By Christina Rivers
In the opening game of the 2015 NFL season, the Pittsburgh Steelers entered Gillette Stadium against a New England Patriots team prepared to dominate after weeks of unsavory news and a negative spotlight. The Steelers were successful in moving the ball utilizing the rushing of DeAngelo Williams and the guidance of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, but their defensive secondary continued to exhibit the mistakes of youth and communication issues that plagued them throughout the preseason. The Steelers may have made things more interesting on the scoreboard had recently-signed placekicker Josh Scobee hit the first two field goals he was handed, but after watching both slide outside of the uprights, Pittsburgh was forced to play from behind and never could quite catch up.
The Steelers had a solid game plan in play against the Patriots by putting the ball into Williams’ hands and using the rush to create passing opportunities. Williams was strong on the ground, exhibiting a nice burst of energy around the end of the line and chewing up 127 yards in 21 carries. With the ground game established, Roethlisberger was given plenty of protection from his offensive line to set up the pass. Antonio Brown and Darrius Heyward-Bey were complimented by an ever consistent Heath Miller and steady Markus Wheaton. Wheaton had a difficult grab on the sideline but kept his feet in-bounds to give the Steelers a much-needed first down. Fullback Will Johnson scored a touchdown in short yardage within the red zone by putting his head down and using the push of the offensive line.
Where the Steelers offense struggled was in clock management and a sense of urgency. Brown’s last-minute touchdown catch could have been a fine addition to a decent opening performance by Pittsburgh, but the game clock was ready to expire. Late in both the first and second half of the game, the Steelers weren’t able to get the right personnel on the field in a timely fashion. Instead of calling a time out, Pittsburgh lost critical time off the clock. The offense gave a valiant effort with 464 total yards versus the Patriots’ 361, but the scoreboard did not reflect their success. Pittsburgh looked like they could have gotten the game back under control when Roethlisberger motioned to the sideline to hold substitutions and ran the hurry-up offense, but with deficits due to special teams and the defense, it was just not enough to come out on top. Roethlisberger’s fourth quarter interception was just an example of frustration showing through.
As witnessed during the preseason, the young defense that the Steelers have put together under first-year defensive coordinator Keith Butler is a liability to an offense that outperformed that of the Patriots in passing yards, rushing yards and time of possession. Communication errors led to players being out of position, especially in the defensive backfield, giving Tom Brady – a wily veteran who has seen nearly every defensive scheme dreamed up – a clear view of every chink in their armor. Brady gladly took advantage, finding tight end Rob Gronkowski, a mismatch for nearly any NFL defensive back, for three touchdowns. The Steelers are in for a long season if they cannot clean things up, get guys to accept their position and stick with it.
At times the defense looked primed for a big play only to suffer a setback. Will Allen earned the only true pressure on Brady by sacking him in the Patriots’ backfield on a safety blitz. Rookie Bud Dupree earned the first sack of his NFL career on Brady and showed speed off the line. James Harrison wasn’t as active as many expected and even veteran Lawrence Timmons seemed to be playing at half speed as Brady kept the Patriots offense moving quickly. The Steelers adjusted to bump receivers coming off of the line only to falter a few plays later by allowing receivers like Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola to get past them. When the Steelers are forced to put Terence Garvin on a guy the size of Gronkowski in a goal-line play, there are serious issues that remain unsolved.
The Steelers may have had a fighting chance at being competitive in this game had Scobee made two of the four field goals he was asked to kick. Frustration mounted as Pittsburgh’s offense marched down the field on their opening offensive series only to watch Scobee do something unnatural – kick the ball wide of the goal posts. A couple series later, Heyward-Bey made a nice over-the-shoulder catch to set Scobee up for an easy kick and once again, the ball sailed to the side; no good. The two misses in a row were the first by a Steelers kicker since Allan Watson in 1970. It is a guarantee that Mike Tomlin expects a lot more from a guy that led the Jacksonville Jaguars in scoring.
Neither Brown nor Dri Archer were given real opportunities to return kicks or punts in this game. The Patriots were sound in putting the ball deep into the end zone. Archer did attempt one return, but was only able to dig from the end zone out to the 17 yard-line in what could arguably be called a move of desperation as a touchback would have given the Steelers the 20 yard-line to start. Brown tried to create some action as well, but the Patriots special teams played tight coverage.
With five preseason games in 2015, the Steelers were expected to have worked out all the wrinkles. NFL insiders have been expressing concern over the Steelers defense during that time and on opening night, it was those areas of concern that became glaringly apparent. While players are responsible for their play, it raises questions about Butler’s preparation.
With Tomlin getting more actively involved with the defense during training camp and the preseason, it also puts a spotlight on whether or not his team is buying into the plan he and Butler have put together for the season. Dupree and Ryan Shazier looked fully-engaged while Antwon Blake used arm-tackling with little effect. As a whole, this team is in danger of disappointing results if the coaching staff cannot rapidly correct fundamental mental and physical errors.
Mike Munchak and Todd Haley look like geniuses after working out the kinks on offense to compensate for the absence of Maurkice Pouncey, Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant.
The Steelers will return to Heinz Field on Sunday, September 20, to play a San Francisco 49ers team that has had its own struggles this preseason. That gives this team a 10-day period to grow up, so to speak. Veteran leadership becomes a necessity as Pittsburgh makes the adjustments to improve the defense while the offense continues to fire on all cylinders. The tables have truly turned in Pittsburgh with more offensive weapons that run-stopping, blitzing players on the other side of the ball. Tradition in the Steel City calls for a more stalwart stand, so expect the men in black and gold to be pressured to get with the program – both by coaches and fans – ahead of their second game of the regular season.
Christina Rivers has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers and National Football League professionally as a journalist and photographer for over a decade. Rivers studied Exercise Physiology and Sports Psychology at Brigham Young University as a student-athlete. Christina is a freelance writer covering all things NFL as well as a published author. Her work can be found on