Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (26) is tackled by New England Patriots during the first half of an NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Oct. 23, 2016. (Jared Wickerham/AP Photo)
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PITTSBURGH — The Patriots defense doesn’t allow a lot of points. But it does allow for a lot of backhanded compliments (despite what some in New England think, bend-but-don’t-break is not a superlative) and varying views on just how good the unit is.
Asking someone how good the Patriots are on defense is like asking about universal health care. Some people believe in it. Others think it’s doomed to fail. The question of the season is how good is the Patriots defense? We still don’t have an answer after a 6-1 start.
The Patriots defense remains inscrutable. They’re statistically impressive, but aesthetically adequate. They leave you wanting more. None of that changed on Sunday in a 27-16 victory over the Ben Roethlisberger-less Steelers at Heinz Field. The defense did its job, allowing the Steelers into the end zone just once, creating an end zone interception, and playing its best third-down defense of the season. But it also left you scratching your head wondering how Pittsburgh backup quarterback Landry Jones could channel Terry Bradshaw on certain drives and the Steelers could be allowed to hang around long past their bedtime.
Despite what the scoreboard said the reality is that this game was a no-win for the Patriots defense from the start. If they shut down the Steelers without Big Ben, everyone points to the two-time Super Bowl winner’s absence. If they play the way they did on Sunday and let Jones (29 of 47 for 281 yards with one touchdown and one interception) throw for nearly 300 yards and keep the game in question into the fourth quarter, they’re penalized for that.
No one remembers that Pittsburgh still had dynamic running back Le’Veon Bell (21 rushes for 81 yards and 10 receptions for 68 yards) and all-world wide receiver Antonio Brown (seven catches for 106 yards) at its disposal.
Let’s just say the members of the Patriots defense aren’t huge fans of being labeled a bend-but-don’t-break group.
“I feel like every year it’s something. We’ll never be just, ‘You’re a good defensive team.’ Nobody will say that to us,” said safety Devin McCourty. “So, we don’t care. Whatever we are in points allowed we know that’s what’s important. We know that is what the game comes down to. But everyone is going to find stats that go against you to ask you about. That’s your job. You’ve got to ask about the stuff we don’t do well. If you just ask us the good stuff I think readers would be pretty bored. It is what it is for us.”
The downside of the Patriots decade-and-a-half run of greatness is that the big picture is always looming in the background. The ability of pedestrian Pittsburgh quarterback Jones to maneuver his team up and down the field has to be disconcerting because the Patriots won’t be playing Jones in the playoffs in January.
A defense that was earmarked for greatness hasn’t allowed points, but it hasn’t imposed its will like the famed Steel Curtain defenses. The Patriots are more like a wire hanger defense, easily malleable but hard to break.
But the expectations for a group with so much talent and Bill Belichick, the greatest defensive mind in the history of the game, demands more.
“Yeah, we’ve got to give up the least amount of yards, the least points,” said McCourty, when asked about the critiques of his defense. “Some weeks it’s going to be like that. Some weeks we’re going to go out there and play like Houston, didn’t give up a point, didn’t allow them in the red area.
“But other weeks we’re going to allow them in the red area. There is going to be a sudden change. That’s when it matters, when you make key plays in the game to turn it around and we complement the offense and the special teams. At the end of the day, we just care about winning, man. That’s what we’ve got to focus on and that’s what we’ve got to do.”
That’s good because the Steelers outgained the Patriots, 375 yards to 362 yards. The thought of those famous Terrible Towels being waved in a Pittsburgh surrender to their AFC overlords vanished.
There was a five-drive stretch in this game where the Steelers got the ball in their territory and drove to the Patriots’ 14, 24, 14, 28, and 26. The results were touchdown, missed field goal, field goal, field goal, and field goal. Belichick always says sacks are overrated, but the Patriots didn’t get Jones to the ground once.
On the other hand, the Patriots held the Steelers to 5 of 16 on third down and allowed one touchdown in four red zone trips. The Patriots defense bailed out the offense after Chris Hogan fumbled on New England’s first offensive snap of the game. Malcolm Butler made a brilliant end zone interception on a pass intended for Brown, setting up the Patriots’ first score.
In the fourth quarter with the Patriots leading 27-16, Julian Edelman fumbled a punt and put the defibrillator paddles on Pittsburgh, which recovered at the Patriots’ 43 with 10:37 left. The defense only allowed 7 yards. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin foolishly elected to have Chris Boswell attempt a 54-yard field goal in a stadium that is a graveyard for field goal kickers. The kick missed.
Earlier in the game, Tomlin had a dubious challenge of a Rob Gronkowski catch that was clearly a catch and down by contact.
This was a theme for the Steelers. They were willing accomplices in their own demise. They missed two field goals, squandered turnover opportunities, committed false start penalties, including one that negated a second-quarter touchdown, and showed situational ignorance, instead of situational awareness. Cue the calliope.
“We stopped ourselves. But they’re a good defense,” said Darrius Heyward-Bey, who caught Pittsburgh’s lone TD. “Coach [Matt] Patricia, he does a great job of doing adjustments at halftime. They did a great job.”
It’s hard not to have faith in a defense that is allowing only 15.3 points per game. But the eye test tells you a defense stacked with Pro Bowlers and desirable free agents should look more dominant against a pedestrian passer such as Jones or a faux franchise quarterback such as Ryan Tannehill.
The Patriots rope-a-dope brand of defense is working for now, even if it’s not working for everyone who watches them.