When you play to win in the margins, you'd better do so.
That's the lesson for the Steelers following their 17-14 loss at Acrisure Stadium Sunday to the New England Patriots. They didn't win in the margins.
The Steelers are playing things close to the vest while they figure things out with their revamped offense.
That means you have to win the turnover battle. And you have to win on special teams.
The Steelers didn't do either against the Patriots.
"Really (it was) one of those really tight ball games that's going to come down to a few things, and we knew that going in," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. "That's why you put the weight on the weighty downs or the situational moments. They made more splash plays in that circumstance than we did.
"I thought they won the field position game and special teams. They got a couple kickoff returns from a field positioning standpoint. Obviously, when we didn't handle the punt, that was a significant play. The two-minute go ball was a significant play, and sometimes when you're in games like this, that's the difference."
The plays to which Tomlin referred were a 44-yard touchdown catch by Nelson Agholor on third-and-3 at the end of the first half and a muffed punt by Gunner Olszewski in the third quarter that gave the Patriots first-and-goal at the 10.
Both instances resulted in New England's lone touchdowns in this game.
"We didn't win enough of the 50-50 balls," said Steelers cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, who gave up the touchdown to Agholor despite having good position on the wide receiver.
"Minkah (Fitzpatrick) made a nice play on his. I've got to make that play when I have the chance."
So, the Steelers are now 1-1. They walked that razor's edge in Week 1 against the Bengals, not turning the ball over and rarely putting it in harm's way in a 23-20 overtime win.
It's a philosophy the Steelers used in 2019 when they didn't have Ben Roethlisberger for 14 games. And largely, it worked, as the team held things together to get to 8-5 before losing their final three games with Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges at quarterback and fall out of playoff contention.
When you play that style of football, mistakes are magnified. They certainly were Sunday.
Game action photos from the Steelers' Week 2 game against the New England Patriots at Acrisure Stadium
• Despite it all, the Steelers leave Week 2 in first place in the AFC North after the Baltimore Ravens were outscored 28-3 in the fourth quarter of a 42-38 loss at home to the Miami Dolphins. The Browns also lost a heartbreaker at home, allowing two touchdown passes to 37-year-old Joe Flacco in the final 1:22 to drop a 31-30 decision to the New York Jets.
It just goes to show that in the NFL, there's no such thing as a sure thing. And games are never over until there is no time remaining on the game clock.
That's what makes this loss so tough for the Steelers. The defense gave up 17 points. When that happens, you should win the game.
• The Steelers offense has produced two touchdowns in its first two games. That's not going to make anyone happy.
Nor should it.
Trubisky said he's getting a lot of suggestions from other players – presumably, from his eligible receivers – about what he should be doing and where he should be throwing the football.
That always happens, regardless of who the quarterback is. But there does need to be a level of patience.
"Everybody wants the ball in their hands. I want the ball in my hands," Trubisky said. "We've got a bunch of talent, and we've just got to figure out what works best for us going forward.
"I think you look more at the missed opportunities than what we didn't do, I guess. So we had enough opportunities out there. We just didn't make the plays on a few, especially in the second half. They out-executed us."
• That was the case, especially with New England's pass protection. After getting seven sacks last week, the Steelers failed to get to Mac Jones in this game.
It marked just the third game since the start of the 2021 season the Steelers haven't recorded a single sack in a game. Not surprisingly, they've now lost all three of those games.
They also had just three quarterback hits in this game.
"It's on us. We've just got to be better. I've got to be better," said outside linebacker Alex Highsmith. "We know that going into the next game. We've just got to be better. We've got to have more of an attack mindset and getting off blocks better."
The Steelers mixed things up in terms of replacing injured reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt. In their base 3-4 defense, it was largely Malik Reed manning Watt's outside linebacker spot. In the nickel and dime defensive packages, the Steelers took Reed off the field on most occasions and replaced him with a defensive lineman, with rookie DeMarvin Leal getting most of those snaps, but Cam Heyward doing it at times, as well.
"I thought New England would do a good job of minimizing that component of the game by running the football, by rhythm throws, things of that nature," Tomlin said. "So, I didn't necessarily go into this game thinking it was going to be a seven-sack type game."
But one or two would have been nice.
The Steelers likely surprised the Patriots with that approach to replacing Watt, who was placed on the Reserve/Injured List earlier this week with a pectoral muscle injury.
That won't be the case moving forward.
"I just think we've got to continue to improve from each game because we know the type of defense we can be," said Highsmith. "I feel like we can be better than we were (in this game). We all saw what we did Week 1, and we know that we can be better."
