The Patriots 2018 struggles on the road trumped the team's history of dominating the Steelers Sunday evening when New England dropped to 9-5 on the season thanks to a 17-10 loss in Pittsburgh.
As has been the case all year, issues on run defense (6.3 yards per carry allowed to a team without lead back James Conner) and third down offense (just 3-of-10 conversions) were among the issues that led Bill Belichick's team to its second straight loss.
New England caught an early break when a coverage breakdown for Pittsburgh left Chris Hogan wide open as you'll ever see for a 63-yard touchdown.
With that play, each team scored on its opening possession to tie the game at 7 and then the game bogged down into a somewhat ugly affair. Tom Brady and Co. subsequently punted five straight times from the first quarter into the third.
Ben Roethlisberger gave Pittsburgh a 14-7 advantage in the second quarter, but then threw one of his two interceptions with an ugly throw to Duron Harmon in the midst of what looked on its way to a game-opening drive.
The only scores of the second half came on field goals by Stephen Gostkowski (33 yards) and Chris Boswell (48 yards) as the Steelers held on to secure a season-saving victory.
Nothing came easy at Heinz Field. Nothing came consistently. And suddenly the Patriots aren't as much fighting for the No.1 seed in the AFC playoff picture but trying to get back to a first-round bye as Kansas City (11-3), San Diego (11-3) and Houston (9-4) all currently have better records than New England with two weeks of regular season action to play out.
Clearly, a team that generally plays its best football after Thanksgiving and down the stretch is far from doing that. Heading into the final two weeks of home games against the Bills and Jets, Belichick's team has work to do on both sides of the ball.
"Give the Steelers credit. They played well and did a good job," Belichick said. "I was proud of our guys. We battled. Obviously penalties and the red area were pretty much the difference in the game. A typical tough football game against the Steelers. They did a little more than we did tonight.
"We're going to get back to work and get ready for Buffalo. That's exactly what we're going to do."
"We're obviously not playing well enough to win," Brady said.
Before moving on to next Sunday afternoon's Christmas Eve eve game at Gillette Stadium against the Bills, here are the personnel highs and lows from the ugly loss in Pittsburgh.
Stephon Gilmore/Secondary – New England's No. 1 cornerback played like it Sunday evening with a matchup against Brown and the Steelers. Gilmore trailed Brown more often than not and the All-Pro finished with just four catches for 49 yards, and Gilmore was not in coverage on Brown's 17-yard touchdown. Rookie J.C. Jackson was also quite competitive on the day with a key pass defense on JuJu Smith-Schuster late in the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh's leading receiver finishing with just four catches for 40 yards. Gilmore also had tight coverage to deflect a pass intended for Brown for an interception by Duron Harmon, one of the safety's two picks on the day. It was a pretty solid day for the back end against a talented passing attack.
Punt coverage – On a day with limited highlight-reel plays, Jonathan Jones, Rex Burkhead and Ramon Humber combined for one of the best downed punts you'll ever see. Jones dove to flip back Ryan Allen's second-quarter punt, lifting the ball up in the air at the goal line. Burkhead grabbed the ball and flipped it back again, Matthew Slater leaping to avoid the ball in the air, allowing Humber to down it at the 1-yard line. The play was reviewed and upheld.
Rex Burkhead – New England didn't do a ton offensively with any consistency. Burkhead has been working his way back into the mix since returning from IR. Sunday evening he ran it well in limited chances, rushing four times for 25 yards with a long of 10. He also caught all three passes thrown his way for 18 yards. It wasn't a huge day, but Burkhead maximized his seven touches.
Run defense – Despite the fact that the Steelers were once again playing without second-year star running back James Conner, the home squad was still able to run the ball well against a struggling New England defense. Versatile rookie running back Jaylon Samuels ran it three times for 35 yards on the Steelers opening drive to a touchdown, including a 25-yard scamper. Even with the Steelers going empty in the backfield often, the home team picked up 70 yards on seven carries by Samuels in the first half. The rookie, who was never a lead back in college at N.C. State, finished with 19 carries for 142 yards (7.5 avg.). Overall the Steelers ran it 23 times (not including kneel-downs) for 161 yards. The front continues to allow too many way too big holes to open up for the opposing run game. It was a big issue last Sunday in Miami. It was a big issue Sunday evening in Pittsburgh.
Dropped passes – Julian Edelman had a pair of drops on the evening, one on a short crosser the other deep down the right sideline. Josh Gordon had an ugly drop on a quick in-cut on a third down that appeared to get on the receiver before he was ready, deflecting off his forearm. The passing game wasn't overly efficient and a big chunk of the production came on the fluky big play to Hogan. In that kind of game dropped passes, especially on third down, could make a difference. Two of Brady's top targets came up short in that area.
Penalties – New England had a season-high 14 penalties for 106 yards lost. Eight of those penalties were pre-snap penalties, a major sign of sloppiness. There were illegal formation calls on Edelman. A couple false starts on Trent Brown. Holding calls in the red zone. Even a delay of game on a PAT. A couple calls were questionable, but most of the flags were well earned by the visitor and were a key part of an ugly loss in Pittsburgh. Three of the Patriots top four worst days in terms of penalties have come in the last month, a bad sign for a team coming down the home stretch toward the postseason.
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