When the Patriots ran:
The overall numbers weren’t anything to write home about: 19 carries for 77 yards (4.1-yard average) and a pair of touchdowns. Dion Lewis accounted for most of that with 67 yards on 13 attempts for a solid 5.2-yard average. He also scored the decisive touchdown on an 8-yard run with just over a minute left, although Pittsburgh appeared to be willing to allow the score. But what was bigger than the production was the timeliness of some of the runs. The Steelers mounted steady pressure on Tom Brady all afternoon, and Lewis consistently helped mitigate some of that by picking up some key yardage to create manageable third downs. He consistently made tacklers miss and picked up tough yards after contact. Rex Burkhead had another touchdown before leaving with a knee injury suffered in the third quarter. He had been rather quiet before that with just 12 yards on his four attempts. As mentioned above, it wasn’t exactly dominant but the run game provided just enough balance to allow the Patriots to stay close and steal it at the end.
When the Patriots passed:
The Steelers pressure was consistent throughout the game and nearly covered up for a porous secondary that had no answers for Rob Gronkowski. With less than two minutes to play the Patriots had just 19 points and were 77 yards away from a touchdown that would prevent a second straight loss. Brady and Gronkowski delivered, as usual, and the tight end did the bulk of the work. He continued his mastery of Pittsburgh by recording nine catches for a career-high 168 yards, including catches of 26, 26 and 17 yards on consecutive plays totaling 69 yards on the decisive drive. The last catch in particular was breathtaking as Brady’s pass was well off target and the big tight end reached down to his shoe tops on the dead run to haul it in just off the turf to set up Lewis’ winning TD. Steelers safety Sean Davis was asked to take Gronk man-to-man for much of the day and it was a disaster for the home team, and ultimately that was the difference. Otherwise Brady was largely held in check. He completed 22 of 35 passes for 298 yards and a touchdown, but he also threw a pick, his fifth in the last four games. Aside from Gronk, his other 13 completions resulted in just 130 yards, as Pittsburgh’s front mounted steady pressure and made the quarterback uncomfortable.
When the Steelers ran:
Given the injuries to the front seven – Kyle Van Noy (calf) and Alan Branch (knee) did not play – the Steelers figured to have an edge in the ground game. New England has struggled to stop the run all season when healthy and that was the case again at Heinz Field. Le’Veon Bell, the league’s leading rusher, carved up the Patriots to the tune of 117 yards on 24 carries for a solid 4.9-yard average. Pittsburgh piled up 143 yards on the ground on 31 carries for a 4.6-yard average. Bell also had a 3-yard touchdown run to give the Steelers an 8-point lead in the third quarter. In general the Patriots had no answers for him, especially when he tested the edges. He had runs of 18 and 15 yards on consecutive plays to open the second half, both coming around the right end. The only time he was bottled up was when the Patriots got desperate late and sent the house on run blitzes. That was effective on Bell’s final carry to open the Steelers second-to-last drive, which New England stuffed for a 1-yard gain. Otherwise, the patient Bell picked his way through the banged up front seven and produced all game long.
When the Steelers passed:
Ben Roethlisberger was brilliant … until the final play of the game. We’ll get to that in a moment. Until those fateful final seconds, he dissected the Patriots secondary with ease. He completed 22 of 30 passes for 281 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He almost had a third that would have won the game, but his 10-yard hookup with Jesse James was overturned when officials ruled the tight end “didn’t survive the ground” when the ball hit the turf in the end zone. Big Ben’s work was even more impressive when considering he lost the best receiver in football – Antonio Brown – to a calf injury in the first quarter after just two catches for 24 yards. Instead he used JuJu Smith-Schuster (six catches, 114 yards) and Martavis Bryant (four catches, 59 yards, 1 TD). Bell also did damage as a receiver, finishing with five catches for 48 yards, four of which resulted in first downs. But it was the game’s final play that everyone will remember. With the clock running in the final 10 seconds, Roethlisberger faked a spike and forced one into heavy traffic toward Eli Rogers. Eric Rowe, who was victimized for most of Smith-Schuster’s damage, made a diving deflection and Duron Harmon picked it off in the end zone to end it. The one play decided the game but Pittsburgh’s 59-plus minutes of production can’t be overlooked.
Continuing a stretch of several games without many impact plays on special teams the Steelers gain the slight edge based on a single mistake by New England. After scoring a touchdown in the third quarter to pull within 1, the Patriots failed to tie it when Ryan Allen had trouble with Joe Cardona’s snap and Stephen Gostkowski wound up hooking his PAT slightly to the left. That left the Patriots in an 8-point hole down the stretch, and even though they managed to dig out of it, the gaffe could have been costly. Otherwise neither team managed much in the return game as coverage on both sides was excellent. Smith-Schuster did take on kickoff out to the 31 and Lewis got one of his four attempts to the 27. Modest victories for the return game on both sides. Jordan Berry boomed a 60-yader on his final kick, backing the Patriots up for their final drive. Allen had one of his punts downed at the Steelers 3 late in the third quarter. Chris Boswell connected from 51 yards out while Gostkowski’s 46-yarder in the fourth quarter allowed the final touchdown to provide the winning margin. Aside from the missed PAT, solid day all around for the special teams on both sides.