PITTSBURGH – When a player the caliber of Ben Roethlisberger is unable to play, it is big news. When such a player is ruled out at the start of the week, it inevitably becomes the dominant story.
Many analysts interpreted Roethlisberger's absence as a guaranteed, easy victory for the Patriots, whose devastating offense would be no match for Pittsburgh's near-the-bottom-of-the-league-statistically defense.
A story line that was given less attention was New England's defense. That unit has shined at times this season, but the Patriots' 5-1 record entering Sunday overshadowed the fact that coordinator Matt Patricia's troops have been horribly inconsistent in 2016. Which meant, even minus Roethlisberger, the Steelers had a pair of potent playmakers in wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le'Veon Bell that could make life difficult for the Patriots.
"I didn't want to give him anything," Butler said afterward of Brown, who topped the century mark in yards receiving against New England, "but I realized there's no way you can stop him. I just felt like I did a great job competing. Great players are going to make great plays. Got to be able to match the intensity. I'm just glad to get the win."
Early on, it was clear that Tom Brady and the New England offense were superior, yet if the Patriots were to fulfill expectations and roll roughshod over the Steelers at Heinz Field, New England's D would have to hold up its end of the bargain.
Results looked positive in the first quarter after Malcolm Butler's interception in the end zone on a pass intended for Brown. But inconsistency reared its ugly head once again after the Patriots jumped out to a 14-0 lead. A couple of big pass plays on the following Steelers possession resulted in a touchdown, then a foolish unsportsmanlike conduct penalty of linebacker/co-captain Dont'a Hightower gave Pittsburgh life on offense. That, and an anemic Patriots pass rush that allowed Steeler backup Landry Jones to sit comfortably in the pocket and find open receivers.
The New England Patriots take on the Pittsburgh Steelers in a regular season game at Heinz Field on Sunday, October 23, 2016.
"We knew coming in that it was going to be a loud environment. They play really well at home," wide receiver Chris Hogan pointed out. "I'm proud of this team and the way we played today. LeGarrette [Blount] and the offensive line were able to run the ball really well today. We kind of stressed that throughout the week and we were able to do that really well throughout the game."
New England should have had more possession, and possibly more points, in the first half were it not for dropped passes by Brandon Bolden and Julian Edelman on third downs that forced the Patriots to punt. New England's halftime lead was a tenuous four points (14-10).
Brady and the Patriots stubbed their collective toe coming out of halftime – a pair of Nate Solder holding penalties thwarted their opening drive – but righted itself on the next series when Brady hit tight end Rob Gronkowski on a third-down touchdown throw.
"We had a couple of turnovers that we're going to hear about," wide receiver Julian Edelman acknowledged. "Anytime you turn the ball over on the road at a place like this, you put yourself in a tough situation, but we were able to overcome it."
On the other side of the ball, New England's defense allowed Pittsburgh to gain yards and chip away at the scoreboard, but thanks in part to some aggressive, heads-up play by safety Patrick Chung, the unit began to regain its confidence.
"One guy makes a play, next time another guy makes a play, and that's how you keep that going," safety/co-captain Devin McCourty explained. "That's what we keep preaching – one-on-one matchups, guys making plays on third down in the red zone – that if we keep doing that, we'll be all right. Once in a while, guys are going to make great catches or a great throw, and you have to live with that. Those guys are in the NFL, too. But if we're consistent in our coverage, we'll make enough plays to do well."
Still, the Steelers wouldn't quit. Down 11 with about 10 minutes to go, they punted, but forced Edelman to fumble during his return. The Patriots' defense held and Pittsburgh missed a long field goal.
It wasn't as easy as most people predicted it would be. In the final analysis, even with Roethlisberger, the Steelers might not have been able to do much better than they did Sunday evening.
"They've got a great team. It was hard to win," left tackle Nate Solder remarked later. "We didn't do everything we wanted to do, but we're going to continue to improve and we're glad we got this win against a good team."
Neither the offense, the defense, nor the special teams was perfect, but the Patriots were just good enough to get the job done with an important road victory in a tough venue against an underrated opponent.
"We're developing a mentally tough team," added Edelman. "It's still very early in the season, so, we've just got to continue to improve. It's always good to get a win on the road."
With the Patriots next heading to Buffalo, who lost today, New England holds a commanding lead in the AFC East and is in a comfortable spot, record-wise at 6-1, nearing the midpoint of the season.