The good feeling was gone, and it was gone in a hurry.
In a 25-17 loss to Pittsburgh Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field (click here for the complete recap), any of the mildly positive vibes that built up around the Patriots defense over the last two games -- the improved numbers on third down, the dramatic decrease in total yards allowed and the increase in pressure on opposing quarterbacks -- all went out the window about a quarter of the way through the game, as it became clear that Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers had the scheme and the personnel to handle the New England pass defense.
It was a particularly brutal afternoon for the New England secondary. Less than 72 hours after the Patriots effectively fired veteran cornerback Leigh Bodden, it was evident the remaining corners were not going to fare any better than he had had over the first six games of the season. While there were some cause for optimism based on what the New England pass defense did in the previous two games, on Sunday defensive backs were routinely caught out of position and chasing after a variety of Pittsburgh pass-catchers. There was miscommunication and missed assignments, all of which led in large part to five absolutely spirit-sapping scoring drives of 10 plays or more that proceeded to deliver a knockout blow to the wobbly New England pass defense.
“From the first drive, they declared an inside passing game,” Patriots corner Kyle Arrington said. “We mixed the defenses up and tried to do what we could out there and throw different looks at them. They did a great job in game-planning. They just outplayed us. They have speedy, explosive receivers, but we just run the game calls. It was just a bad day overall.”
As was the case previously, the Patriots utilized lots of zone coverage, this time in hopes that they could slow down the Pittsburgh passing game in the same way they were able to stall the Cowboys and the Jets. But unlike the last two games, Roethlisberger and the Steelers were able to find soft spots in New England’s zone. They were able to go underneath and exploit mismatches against a group of Patriots linebackers that had struggled to defend the pass all year, a group of defensive backs that looked occasionally overwhelmed and a defensive front that had problems getting after the quarterback.
One of the most egregious errors came on Roethlisberger’s touchdown pass for Antonio Brown late in the first half, when it appeared cornerback Antwaun Molden dropped into a zone ... which was already being covered by safety James Ihedigbo. That allowed Brown to gain a small bit of separation, and Roethllsberger found him for the 7-yard touchdown pass. (It also appeared that Molden and Ihedigbo were crossed up on Mewelde Moore’s first-quarter touchdown catch.)
In addition, Ihedigbo appeared to get beaten by Pittsburgh tight end Heath Miller on a couple of early catches, and he appeared to simply slip when trying to defend a 26-yard grab by Emmanuel Sanders. And Molden appeared to be responsible for coverage on Antonio Brown when Brown made a 17-yard catch on a on a third-and-15 to help keep a second-half drive alive for the Steelers. (Molden was eventually yanked for Phillip Adams.)
In the end, Roethlisberger finished 36-for-50 for 365 yards and two touchdowns on a day when he probably could have had close to 400 yards.
“It just wasn’t a good day,” Arrington lamented.
“It was a team effort. You can’t say it was the defensive backs, you can’t say it was us,” defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said. “I think collectively we didn’t do a good job defensively, when it comes down to it. Like I said, you win as a team, you lose as a team. Take it like a man. Take it as a team and move forward. We have to be able to fix it and move on.”
Questions about Bodden's release were asked frequently on Sunday. He couldn’t be any worse than these guys, could he? And while that remains up for debate, the reality of the situation is that for better or worse, the Patriots are now committed to this group of defensive backs going forward.
“We’ve got to have to do a better job in every area,” coach Bill Belichick said. “We need to play better offense, we need to play better defense, and we need to play better special teams. We need to coach better. We need to play better. That wasn’t our best effort today. I’m not questioning the effort, it wasn’t very good execution. We just didn’t get it done.”
Here are nine other things we learned Sunday.
THE STEELERS OFFENSE LOOKED AN AWFUL LOT LIKE THE PATRIOTS DID LAST NOVEMBER
Frankly, much of what the Steelers did offensively on Sunday bore a striking resemblance to how the Patriots offense approached Pittsburgh last season -- spread the defense out, throw the football, use just enough of the running game to keep the opponent honest and control the clock. It worked, as Roethlisberger took advantage of the holes in New England’s zone, concentrating the middle of the field and taking what the Patriots gave them.
