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Lolley's 10 Thoughts: Steelers character being tested

Character is often revealed in the worst of times.

It's easy to be positive and upbeat when things are going well. But it truly tests one's mettle to stay focused and on top of things when things are going badly.

And right now, things are going as badly as they can for the Steelers, who lost their second-straight game in a span of five days to fall to 7-6 with a 21-18 defeat at the hands of the New England Patriots.

Things can go two different ways with this. The Steelers can fall apart, or they can dig deep and figure out how to fix things.

"I think you keep guys together by being accountable. Not running from the mistakes," said defensive lineman and team captain Cam Heyward. "We'll have meetings (Friday), but I'm not someone who is going to shy away from what's going on. I know a lot of our guys are going to think the same way.

"When we're out there or in meetings, there is a standard, a level of play that needs to be accustomed to everybody, and when we fall short, everybody is accountable for it. Nothing more than that."

This is the time of season where contenders turn things on and the pretenders fall by the wayside.

The Steelers have been a contender all season long. They're the same team that put together a 7-4 start to this season.

Some will look at these two losses – to a pair of 2-10 teams – as the defining moment of this season. But what will really define this team is what it now does over its final four games.

"To be honest, we don't even look at records," said linebacker Elandon Roberts. "We're in a situation where we had back-to-back losses, and we have to regroup. In December, it doesn't matter if you're going against a 13-1 team or a 1-13 team. All December games matter. The losses in December, you can't have. We have to get on this and get back into the winning category."

It's not a matter of players not caring. Heyward wouldn't have had groin surgery and worked to get back onto the field if he didn't care. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick played in Thursday's game despite suffering a broken bone in his hand in last Sunday's loss to the Cardinals. Roberts and offensive linemen Isaac Seumalo and Mason Cole all were questionable to play in this game after leaving the game against the Cardinals with injuries.

And those are just some of the things we know about. At this point in a season, plenty of players are out there laying their bodies on the line in an effort to secure a victory.

It just didn't happen in these two instances.

They don't have to like it. And they certainly don't have to accept this.

In fact, it would be surprising if this team simply accepted losing and went merrily about its way.

There's just too much character on this team to allow that to happen.

"Obviously players are ticked off, mad about the game," said Heyward. "But, you know, it's just about being smart with your words and getting back in the lab and absorbing what's really going on.

"(You) can't put a mask over this. This has been two ugly games that we have to be accountable for."

Game action photos from the Steelers' Week 14 game against the New England Patriots at Acrisure Stadium

This team won't quit. There's too much professional pride, too much character in that locker room to allow that to happen.

Obviously, this stings," head coach Mike Tomlin said. "But we'll be back."

What gives him that confidence?

His belief in his team's character.

"This is what we do," Tomlin said. "This is who we are."

• Former Tampa Bay coach John Robinson was once asked about his struggling team's execution.

Robinson quipped that he was, "all for it."

All joking aside, it's impossible to win in the NFL if all 11 players on the field don't execute a play as it's meant to be done.

Ten guys can be doing the right thing, but if one is doing the wrong thing, everybody's wrong.

And 14 games into this season, that's still happening too often for the Steelers.

"We've just got to play harder and figure something out. There are no excuses," said Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson. "We can't keep making excuses. It's clear as day what we've got to do."

And that is?

"Execute plays," Johnson said.

Coaches aren't telling players to miss tackles or a block. They aren't coaching players to make mental mistakes.

But those things are still happening far too often.

That didn't happen as often in this game as it did in last Sunday's loss to the Cardinals. In that game, the Steelers largely beat themselves with unforced errors.

This was about the Steelers getting punched in the mouth early and not recovering until about midway through the second quarter. By then, the damage was done.

And the Steelers were unable to recover because they didn't execute at a high enough level on offense.

The Patriots outgained the Steelers 219-112 and took advantage of the Steelers' lone turnover to score a touchdown on a short field.

The Steelers outgained the Patriots, 145-84, in the second half, but didn't take advantage of a short field to score a touchdown when they got a short field.

"Missed opportunities," said quarterback Mitch Trubisky. "I've got to play better. I feel like I let the guys down. Got to score off the turnover, couple of those fourth downs, the one in the red zone and the one ball to Diontae. I've got to do better for the guys, for the team."

The biggest issue was what Tomlin likes to call "weighty downs."

The Steelers were 3-14 on third downs and just 1-3 on fourth downs.

That's not winning football.

• Trubisky does have to play better. And he did play better as the game wore on. But as Tomlin often says, you can't warm up to it.

In this game, it wasn't just Trubisky who warmed up to things. The defense took too long to warm up to things, as well.

The Steelers allowed the Patriots to drive right down the field on the game's opening possession, then gave up a touchdown on just two plays after a Trubisky interception that was returned to the 11. Finally, they allowed the Patriots to go 59 yards for their final touchdown.

We can talk about short fields. We can talk about turnovers.

But the Patriots were starting a backup quarterback the same way the Steelers were with Trubisky subbing for injured Kenny Pickett.

And the defense made it easy on Zappe early by not pressuring him. And that was largely because the Patriots stayed on schedule offensively in the first half by not putting Zappe in third-and-long situations.

