FOXBOROUGH, Ma. – The defense is going to take a lot of heat for what happened here yesterday, and when a unit allows 36 points while recording zero takeaways and zero passes defensed, well, that's to be expected. It figured to be a dicey proposition going against Tom Brady with three rookie starters on defense, but even with that things were simply too easy for the Patriots offense all evening.
For the Steelers to slay the dragon yesterday at Gillette Stadium, for them to win their ninth AFC Championship and advance to Super Bowl LI, though, it was going to have to result from a win by their offense over New England's defense that was every bit as decisive as what Brady would end up doing to their defense. Because defeating the Patriots doesn't happen with defense, as the Houston Texans learned in the Divisional Round. Sack Brady, harass Brady, intercept Brady, but if you don't have the offense to score and possess the ball and compete in time of possession, eventually Tom Brady will get enough done to beat you.
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 Sammie Coates dropped a deep pass on third-and-1 from the Pittsburgh 31-yard line. Coates has to make that play, but, OK, it's still 3-0 after Brady's second crack at the Steelers defense, because Javon Hargrave threw guard Joe Thuney to the ground and sacked Brady on third-and-11. Three-and-out, and the Steelers offense is back on the field with the ball on the Pittsburgh 39-yard line.
Ben Roethlisberger converted one third down with a pass to Jesse James, but on the next Antonio Brown couldn't come down with the ball on a play you need from your first-team All-Pro receiver if you're going to go on the road and beat a team like the New England Patriots. The first quarter was exactly half over when Jordan Berry punted for the second time, and he didn't do anything special to help the cause when the ball hit inside the 5-yard line and bounced into the end zone for a touchback that gave Brady some room to operate.
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 Chris Boswell missed an extra point. And by this time Le'Veon Bell was on the sideline with a groin injury that would end his day, and the Steelers simply were not getting the kinds of plays they needed from their receivers to make up for what they weren't going to be getting from their running game.
Coates and Landry Jones both would drop more passes – or fail to make the necessary plays on catchable balls, if you prefer a more charitable description – and with Bell done for the day, the Steelers running attack, which the team hoped would help control the ball and keep it away from Brady and the New England offense, was done for the day as well.
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.
Instead, it was 20-9, and the Steelers offense consisted solely of whatever Roethlisberger's right arm could produce. For the second time in their two second half possessions, the Steelers punted, and then the defense collapsed. Brady was completing passes for chunks of yards down the middle, and then LeGarrette Blount began pounding the defense's interior with the Steelers leery of the damage Brady was doing through the air.
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 Eli Rogers lost a fumble put the game out of reach at 33-9 with 95 seconds left in the third quarter.
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 Artie Burns and Sean Davis, plus a third-year pro in Stephon Tuitt who just this season became a regular in the lineup – didn't seem to be all that great of an alternative either.
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.