First of all, there are no moral victories. Not for this franchise, regardless of the circumstances. It doesn't matter who's unavailable for the game, doesn't matter who is injured during it. When the Steelers show up to play, they're playing to win. Period. End of story.
Yesterday's story told the tale of a 27-16 loss to the New England Patriots, and for that reason alone it had no happy ending. Which isn't quite the same as it being a waste, but any argument that it was in any way a positive rings hollow right now. That's because the loss to the Patriots was the Steelers' second in a row after a 4-1 start to the season, and even though their 4-3 still is good enough to remain atop the AFC North Division, the loss means that should the Steelers be fortunate enough to work themselves into position for a rematch, they would have to meet that challenge in Foxborough.
Having to play this game without their best player on offense and their best player on defense, plus a number of other supporting characters for both stars, the Steelers seemed particularly ill-equipped to deal with this opponent at this point in the season. Defeating New England has to be on the mind of any AFC team that fancies itself a contender, and in 2016 the Steelers' hopes of accomplishing the task hinged on an offense capable of matching the Patriots' firepower working in conjunction with a defense that would be doing its job if it eliminated the big plays and made Tom Brady settle for field goals.
Even with all–hands-on-deck, the Steelers hadn't shown themselves capable of playing to those specifications on a consistent basis yet this season, and then being shorthanded and facing an opponent itching for payback over what it saw as a rigged process during Deflategate, well, it seemed to have the makings of an ugly afternoon.
It didn't turn out to be a blowout, and maybe, just maybe it was because the Steelers, playing without Ben Roethlisberger and Cam Heyward, et.al., still had real chances to win the game only to squander those chances that is most aggravating. Again, as was the case in Miami, they had an opportunity early to set a tone and chart a favorable course for the rest of game, but as was the case in Miami they didn't.
Game action from Week 7 against the New England Patriots.
This time it came right at the beginning, starting with the coin toss, which is noted only because of the fact that since the visiting team gets to call heads or tails, the Patriots lost the coin toss, and the Steelers were going to need some unforced errors from them in this game.
Anyway, the Steelers took the opening kickoff, went three-and-out and then punted. On New England's first offensive play, Tom Brady completed a pass to Chris Hogan only to have Ryan Shazier come flying into the area to deliver the hit that caused the fumble that he recovered at the Patriots 45-yard line. Next play – Landry Jones connects with Antonio Brown for 25 yards. Chris Hubbard then was flagged for a false start to make it first-and-15, and maybe that had something to do with it ending up being third-and-6 from the 16-yard line instead of third-and-1 from the 11-yard line. But anyway, that's when Jones was intercepted in the end zone by Malcolm Butler in an effort to get the ball to Brown in the back corner.
In that snippet, the Steelers previewed the kind of game it was going to turn out to be for them. Some solid play mixed in with a bit of splash, but all of it ending up in the dumper because of a mental error that led to a physical mistake that ended up turning it all into a squandered opportunity. A pre-snap penalty at home is tough to swallow, and yes, Jones made an ill-advised throw, but the idea to give Brown a chance to make a play in the end zone was a good one. And if a guy wants to be recognized as the best wideout in the NFL doesn't he find a way to do a better job of making a play to break up the interception?
One of the points Tomlin stressed to the team throughout the week leading up to the game was the importance of rallying around Landry Jones, the backup who would be their starter.
"We've talked openly about it," Tomlin had said. "When you're in Landry's position, it's all eyes on him and everyone is critiquing what he does and how he does it. But that's not the mentality of this group as we step into the stadium this weekend. Our job is to make his job easier. What can we do to assist him? That's the question we're openly asking ourselves – from the men who are in the huddle with him to the assistant coaches to the offensive quality control guy to myself."
Jones threw that interception in the end zone, but his offensive teammates combined for seven of the 10 penalties assessed on the Steelers, which broke down into three pre-snap penalties, two holdings, and two offensive pass interferences. That's a lot of behind-the-chains to make up, which had to have contributed to the 1-for-4 in the red zone. Le'Veon Bell didn't get enough carries, and on too many of the ones he did get there were some blocks not made that cost the Steelers chances to break some runs into the secondary, which could have lessened the demands on Jones to make plays in the passing game.
The defense and special teams followed along in this same pattern. Steven Johnson forced a fumble that Greg Warren recovered to chalk up a takeaway for special teams, but Chris Boswell missed two field goal attempts, with the first being from 42 yards. The defense had the one takeaway and forced five punts – four of which came on three-and-outs – but there were way too many rushing yards allowed, and the resistance in the red zone could best be described as token.
"And really, in a nutshell, the game kind of came down to those things I outlined, the things that I outlined to the group prior to us stepping into the stadium," said Tomlin, "because you knew the margin for error was going to be minimal. Have to make combat catches. You can't waste red zone trips. You have to come off blocks and make tackles in the run game. You can't give up explosion plays.
"That's why we lost."
And so it was that at the end of a game the Steelers supposedly had no chance to win, they were kicking themselves because they in fact did create some chances but were unable to follow through and take advantage.
Which kind of made it worse.