FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The offense wasn't good enough.
On a night when Tom Brady threw four touchdown passes and Ron Gronkowski caught three of them, when the Patriots offense was a perfect 4-for-4 in the red zone and converted 64 percent on third downs, the Steelers lost a football game, 28-21, because their own offense didn't hold up its end of the bargain.
The Steelers enter this 2015 regular season with a defense that spent portions of the preseason looking defenseless. Against a group of quarterbacks that included Mike Kafka and Blake Bortles and Joe Webb and E.J. Manuel and Chris Simms, the Steelers pass defense made them look like Unitas and Montana and Favre and the Manning brothers all rolled into one.
Those guys, and others just as nondescript, combined during the preseason to complete 72.7 percent with seven touchdowns and one interception, and their overall 108.1 passer rating represents a level of efficiency they never have been able to attain or they wouldn't be left having to play so much preseason football in the first place.
With five games worth of such evidence, the only people who could've believed the Steelers defense against the pass was going to be a strength early this season are the same ones who believed the Patriots only illegally taped opposing coaches' hand signals once. Those same people also dutifully wait for the Easter Bunny every spring, but that's for another time.
Anyway, the Steelers traveled to New England to open against the Patriots on what has come to be recognized throughout the NFL as coronation night. That's when some team is served up as an opponent to the defending champions on a night that includes a lot of the kind of pageantry normally associated with the Super Bowl itself. Since this whole NFL Kick-butt Weekend started with the 2004 regular season, home teams are now 10-1 in this game, with the New York Giants giving one away to the Dallas Cowboys and the Baltimore Ravens being in a separate category altogether because they were forced by the baseball Orioles to play on the road in 2013. Outside of those instances, the outcome has gone according to the script, and last night was supposed to be no different.
Fresh from a win in federal court, Tom Brady was supposed to come out with a hot hand and then get better from there against a Steelers defense filled with players who were young, experienced, or both. With a chance to use the Steelers as an opportunity to thumb his nose at the NFL, Brady was seen as capable of making the final score as ugly as possible.
The Steelers pass defense sure didn't look all that much better against Brady and the Patriots than it did all summer, with so many of the completions coming with little resistance from a group of defensive backs who weren't above compounding the problem by missing tackles, too. But as meek as that seemed, the Steelers still were a handful of offensive plays away from pulling off the upset.
Let's begin chronologically, because context is important.
The Patriots won the toss and elected to defer their choice until the second half, and so Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense trotted onto the field first. After a kickoff for a touchback, it went like this: 18-yard run by DeAngelo Williams; Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown for 9; Williams for 4 and a first down; Roethlisberger to Heath Miller for 14; Williams up the middle for 11 and a first down at the New England 24-yard line.
With the New England defense on its heels, instead of staying aggressive the Steelers tried to get unnecessarily cute. A reverse-pass gadget play by Brown resulted in an 8-yard sack, and then a holding penalty made it second-and-28 from the New England 42-yard line. Josh Scobee was soon to come onto the field and punctuate the frustration by missing a 44-yard field goal.
But the Steelers defense forced a Patriots punt on Brady's first crack at them, and the offense quickly was back on the field. This time, an illegal formation penalty and a sack set up a third-and-18, and when Miller ran a 17-yard route and caught a pass from Roethlisberger, the Steelers had to punt.
After the Patriots drove 90 yards for a touchdown to take a 7-0 lead, the Steelers came back thanks to a 43-yard reception by Darrius Heyward-Bey to move the ball quickly to the New England 28-yard line. Roethlisberger missed on attempted back-shoulder throw to Brown on third-and-3, and then Scobee came out and again missed a field goal, this time from 46 yards.
A 64-yard touchdown drive by New England followed, and it was 14-0 and had become exactly the kind of game the Steelers desperately needed to avoid.
This narrative should not be misunderstood as excusing the defense's evening, because it was rife with ineptitude. Besides making no plays on the ball, the Steelers often seemed confused, there were busted coverages and mental errors, the aforementioned poor tackling, and there looked to be communication issues all over the place.
But still, when the first half ended with a 44-yard field goal by Scobee and a 14-3 Patriots lead, the Steelers had missed two field goals and settled for a third instead of a touchdown when Heyward-Bey couldn't keep his feet inbounds when going to the ground in the end zone to catch a 26-yard pass from Roethlisberger.
Make the field goals and execute the catch, and it's a one-point game, maybe tied, at halftime. The Steelers scored a touchdown midway through the third quarter and then if they took advantage of a first-and-goal at the 1-yard line early in the fourth quarter to score another touchdown, which they somehow managed to avoid, the final 10 minutes would have looked a whole lot different from both sidelines.
Laying this loss on the offense could be perceived as unfair, and it just might be, but these Steelers don't seem to have much of a choice but to out-score opponents in order to secure victories early in the season. It didn't happen last night, and they will wake up today knowing it was there for the taking.