“You would have thought that the game plan was just dink-and-dunk, but that’s what they gave us,” Roethlisberger said. “They took away the deep ball. For us, taking away the deep ball, it opens the underneath stuff, and for us you think about possessing the ball, and the time of possession and control. It’s running the ball. We kind of showed we can do without always running the ball. We can take the short pass and the screen to the wide receiver, and we can move the ball.”
Pittsburgh, which came into the game with an affinity for big plays (particularly Mike Wallace, who was averaging 20.3 yards per catch), didn’t really take many shots deep. The Steelers completed two passes of 20 yards or more, and Wallace finished with seven catches for 70 yards (easily his lowest yards-per-catch output of the season). In the end, Roethlisberger’s 36 completions (to nine different receivers) and 50 attempts were the second most he’s had of each in an NFL game, according to ESPN.
At least early, the Steelers’ biggest target was tight end Heath Miller, something of a surprise considering the fact that the Patriots had done a very good job containing tight ends over the course of the first six games of the season -- opposing tight ends came into the game averaging just three catches for 39 yards against New England. Miller reached those numbers by the end of the first quarter. He ended up with seven catches for 85 yards.
“I know he had a great game. He’s Mr. Dependable. I get the ball close to him and he makes the play,” Roethlisberger said of Miller. “To me, Heath is a lineman in the passing game, blocking, and he is wide receiver when he catches the ball. So if we can get him matched up on linebackers, we feel that is win for us.”
FOR BRADY AND THE PATRIOTS OFFENSE, IT WAS TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE
The Patriots weren’t able to get into any sort of sustained offensive rhythm throughout the first half, thanks in large part to the fact that the New England defense couldn’t get off the field. The Patriots had a three-and-out on its first drive of the game and didn’t get the ball back for the rest of the first quarter. And when New England did get the ball back, there was no flow and no consistency to its game. As a result, the Patriots were in comeback mode all day long, first facing a 10-0 deficit in the second quarter and then a 17-7 disadvantage at halftime.
“We just didn’t execute very well on offense,” quarterback Tom Brady said. ”I don’t think we complemented our defense very well. The first quarter, we had an opportunity to go answer their score, and we go three-and-out. There were too many three-and-outs. It was just a poor level of execution all the way around.”
The Patriots offense is at its best when it dictates the tempo -- its specialty is playing with a lead, imposing its will on an opposing defense and choking the life out the defense in the fourth quarter with their four-minute offense. On Sunday, New England never had that opportunity, starting slow, failing to find a rhythm and never recovering. Much of that was because the offense was kept off the field for long stretches, but when the offense got on the field, it was unable to do much of anything, at least for the first two-plus quarters.
“It’s a good football team [and] we played them on the road,” Brady said. ”There’s not much margin of error when you play a good team on the road, and we certainly made plenty of errors.”
The Patriots did get a touchdown after a Gary Guyton interception in the second quarter gave them great field position (after the pick, the Patriots started at the Pittsburgh 8, and Brady hit Deion Branch with a 2-yard score two plays later), but that was the offensive highlight for the Patriots in the first half. There were signs of life in the second half, with the Patriots' best series coming on a 10-play drive in the fourth quarter that consumed 67 yards, took 3:28 and ended with a 1-yard pass from Brady to Aaron Hernandez.
But it wasn’t enough. The Steelers held Wes Welker — still on pace for an NFL record for yards receiving in a season — to 39 yards on six catches. Overall, the Patriots finished with their fewest points since a 34-14 loss to Cleveland last year.
“We never really played with the lead. We never really played the game on our terms,” Brady said. “I think they played very well defensively. They have a lot of good players over there, great scheme, great coaching. We understand if we play like that we’re not going to beat many people at all.”
IN THE MATCHUP BETWEEN TOM BRADY AND DICK LEBEAU, SCORE ONE FOR THE PITTSBURGH DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR
Brady came into Sunday’s game with a track record of dominance against LeBeau’s defense – he was 6-1 in his career against the Steelers and had made a semi-annual practice of shredding the Pittsburgh defense. But on Sunday, Brady was held in check: He finished with 198 passing yards, the first time all season he wasn’t able to break the 200-yard mark. He also set season lows in yards per attempt (5.66) and longest pass play (23 yards).
