By Ray Porter Jr.
PITTSBURGH, PA–New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and QB Tom Brady have owned the Pittsburgh Steelers over the years. And now that Brady has moved onto the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it was assumed that the Steelers could now beat Belichick and the Patriots without issue.
But after the Steelers faced the Patriots Sunday at Acrisure Stadium, it was confirmed that Belichick and the Patriots still own the Steelers.
In front of a season-opening crowd of 67,307, the Steelers fell 17-14 to the Patriots to drop them to 1-1 after 2 games. It’s the 2nd consecutive home-opening loss for the Steelers as they also fell to the Las Vegas Raiders 26-17 a year ago.
“Really one of those really tight ball games that’s going to come down to a few things, and we knew that going in. That’s why you put the weight on the weighty downs or the situational moments. They made more splash plays in that circumstance than we did,” said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.
“I thought they won the field position game and special teams,” Tomlin continued. “They got a couple kickoff returns from a field positioning standpoint. Obviously, when we didn’t handle the punt, that was a significant play. The two-minute go ball was a significant play, and sometimes when you’re in games like this, that’s the difference. It felt like it was today.”
For the 2nd straight week, the Steelers’ offense struggled at the hands of veteran QB Mitch Tribusky (21/31 for 168 yards, TD, Int) as he was unable to get the Steelers into the end zone in the first half. He also had challenges locating wide-open WRs which could’ve helped stretch the field. The only first-half points they could generate were off the foot of K Chris Boswell as his 36-yarder tied the game in the 2nd quarter.
The game remained close because the Steelers’ defense was able to intercept Patriots QB Mac Jones in the first half (Courtesy of S Minkah Fitzpatrick) and force the Patriots to punt on several occasions, but Jones (21/35, 252 yards, TD, Int) was able to get his team into the end zone late in the 2nd quarter as he found WR Nelson Agholor (6 rec, 110 yards) for a 44-yard TD, extending their lead to 10-3. Agholor successfully made the catch despite tight coverage from Steelers CB Akiello Witherspoon.
“We had our moments. We won some possession downs on offense,” Tomlin commented. “We won some possession downs on defense. But again, I just — those seven points in the two-minute circumstance and then the ability to put seven points on the board after we didn’t handle the punt were the significant components to the game.”
In the 3rd quarter, Boswell again added 3 more points to close the Patriots’ lead to 10-6, and it appeared that they had a golden opportunity to take the lead on their next drive, but unfortunately Punt Returner (and former Patriot) Gunner Olszewski’s fumble, which was recovered by the Patriots who then extended their lead to 17-6 on a 2-yard TD by RB Damien Harris (15 carries, 71 yards)
That apparently seemed to wake up the Steelers as they swiftly drove 75 yards on 9 plays on the next drive to score their only TD of the game when Tribusky found TE Pat Freiermuth for an 8-yard TD and then a 2-point conversion to WR Diontae Johnson to close the Patriots lead to 17-14. The Steelers’ defense was able to force the Patriots to punt one last time, but the offense was unable to recreate the previous drive’s magic and when the Patriots got the ball again, they were able to get key first downs and run out the clock to seal the victory.
In addition to the 14 points, the other thing that hurt the Steelers’ defense was their inability to generate a pass rush against Jones. After sacking Cincinnati Bengals QB Joe Burrow 7 times a week ago, they had 0 against Jones, which is credited to the absence of reigning Defensive Player of the Year LB TJ Watt who is on Injured Reserve due to injury.
“I thought New England would do a good job of minimizing that component of our game by running the football, by rhythm throws, things of that nature.” Said Tomlin “So, I didn’t necessarily go into this game thinking it was going to be a seven-sack type game. It just wasn’t going to unfold that way. Their style of play wasn’t going to allow that to happen.”
It’s an understatement that the Steelers need to learn from this loss and figure things out quickly because they will travel to Cleveland Thursday to face the 1-1 Browns.
“It’s painful, but it is. It’s important that we zero our focus in on this short week. That’s what we were just talking about in there.” Said Tomlin “Obviously, there’s some things to learn from this performance, but we’d better learn quickly and shift our focus because we’ve got a road division game here in a short period of time.”
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