• The one possession where the offense really looked like it got into a rhythm came in the third quarter after the Patriots had scored following Olszewski's muffed punt.
Down 17-6, the Steelers went no-huddle and Trubisky completed 4 of 5 passes for 43 yards, including an 8-yard touchdown pass to tight end Pat Freiermuth.
"There's mixed philosophies in that," Trubisky said of the no-huddle offense. "I think we were just having a lot of positive plays on that drive, and we mixed in some tempo, and it seemed to be working. If that's something we want to continue to mix in, I think we can look at that. But as we go, we just continue to find this identity. We're still young. We're still meshing as a unit, and that was a good drive. We had some positive plays."
Trubisky had similar success at the end of the Steelers' overtime win over the Bengals in Week 1 with the no-huddle. And he ran it well in the preseason, as well.
"If that's something we want to look at to continue to do more, maybe we'll do that, but we've just got to continue to find our identity," Trubisky said. "Everybody needs to lean in, come together, and really I just need to play better to give us a better chance at the end."
• Linebacker Devin Bush didn't finish this game because of a foot injury that is being evaluated.
Bush was replaced by Robert Spillane.
The Steelers have been rotating all three of their inside linebackers, with Myles Jack rotating with Bush and Spillane.
With a short week coming up before the Steelers travel to Cleveland to face the Browns Thursday, they might have to lean solely on Jack and Spillane this week depending on Bush's availability.
• When you're trying to win in the margins as the Steelers are, you've got to get the easy ones.
Cornerback Cam Sutton dropped an interception right in his belly two plays before Olszewski's muffed punt.
Olszewski was hard on himself after muffing the punt. You can bet Sutton is just as upset after dropping an easy interception.
• After going 4 of 15 on third downs against the Bengals, the Steelers were 8 of 15 against the Patriots. That's at least a positive step forward for the offense.
But they got the ball back twice from the Patriots in the fourth quarter and went three-and-out on both occasions, missing on third-and-8 and again on third-and-2.
"Bottom line, we've got to score more points," Trubisky said. "Our emphasis was (to) be better on third down this week. I think we were a little better at that, in the first half at least. In the fourth quarter, we've got to convert those to be able to stay on the field and give ourselves a chance."
• When the Steelers did get the Patriots into long-yardage situations, all too often Jones got big chunks of it back.
The Patriots faced third-and-seven or more six times in this game and converted three of them into first downs. Another resulted in the muffed punt.
Much of the damage was done in those situations with short crossing patterns over the middle of the field.
"They were short middle," Fitzpatrick said. "We were in two-deep (zone) a lot and that's the hole in the defense."
That is fine if you tackle the catch short of the line to gain. But you've got to win more than 50 percent of the time against third-and-long.
"They made great plays," said Fitzpatrick, who had his second interception in as many games in this one. "They get paid, as well. I think we were sticking in great position, for the most part. They just made plays on the ball and we didn't."
• It's way too early to panic about this offense. The Steelers do have four new starters on offense in Trubisky, guard James Daniels, center Mason Cole and wide receiver George Pickens.
They have three other starters – left tackle Dan Moore, Freiermuth and running back Najee Harris – who are in just their second season.
This offense should continue to get better as they get more comfortable with each other.
But Trubisky understands he's got to get everyone more involved.
Prior to throwing Pickens a 23-yard pass down the sideline in the closing seconds of the first half, Trubisky had targeted three receivers in the first half – Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson and Freiermuth.
For an offense that has so many weapons, that's not enough diversity.
"We've got a lot of talent. Definitely get George more involved," Trubisky admitted. "We've just got to get on the same page. I think there was one where I threw out of bounds. He was going one way and I thought he was going another way. We've got to get George involved. He's super talented.
"When everybody gets their touches and we're moving the ball down the field, that's when it feels good. When you miss opportunities, that's when you have a feeling like this, and you just don't want to feel that again."
Pickens wound up with three targets in this game. He had three in Week 1 against the Bengals.
The Steelers shouldn't force feed him the football, but they do need to find ways to get him involved.
• Bonus thought: Since 2018, Chris Boswell is 89 of 97 on field goal attempts (91.8 percent). He's 40 of 47 on attempts from 40 or more yards.
It's almost a given now that he's going to make the kick when Tomlin sends him onto the field.
That difference between him and most other kickers was driven home in the third quarter when Nick Folk missed one from 52 yards and Boswell made one from 52 yards on the Steelers' ensuing possession.