FOXBOROUGH, Ma. – Wow, that was awful.
If I hadn’t been there every day with them at Saint Vincent College and seen it with my own eyes, if I hadn’t also watched every snap of four preseason games, explaining this 33-3 loss to New England here last night by saying the Steelers had skipped training camp and the preseason and just showed up at Gillette Stadium to open their 2019 regular season, well, that would’ve been plausible.
But since they did spend 20-plus days living in a college dormitory plus another fortnight at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex plus a complete preseason working to get themselves ready for this and then played so poorly in every phase of a game that ended in a resounding and total defeat is so very disappointing.
Those interested in the blame game can have at it, because it’s impossible to defend anyone associated with what the Steelers presented to the public during those three hours against the Patriots. Every coach, every player, every member of the personnel department who had something to do with assembling this roster, devising this game plan, and executing that plan, all of them should be charged with dereliction of duty.
Embarrassing, humbling, infuriating, all of those adjectives apply to a game where the Steelers weren’t even competitive, and the fact the opponent was the franchise that just last season had tied their record with a sixth Lombardi Trophy and celebrated the accomplishment before using them as the foils in a demonstration of their standing as the NFL’s best team made the experience that much worse.
“No need to sugar coat it. We weren’t ready for primetime tonight,” said Coach Mike Tomlin. “All of us. Not a good enough plan, not a good enough execution of that plan. You got to tip your cap to those guys, they had a good plan. They executed their plan. You know, they kind of made the significant plays, even with all of the things that I said. We had bang-bang plays on both sides of the ball it seems like and it seems like they made them and we didn’t. So we accept responsibility for that. That’s the nature of this thing. It’s humbling. It sucks. But that’s the National Football League. It won’t define us, if we don’t let it.”
Understand that singling out one particular player or unit for culpability in a defeat as complete as this one is unfair and inaccurate, but the three examples to be offered are representative of what happened to create 33-3.
One perceived area of strength on the 2019 Steelers was their offensive line. Talented, experienced, this offensive line is expected to be one of the NFL’s best again this season, a unit capable of setting the necessary physical tone for this team and possibly carrying it on its back to get through some rough patches and difficult situations.
Three of those situations cropped up on successive series in the second quarter against the Patriots, and the failure to deliver sealed the Steelers’ fate.
With New England holding a 10-0 lead, the Steelers got the ball following Stephen Gostkowski’s 25-yard field goal and quickly found themselves facing a third-and-1 from their own 30-yard line. Figuring they could power the ball for the necessary yardage to get the first down and continue the drive, the Steelers sent James Conner up the middle. Stuffed. No gain. Jordan Berry had to come on to punt.
When the defense held the Patriots to three yards on three plays following that punt by Berry, the Steelers offense took possession at its own 30-yard line. A defensive holding penalty netted one first down, and then two runs by Conner gained 9 yards to set up another third-and-1. Again the decision was to turn to the running game, but this time Conner was sent around left end and the outcome was worse. The play was blown up by penetration from the Patriots defensive front, and Conner was dumped for a 4-yard loss. Another Berry punt.
By the time the Steelers got the ball back, the Patriots’ lead had grown to 17-0 thanks to Tom Brady’s 25-yard touchdown pass to Phillip Dorsett. Needing some points before halftime, the Steelers turned things over to Ben Roethlisberger and the passing game. After Roethlisberger converted a third-and-10 with a 19-yard pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster, the Steelers got to the two-minute warning facing a fourth-and-1 at the Patriots 47-yard line.
There was little choice but to go for it, and after the Patriots had stuffed the run twice the Steelers kept the ball in Roethlisberger’s hands. His pass to Donte Moncrief was broken up by safety Patrick Chung, and Brady had enough time to move the Patriots into field goal range to make it 20-0 at halftime.
There might have been another half to play, but at that time the game was over, with only the Patriots’ margin of victory still to be decided. A 58-yard touchdown pass to Dorsett and two more Gostkowski field goals in the second half determined that margin.
“They made some plays (on offense), but you’ve got to get these guys in competitive circumstances to make them play,” said Tomlin. “When you don’t do that, when you aren’t matching score for score, you know there is very little risk involved with the type of plays they call and execute. So they pick their spots. You’ve got to be competitive if you want to get them in an uncomfortable environment. We know that. We have played these guys enough. We didn’t do that tonight, so it unfolded the way it unfolded.”
And the tone for the way it unfolded was set during those three series in the second quarter.