When the Patriots ran:
In truth the Patriots numbers on the ground are actually pretty solid: 19 carries for 96 yards and an excellent 5.1-yard average. But a closer look tells us that the bulk of that production came on one drive, which resulted in a third quarter field goal. The Patriots marched 63 yards on 13 plays with Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead doing much of the damage. Michel carried five times for 19 yards while Burkhead added three carries for 23 yards as the ground game accounted for 42 of the 63 yards. But otherwise there wasn’t much to be excited about. Michel finished with 13 carries for 59 yards (4.5-yard average), 13 of which came on one run. Burkhead had 25 yards on his four attempts (6.3-yard average) and the Patriots wound up just shy of 100 yards with 96 on 19 attempts (5.1-yard average). Again, the numbers are more than respectable, but other than that one scoring drive Pittsburgh was able to contain the Patriots rushing attack and the offense wasn’t able to sustain much momentum.
When the Patriots passed:
This was the key to the game as the Steelers overcame a disastrous start to completely shut down Tom Brady and the passing attack the rest of the way. Brady hit a pair of short passes to open the game, and after a penalty gave New England a first down, he used a play-action fake to help find Chris Hogan all alone cutting across the field. The Steelers had a major breakdown in coverage as three defenders chased Josh Gordon to the left while Hogan ran unopposed to the right. He caught the pass in stride and turned upfield for an uncontested 63-yard touchdown. From there, the Steelers dominated. The Patriots were forced to punt on their next five possessions as the Steelers dropped extra players in coverage while generating enough pressure with three- and four-man rushes to keep Brady uncomfortable. He completed 25 of 35 passes for 279 yards as the remaining 24 completions netted only 216 yards after Hogan’s TD. But the worst came on the final two possessions. Trailing 14-10 midway through the fourth, Brady took advantage of a short field created by Ben Roethlisberger’s second interception and moved the Steelers 5. A holding call pushed New England back, and under pressure on second down Brady threw one up for grabs. After the game he said he was trying to throw it away, but the ball floated toward the sideline and Joe Haden picked it off. Then on the final drive he gave his receivers no chance on the final three plays from the 15, tossing two out of the back of the end zone before trying to hit Edelman in the midst of several Pittsburgh defenders. His receivers didn’t help much as Edelman (seven catches, 90 yards) had two drops while Gordon (one for 19 yards) had another. Rob Gronkowski was invisible with just two grabs for 21 yards as the passing game was shut down.
When the Steelers ran:
The Steelers were without Le’Veon Bell and his Pro Bowl-caliber replacement James Conner. Instead they turned to a tight end/H-back hybrid Jaylen Samuels. Who ran roughshod over the beleaguered Patriots front all evening. Samuels finished with 142 yards on just 19 carries – both career highs – for an incredible 7.5-yard average. It’s the third straight week the Patriots have been gashed on the ground in a season that has seen the team allow an eye-popping 5 yards per carry. In Pittsburgh it was even worse. The Steelers piled up 158 yards on just 25 carries for a 6.3-yard average. Down the stretch with the Steelers nursing a 4-point lead, Samuels continued his production. He carried five times for 28 yards going against a defense that knew he was coming. He also caught a 20-yard pass to convert a third-and-nine as the Steelers kept the ball for more than five minutes, forced the Patriots to burn all three timeouts and added a field goal that gave them a touchdown lead. Given Samuels’ status as more of a receiver than a between-the-tackles runner, this may have been the worst moment of the season for the run defense.
When the Steelers passed:
In fairness, part of the problem with the run defense is the added help normally given to the secondary. Against the Steelers dangerous duo of Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster, the Patriots devoted extra defensive backs in coverage and it worked. Stephon Gilmore did a great job against Brown, limiting him to four catches for 49 yards and a touchdown, but the scoring play did not come with Gilmore in coverage. Rookie J.C. Jackson took on Smith-Schuster much of the evening and fared well. He allowed four catches for 40 yards and competed tremendously well on several deep balls – none bigger than the one he was able to wrestle away at the goal on the play before the Steelers final field goal. Roethlisberger generally did a nice job of being patient and working underneath as the Patriots took away most of his deep looks. He did find rookie James Washington (three catches, 65 yards) for 32 yards but otherwise was forced to dink and dunk. He completed 22 of 34 passes for 235 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but he also got greedy and was picked twice by Duron Harmon. The first came when he overthrew Smith-Schuster down the seam, and the second was an awful decision to forced one into traffic and Harmon caught the deflection. Give the secondary credit for forcing Big Ben to adjust and force some mistakes.
Although it proved to be a rather inconsequential play in the game, the Patriots deserve tons of credit for turning in one of the best special teams plays in the NFL this season. Ryan Allen punted in the second quarter and Steelers return man Ryan Switzer failed to field it around the 10. Jonathan Jones was knocked off his feet as the ball hit the ground and spun toward the end zone, but he leaped out and jumped while trying to throw the ball back into the field of play. It was going to land in the end zone, however, and that’s when Burkhead came in with a similar leap from just outside the goal line. He was able to throw it back as Matthew Slater was forced to do a leaping split to avoid getting hit with the ball. At that point Ramon Humber downed it as the Steelers 1. It was an incredible combination of athleticism matched with situational awareness. Unfortunately, Pittsburgh easily marched 53 yards on five plays to change field position. Pittsburgh’s Chris Boswell missed a 32-yards field goal in the third quarter, although he bounced back and made a clutch 48-yarder to restore Pittsburgh’s lead to a touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Otherwise there wasn’t much going on in the kicking game.