The Steelers made some tweaks to their traditional defensive game plan. While they still blitzed Brady a lot, they (mostly) steered clear of their old zone blitz. At the same time, they used more defensive backs than usual (at one point, it appeared there were as many as six on the field), and they used more man coverage than they have in the past. After the game, Brady confessed he was a little surprised by the Steelers’ approach, saying they played more man coverage than what they had shown all year.
“The way you beat man [defense] is you make plays against it and you get them out of it, and we didn’t do enough of that,” Brady said. “They run a lot of the same stuff every week and I just don’t think we did a good job handling it or adjusting to it, or playing against it. I thought they were very physical and we didn’t really match their physical style. We’ve got to run the ball better. We’ve got to throw the ball better. We’ve got to execute better all the way around.”
AS A GROUP, THE PATRIOTS DEFENSE CAN HANG ITS HAT ON THREE RED ZONE STOPS -- OTHER THAN THAT, IT HAD NOTHING
The Patriots had three red-zone stops on the afternoon, holding the Steelers to field goals on drives when they got inside the New England 20 in the second, third and fourth quarter. (In fact, that was one of the primary reasons New England still had a chance to win the game at the end.) But it was of little solace, as the Steelers maneuvered the ball up and down the field with relative ease all afternoon.
Particularly devastating was the fact that the Steelers were 10-for-16 on third downs. In the wake of back-to-back performances in which the Patriots were able to limit the Jets and then the Cowboys to a combined 7-for-23 on third downs, it was another reminder that the New England defense isn’t where it should be at this point in the season.
“[We] gave up too many third downs, that was a big problem,” Belichick said. “If we had made some of those plays on third down we wouldn’t be talking about some of the other plays.”
Said Wilfork: "We talk about getting them in second-and-long, third-and-long and taking advantage of those situations. We had them in those situations but we didn’t take advantage of it."
ROB GRONKOWSKI THINKS HE SCORED A TOUCHDOWN
The Patriots were trailing 23-10 with less than five minutes remaining in regulation, but they were driving in the fourth quarter on their only lengthy offensive sequence of the afternoon. With New England in second-and-goal at the Pittsburgh 9, Brady delivered a laser to tight end Rob Gronkowski at the goal line. The referees said Gronkowski wasn’t in, but a check of the replay revealed that the tight end had indeed crossed into end zone.
The Patriots were eventually able to pick up the touchdown, but it came two plays and almost two minutes later. With New England trying to rally -- and timeouts at a premium down the stretch -- that valuable missed time affected how the Patriots operated down the stretch. After the game, Gronkowski (who had the finest afternoon of any New England receiver, coming away with a team-high seven catches for 94 yards) was asked if he thought he was in the end zone.
“Yep,” he said. “It was such a quick situation, and that was the call. We just have to move on. We needed the timeouts, so you can’t even risk it. That’s what the referee called, and we just moved on. We eventually scored, which is good.”
Belichick was asked if he thought about challenging the call.
“I thought about it, but there was no evidence to say to challenge it,” he said. “I mean, I certainly couldn’t see it from my angle, and I don’t believe they replayed the play in the box, but there was nothing to tell us that he wasn’t. … I don’t know whether he was [in] or not.”
LOOKING FOR POSITIVES? TRY KEVIN FAULK
The return of the veteran running back (after more than a year away from the game and the first six weeks on the physically unable to perform list) was perhaps the best news of the afternoon for the Patriots. Faulk was immediately worked into the offense -- he finished with a team-high 11 touches (six rushes for a team-high 32 yards and five receptions for 20 yards), including a key carry on a third-down direct-snap rush put the Patriots in position for Stephen Gostkowski’s 46-yard field goal.
“It was a great feeling, but once you get back in the game you’re just doing your job,” Faulk said of his return. “You’re not worried about it being your first game back, you’re just worried about helping your team win.”
While it’s debatable if the veteran has lost a step, Brady still has all the confidence in the world in Faulk, going to him for a handful of key plays on the afternoon. In addition to the direct snap, there was an eerie replay of the infamous fourth-and-2 failure in 2009 against Indianapolis, as Brady found Faulk just outside the goal line with a pass in the fourth quarter, only to have Faulk turned away by safety Ryan Clark. (The Patriots did get in two plays later when Brady found Hernandez.)
