By Daniel Benjamin
Billed as the “Game of the Year,” the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots did not disappoint on Sunday.
The Steelers and Patriots went toe-to-toe as heavyweight fighters would, and just like in a championship boxing match, each team absorbed the other team’s jabs and responded with round houses of their own. Unfortunately for the Steelers, the Patriots defense delivered the knockout punch just before the final buzzer as cornerback Eric Rowe deflected Ben Roethlisberger’s pass to Eli Rogers, into the hands of safety Duron Harmon, who took a knee in the end zone for a touchback with five seconds left.
The Steelers, who took their first lead in the last five meetings early in the second quarter, took a 17-10 lead into halftime. Pittsburgh (11-3) led the entire second half except for the final 56 seconds of the game.
While the game as a whole was tremendous, there was some controversy at the end. Following a New England touchdown that put the Patriots up 27-24, the Steelers got down to the Patriots 21-yard line on a 69-yard catch-and-run by rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster. On the very next play, Roethlisberger connected with tight end Jesse James for what appeared to be the go-ahead touchdown. But after a replay review, it was ruled that James did not have complete control as he reached for the ball over the end zone. Roethlisberger was intercepted three plays later.
The loss snaps the Steelers’ eight-game winning streak and also gives the Patriots (11-3) the inside tact for the top seed in the AFC, thus home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The Steelers offense was highly efficient and controlled the ball and pace of the game. Pittsburgh averaged 6.7 yards per play and controlled the ball for over 35 minutes.
Roethlisberger had an outstanding first half, completing nine of his first 12 passes and 15-of-19 for 189 yards in the first two quarters. He spread the ball around as eight different receivers had at least one reception. He finished 22-of-30 for 281 yards along with two touchdowns and one interception. Roethlisberger did make a poor decision by trying to force the ball into coverage on the Steelers’ final play of the game. A more prudent thing would have been to either clock the ball or throw a fade rather than going over the middle.
Le’Veon Bell did an excellent job running ball, particularly in the second half. He totaled 117 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries, 67 of those yards came on 12 second half attempts.
It hurt that star receiver Antonio Brown left the game early with a leg injury. Brown had two catches for 24 yards. Smith-Schuster caught all six of his targets for 114 yards, which is the second most in his young career. Martavis Bryant made an excellent diving catch on a huge third down play early in the second quarter that went for 39 yards and set up a field goal.
The Steelers looked a lot better than they did against Baltimore last Sunday night. They got a lot of pressure on Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, and their defensive line was very active and disruptive. Cam Heyward and linebacker Bud Dupree each recorded a sack. Vince Williams came up with an interception while Mike Hilton did a nice job breaking up a few passes.
The problem was that the Steelers had no answer for tight end Rob Gronkowski, who caught nine passes for a season-high 168 yards. Gronkowski hauled in three passes on the Patriots’ game-winning drive and caused a pass interference penalty on Artie Burns that resulted in a field goal to cut the Pats’ deficit to 24-19.
Special Teams: B+
Chris Boswell didn’t have a lot of work, however, he did connect on his fourth 50-yard field goal in the past five games with a 51-yarder early in the second quarter. Boswell has made all 13 of his field goals during this five-game stretch.
Punter Jordan Berry boomed a nice 60-yarder that was returned 11 yards. Berry’s other three punts were not returned.
The Steelers’ game plan was solid, though there were some costly coaching mistakes. On the positive side, defensive coordinator Keith Butler made some nice adjustments, specifically switching to man-to-man coverage after the Patriots marched down the field on their opening drive of the game.
The Steelers had a communication issue early in the fourth quarter that forced them to use a timeout as the play clock was running down. Mike Tomlin wisely called a timeout with one minute left in the game in order to save time for their offense as the Patriots were threatening to take the lead. New England scored the touchdown on the first play after the timeout, leaving the Steelers with 56 seconds. However, the use of the two timeouts—specifically the one to prevent the delay of game—ultimately cost the Steelers as they did not have one to stop the clock before the final two plays of the game. The Steelers used their final timeout after the big play to Smith-Schuster.
The biggest coaching mistake was probably not trusting Roethlisberger to win the game after Brown was forced to leave. Roethlisberger threw 19 passes prior to halftime and just 11 passes in the second half, with four of those coming on the Steelers’ final possession.
The Steelers make their final road trip of the season next week as they will face the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium Stadium on Christmas Day. The Texans (4-10) have been in a tailspin since losing rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson for the season prior to Week 8, and have lost four straight and seven of eight.