…Toss-counter run plays killed the Patriots for much of the evening in the Steel City. The design was fairly straightforward: the play begins as a toss, usually to rookie RB Jaylen Samuels, who then cuts back to the opposite side of the formation.
Just like last week in Miami, New England defenders had difficulty shedding their opponents' blocks, which helped Pittsburgh tremendously to accrue yardage on the ground in this manner.
…The first Steeler touchdown – QB Ben Roethlisberger throwing to TE Vance McDonald – was a simple route by McDonald. He ran it precisely, a short out-route that he turned backwards back to the inside, and safety Patrick Chung was late reacting to McDonald's quickness. Easy throw and catch for the Steeler duo.
…New England tied it up just three plays later, using a play they've become fond of this season: the play-action, fake end-around. Sometimes, they actually hand the ball off to the receiver on the end around, which might explain why Steelers DBs were keeping their eyes on the Patriots' backfield to see what QB Tom Brady was going to do with the ball.
Problem was, three of them stayed with WR Josh Gordon and none of them covered WR Chris Hogan, who was as wide open as I've ever seen any player in the NFL. Gordon was lined up on the right of formation and ran a deep cross to the left, where Hogan was first lined up in a bunch formation. Hogan and Gordon criss-crossed downfield, but none of the Steelers followed Hogan.
Brady put the throw on target, Hogan hauled it in, turned up-field and sprinted untouched for a 63-yard score.
…A perfectly-timed blitz by LB Kyle Van Noy allowed him to break through the Pittsburgh o-line and record the first Roethlisberger sack of the day. It made up somewhat for the missed tackle Van Noy had on a Samuels run play immediately prior. Van Noy's 10-yard sack erased Samuels' 10-yard gain on the ground.
…New England blitzed Roethlisberger with five players, including CB Jonathan Jones, later in the same drive, but it was solid coverage downfield that led the QB to hold onto the ball a little too long, allowing Jones to wrap him up and bring him down for a 7-yard loss on 3rd-and-16. Steelers had to punt from their own side of the field.
…When New England got the ball back, they appeared to be in rhythm and have momentum, until WR Julian Edelman dropped a pass that he easily should have caught at the Pittsburgh 40-yard line. The next two plays stalled and the Patriots punted.
…Pittsburgh got in position to score their next touchdown thanks to a ticky-tack pass interference call incurred by Jones. Both he and Rogers were hand-fighting a bit as they raced together up the sideline, but there was no need for a flag to be thrown by the back judge. The side judge was watching the play the entire time and kept his flag in his pocket. Completely unnecessary.
…Cornerback assignments were something to watch in this game, as Pittsburgh boasts two of the more talented receivers in the league. For most of the game, rookie J.C. Jackson drew JuJu Smith-Schuster. Stephon Gilmore took Antonio Brown. Jason McCourty freuquently covered Rogers.
On the second and final Steeler touchdown, Gilmore switched off Brown to take WR James Washington. McCourty was late to get in position to shadow Brown closely, and the receiver created just enough space between hi and McCourty to haul in a throw by Roethlisberger in the end zone. Brown and Washington, lined up beside each other in the slot, did a great job of route-running on this play to make it work so effectively.
…Penalties were a bane of New England's existence at Heinz Field Sunday. LT Trent Brown's holding call that negated a nice, long Sony Michel run was one of the warranted flags, however. He had a fistful of a Steeler defender's jersey as Michel ran to Brown's side, and that prevented a potential tackle to be made by that player, d-lineman Cameron Heyward.
…Though his numbers might not reflect it, punter Ryan Allen has had a solid 2018 campaign. He's often put in plus-50 position, meaning he has a short field with which to work and drop the ball inside the opponents' 20-yard line.
He managed this three times against Pittsburgh, but one of them is noteworthy because it's one of the rarest plays you'll ever see in football. Jones, the cornerback and gunner on the punt team, chased down Allen's punt, which was headed for the end zone. He made a diving effort to keep the ball in play before it hit the ground, but it wasn't going to make it back over the goal line. So, RB Rex Burkhead, also a member of punt coverage personnel, came chasing from behind and made a second diving effort.
This time, the ball made it back in play, and Ramon Humber swallowed it up at the Steelers' 1-yard line. Tremendous effort by all involved.
…A five-man Patriots blitz made Roethlisberger throw a poor pass over the head of Smith-Schuster and into the waiting arms of safety Duron Harmon, who always seems to be in the right place at the right time to make such plays.
…Drops were crucial in stalling New England drives against Pittsburgh. Normally reliable Josh Gordon had an inexplicable one on 3rd-and-6 from the NE 42 to start the second half.
…For the most part, Jackson and Gilmore acquitted themselves well against their respective Steeler receiver opponents. Not so much for J. McCourty, who gave up several big plays in addition to the earlier touchdown, including a 32-yard pickup down the sideline by Washington on Pittsburgh's first drive of the second half.
McCourty was actually in great position to make a play on the ball, but Washington did a better job of adjusting his body to the ball than McCourty did. McCourty then got stiff-armed by Smith-Schuster on the very next play, then missed a tackle badly, letting Washington slip through his grasp, on the play after that. The gain ended up being 24 yards instead of what should have been about five.
…DT Lawrence Guy used a nice, powerful bull rush, combined with a rip move, to beat backup RT Matt Feiler, get his hands on Roethlisberger, and force the QB into an intentional grounding penalty. The play proved consequential, just outside the Patriots' end zone, as Steeler kicker Chris Boswell would push a 32-yard field goal wide right two plays later.
…Two back-to-back penalties by Edelman on the ensuing Patriots drive didn't kill the possession like his drop did earlier, but the second of those two was entirely avoidable. Edelman incurred an illegal formation flag because he lined up on the line of scrimmage directly next to TE Rob Gronkowski, who was supposed to be the player covering up right tackle Marcus Cannon. Two eligible receivers can't be side-by-side, because the outside man is considered to be "covering up" the other. Edelman should have spotted this and taken a step backward before the snap.
…Cannon was beaten badly a few plays later by OLB T.J. Watt with a simple speed rush that allowed Watt to sack Brady.
…Later in the drive, New England ran seven consecutive times for 37 yards total, averaging better than five yards per clip. So, I was somewhat surprised that OC Josh McDaniels and HC Bill Belichick decided to kick a field goal on 4th-and-1 from the Pittsburgh 10. I liked their chances of picking up the yardage to keep the possession alive.
…Harmon gets credit for his second interception of the day in the early fourth quarter, but it's really Gilmore who does the work of knocking the ball free from the intended Steelers receiver and into Harmon's hands.
…With their best shot to take a lead in this game, from 1st-and-goal at the Pittsburgh 5, Cannon incurred a deserved holding penalty that pushed the Patriots back 10 yards, rather than facing 2nd-and-goal from the 2. He tackled a Steeler defender who was trying to make a play on Michel.
That mistake led two plays later to the pass play call on which Brady made an ill-advised throw that was intercepted. Effectively, this play ended New England's chances of winning, even though they got the ball back down seven and marched nearly the length of the field. Had the Patriots gone up on the scoreboard here, the complexion of the game would have changed entirely.