The Patriots converted one third down on their first touchdown drive to open the game, then converted one other on their 59-yard scoring drive. Outside of that, they were 2-13 on third downs.

But they made their conversions count. The Patriots were 2-2 in the red zone. The Steelers were 1-2, with their failed red zone trip resulting in a turnover on downs on the opening play of the fourth quarter.

• The Steelers were penalized just one in this game for five yards, but that one penalty was a big one.

Facing fourth-and-3 at their own 38 with 5:06 remaining, the Steelers lined up for a punt. But New England's Jahlani Tavai came across the line of scrimmage and the Steelers began celebrating, while the Patriots' special teams players began walking off the field.

After a discussion, Clay Martin's crew decided Tavai had been drawn offside by long snapper Christian Kuntz, who had raised his head up before attempting to snap the football.

Former NFL official Terry McAulay, who serves as the officials analyst for Amazon Prime, which was broadcasting the game, didn't think Kuntz had done anything wrong.

"That looks like normal movement you see from a long snapper," McAulay said.

"I didn't think I moved my head until he jumped," Kuntz said.

Instead of getting a first down, the Steelers were pushed back and forced to punt.

Tomlin and special teams coordinator Danny Smith both had words with Martin after the call, trying to get an explanation for the penalty.

"I was given an explanation," Tomlin said. "I don't know that I agree with it, but I was given an explanation."

• The Steelers got the ball back trailing by 3 points with 2:44 remaining in the game.

After an 8-yard pass to Johnson on second down put the Steelers in third-and-2 at their own 49, Trubisky misfired on back-to-back passes to George Pickens and then on a deep ball to Johnson on fourth down that effectively ended their chances.

Why go deep there?

"Based off coverage, he converted to a go ball," Johnson said. "We just didn't convert it."

Earlier in the game, Trubisky saw the Patriots showing a zero blitz and changed the play for Johnson into a go route against J.C. Jackson that turned into a 25-yard touchdown pass in the first half.

In this case, he wasn't wrong to take a chance with one of his playmakers in single coverage down the sideline. And Johnson had a step on the defender. The pass was just too far inside.

"We had multiple options," Trubisky said. "The safety was favoring (Pickens). I liked the one-on-one with Diontae. I felt like I could throw a better ball."

The play was there. Trubisky saw it. Johnson saw it and got open. The execution just wasn't there.

Now, the higher percentage play at that point would have been to simply get the two yards needed for the first down. At least at that point, with two minutes remaining in the game, if you pick up the first down, you still have a chance to at least tie the game.

But Trubisky trusted himself and Johnson to make a play.

• Slow starts have continued to trouble this team this season, regardless of who is at quarterback and who is calling the plays or drawing up the offensive game plan.

The defense has helped cover that up in a lot of games by being tough to score against early in games.

"I thought in the second half we will really settled down," said Heyward. "You can see we didn't give up any points. Man, you really can't give up 21 points early on and ask your offense to just continue to keep climbing."

• The Steelers knew running the ball would be tough against the Patriots. New England was allowing a league-best 3.2 yards per carry coming into this game and had given up an average of less than 60 rushing yards over its past three games.

But the Steelers have been running the ball well, but in this game, they got just 40 yards on 19 carries from Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren.

Trubisky led the team with 30 rushing yards on eight attempts.

The Steelers just didn't win at the line of scrimmage. That put a lot on the shoulders of the quarterback.

Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

"They do a good job with making it hard on the quarterback," Trubisky said of the Patriots. "On the short week I felt like we were well-prepared. You just like to stay out of third-and-long situations, and that's going to be hard in the NFL. Third-and-8 plus, it's going to be tough to convert."

• Miles Killebrew had a tough week.

He was called for three penalties in the Steelers' loss to the Cardinals. 

But his blocked punt – his second this season – early in the fourth quarter with the Steelers trailing 21-10 very nearly turned this game.

And the block wasn't schemed up. He simply beat his man off the wing to get to the punt.

Killebrew has been a consummate professional since joining the Steelers three years ago. He's the Steelers' special teams captain and a leader in that locker room.

"It was an exciting play. I just wish we could have done more to help," Killebrew said. "It was exciting. I'm definitely grateful I was able to get it."

• JuJu Smith-Schuster came into this game averaging 6.8 yards per catch. He had four receptions for 90 yards in this game.

Smith-Schuster made a nice catch on a 37-yard reception in the first quarter where he just outfought safety Damontae Kazee down the field. But on another occasion in the second quarter, the Steelers basically didn't cover him on a 24-yard catch on third down out of the slot.

Again, execution.

• The Steelers have now put themselves back into a position where they not only need to right the ship and start winning games again, but where they'll also perhaps need some help.

That's how quickly things can change in the NFL if you don't execute.

Things might seem bleak. And certainly after losing these past two games – at home – to teams with losing records, that's fair.

But if this team can get its act together and win its final four games, or perhaps even three of them, it could still get to the postseason.

They cannot, however, do so making some of the same mistakes they've made the past two games.

"Either guys learn or you've got to change who's in there," said Heyward. "Myself included. If I can't execute, then you've got to take me out. That's just the way the group rolls."