While the numbers were important, he was able to most serve as an impactful member of the New England offense on the Patriots’ first touchdown of the day. With the Patriots in a second-and-goal on the Pittsburgh 2, Faulk picked up Pittsburgh’s Ryan Mundy coming on a blitz off the corner, standing his ground and delivering a block that allowed Brady to garner enough time to make his throw to Branch.
“I’m here to help my team,” Faulk said. “Whatever they ask me to do. I didn’t know my role at the beginning of the week, but at the same time it’s just, ‘Do your job,’ and your role will define itself later.”
“He’s such a spark plug for our offense,” Brady said. “He does so many things well. For a guy who hasn’t played football in a year, it certainly didn’t look like it. He played well, played hard, made some big plays running the ball catching the ball. I’m sure he’s going to be sore tomorrow. He took some big hits. But it was great to have him back.”
THE LESS SAID ABOUT THE PATRIOTS’ OFFENSIVE LINE PLAY, THE BETTER
The offensive line had done a very good job protecting Brady to this point in the season, but like the goodwill that surrounded the New England defense, any positive vibes around the recent performance of the O-line evaporated on Sunday. New England’s linemen were whistled for four false starts and allowed three sacks as Brady was beaten up by the Pittsburgh defense.
Already the most penalized position on the field (11 penalties through six games), the O-line struggled with the crowd noise and the Pittsburgh defense on Sunday. Left guard Logan Mankins picked up a pair of first-half penalties, with both serving as drive-stoppers. (Mankins also was the one who yielded LaMarr Woodley’s first sack of Brady.) And back at right tackle after an extended stretch on the shelf because of a back injury, Sebastian Vollmer was abused by Woodley on his second sack, and he and Matt Light were both whistled for false starts. Light’s penalty came in the fourth quarter, and the five yards cost the Patriots valuable field position on a series that ended with the missed Gostkowski field goal.
SPECIAL TEAMS STRUGGLED
It was perhaps the worst afternoon of the season for Gostkowski. The kicker only put two of his five kickoffs into the end zone and recorded zero touchbacks. He did connect on a 46-yard field goal late in the first half, but late in the third he missed a chance to make it a one-score game when he hit the right upright on a 42-yarder with 2:25 remaining in the quarter (his first missed field goal since the season-opener against Miami).
The coup de grace came in the fourth quarter. With the Patriots having just punched in a touchdown with 2:40 left and trailing 23-17, Gostkowski delivered one of the worst onside kicks in recent memory, tapping the ball seven yards off the tee before it skittered to a halt. The penalty gave the ball to the Steelers at the New England 37-yard line and just about ended any chance the Patriots had at winning the game.
“We had confidence in the play,” Belichick said after the game when asked about the kick. “[We] thought we would execute it well -- thought we’d have a good chance to get the ball. It obviously didn’t work out that way.”
As for the rest of the special teams, Pittsburgh wasn’t forced to punt until there were 28 seconds remaining, with Welker in as a punt returner in place of Julian Edelman (a puzzling healthy scratch). Danny Woodhead stepped in for Edelman on kick returns and averaged a perfectly pedestrian 18.5 yards, with his longest going for 21 yards. Punt coverage gets a passing grade -- Zoltan Mesko had four punts and averaged 42 yards on the afternoon, while Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown was held to a six-yard return average on punt return work. But kick coverage was another story, as Brown was able to tilt the field nicely with three returns for an average of 27 yards.
THE AFC EAST RACE IS STARTING TO COME INTO SHARPER FOCUS
Whether or not you believe in the Bills as a season-long threat in the AFC East, Sunday’s loss by the Patriots robbed them of a valuable opportunity to keep the top spot in the division.
Entering Sunday’s action, New England held first place in the AFC East with a 5-1 mark, but its loss – combined with a win by the Bills over a woeful Redskins squad – leaves the Patriots and Bills tied atop the division with 5-2 records (technically, Buffalo holds the edge because it knocked off New England earlier this season). Meanwhile, the Jets, who were on their bye this week, are a game back at 4-3.
However, the next two weeks could lead to some separation, as all three teams at the top of the division meet each other over the next 14 days: The Patriots host the Giants on Sunday before a return date in New Jersey with Rex Ryan and the Jets. The Jets will travel to Buffalo on Sunday and then return to host the Patriots, and the Bills face the Jets and then travel to square off against the Cowboys.