defense have an easy case to make, but the reality is they won’t ever beat New England unless and until they are able to threaten the Patriots offense with their own.
That’s where they failed yesterday.