Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Cobi Hamilton (83) cannot hang onto a pass from quarterback Landry Jones during the first half of an NFL football game with New England Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan (26) defending in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Oct. 23, 2016. (Don Wright/AP Photo)
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PITTSBURGH -- With Landry Jones under center and several starters out due to injury, the margin for error was already tight before the Steelers even kicked off against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
Costly mistakes and missed opportunities weren't affordable given the present circumstances, but they were ultimately what did the Steelers (4-3) in Sunday afternoon in a 27-16 loss to the Patriots (6-1) at Heinz Field.
There wasn't a body among the 66,009 fans that felt Jones could outduel Brady and complete the improbable upset, but he came awfully close. Jones played relatively equal to his counterpart, finishing 29 of 47 for 281 yards and a touchdown. But it was his first quarter interception on an underthrown pass to Antonio Brown in the end zone was the first mistake that left points off the board, and a sign of more to come.
The Patriots capitalized on Jones' interception with a 13-play, 80-yard scoring drive capped off by a 19-yard touchdown on a screen pass from Brady to Kevin White. The Patriots then went up 14-0 on a three-yard run by LaGarette Blount.
Already down multiple scores at the start of the second quarter, it appeared that the route was on for the Patriots, who were already favored by seven points despite heading into unfriendly confines. Instead, Jones and the Steelers responded. The backup quarterback found Brown for a 51-yard gain on the Steelers next possession, then connected with Darrius Heyward-Bey for a 19-yard score. Suddenly, there was life again.
After the Steelers forced a three-and-out, Jones led the Steelers down to the New England 14-yard line and again found Heyward-Bey for a 14-yard touchdown that appeared to tie the game, except a holding penalty on tackle Chris Hubbard, filling in for starter Marcus Gilbert, negated the score. Chris Boswell then missed a 42-yard field goal two plays later.
Boswell later avenged his miss with a 32-yard field goal, which made it a 14-10 game at halftime, and then connected on a 46-yarder on the Steelers' first possession of the second half.
The Steelers defense, which had done a solid job of limiting the Patriots offense in the first half, started to break down. Brady found Rob Gronkowski for a 36-yard touchdown with 6:27 left in the third quarter on a blown coverage by rookie Sean Davis, and then led a six-play, 75-yard drive finished by a five-yard Blount touchdown run to begin the fourth quarter. The touchdown increased New England's lead to 27-16 in what would be the final score of the game.
Although the Patriots were outgained by the Steelers in total offense, they finished an efficient 7 of 12 on third-down conversions to extend drives. The Steelers committed 10 penalties for 85 yards, and were 5 of 16 on third down. Bell finished with 149 all-purpose yards, and Brown led all receivers with 106 yards on seven receptions.
The Steelers have a bye next week before traveling to Baltimore for their second AFC North game of the season against the Ravens.
New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount (29) scores during the first half of an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Oct. 23, 2016. (Don Wright/AP Photo)
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PLAYER OF THE GAME
LaGarette Blount, Patriots RB
Blount's 127 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries marked the second consecutive week the Steelers glaringly failed to stop the run. He finished with a 5.3 yards-per-carry average and was consistent in all four quarters, capitalizing on a Steelers defense that has tackled poorly all season. "We didn't come off blocks and make enough tackles in the run game," coach Mike Tomlin said. "(Blount) fell forward. We realize by the structure of how we call the game, there was going to be a little bit of that. But not enough guys coming off of blocks and making tackles." Blount did it against a team he has a little bit of bad blood with, nonetheless, after the Steelers cut him during the 2014 season after he walked off the field during a loss.
It was a tale of two halves for Gronkowski. The Patriots tight end only had one catch for 13 yards at halftime, but that might have been by design. The Patriots lulled the Steelers defense into keying off Gronkowski and then went back to him in the second half three times for 80 more yards. "They didn’t throw the ball to him a lot in the first half and came out the second half and had two big plays, two explosive plays that set him up for the touchdown," Jarvis Jones said. "They were huge plays in the second half and ended up why the game transpired the way it did." His first big play came on the 36-yard touchdown to make it a 20-13 game, swinging the momentum right back into New England's favor. "It was just a play where there was a split safety and I had a little bender go to the right up the middle," Gronkowski said. "A little seam route that bended between the split safety, and I had a good look. Tom threw the ball perfectly, right on the money for me to make the play."
Hubbard's penalty couldn't have come at a worse time. The Steelers had finally started to gain some momentum with what appeared to be 14 straight points. Jones was looking better than advertised, taking what the defense gave him and finding his receivers on underneath routes. Hubbard looked to dispute the call during the game and said it was reactionary. "He slipped, and I was trying to put my hands out and I did. They called it, and I was pretty upset about that one." After the penalty moved them back 10 yards, the Steelers failed to pick up the third down conversion that would have given Boswell a shorter field goal. Instead, his 42-yarder went wide right. "It gives the other team momentum is what you do in those situations right there," Ramon Foster said. "We've got to capitalize. Red zone errors, we can't have those."
With Ben Roethlisberger out, it was clear that Bell was the focal point of the offense. On 13 targets, he set a personal single-game high with 10 receptions. The Patriots had a hard time keeping him in check. "He breaks a lot of tackles and makes a lot of people miss where they really can't get their hands on him to tackle him," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "It seems like you hit him and you have him stopped, but it's four or five yards later until he's on the ground." Bell felt Todd Haley orchestrated a good offensive gameplan, and they would have had a lot more success if it weren't for self-inflicted wounds. "It wasn't the gameplan," Bell said. "It wasn't, sometimes even execution. I think we were executing well. I think we moved the ball well. We just got to the red zone and turned the ball over. You can't have that."
Jones' performance quelled all the calls this week for the Steelers to give third-stringer Zach Mettenberger an opportunity at quarterback. Jones showed progression from the appearances he made last year, and followed up on his statement of wanting to be cautiously aggressive by taking shots down the field. "I thought for the most part I played decisive," Jones said. "Were there plays I wanted to have back? Absolutely." He took sole responsibility for his first-quarter interception. "That was just a bad ball," he said. "AB ran a good route. I threw a crappy ball." What stood out the most about Jones, however, was his poise in the huddle. For a quarterback that didn't receive his first NFL game experience until last season, Jones looked more assured in his decision making. "I think he did an outstanding job and was very confident," Alejandro Villanueva said. "I think he was making a lot of plays. I think he didn't get the full support from the rest of the offense as a group."
The Steelers offense didn't have any trouble sustaining drives or gaining yards, and it wasn't by accident that they held an advantage over the Patriots in total offense. It was their inability to finish those drives with touchdowns that hurt them as they finished 1 for 4 on red zone opportunities. "We have to find a way to put points on the board," Brown said. "We had a couple trips to the red zone, didn't find a way to put points on the board and when you are playing a good team, you have to score in those situations." The lack of red zone scoring was a collective failure. "We kicked field goals instead of scoring touchdowns," Jones said. "So, everyone had a hand in it. We have got to solve this red-zone issue for us to be the offense that we want to be."
Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler didn't mince words when asked about the challenge of spying Brown for an entire game. "He's one of the best, if not the best (that I've ever faced)," Butler said. "He's one or two. He has no flaws." Even with a backup quarterback and one of the best cornerbacks in the league following him, Brown was able to get back on track after a couple down games against double and triple coverage. Brown suffered a thigh bruise that limited him in the third quarter, which caused him miss a few plays in the second half.
The Steelers are limping into the bye week with five starters out and a number of others playing through bumps and bruises. The second half of the season won't get any easier, so the Steelers will benefit from the week off. "I think everybody knows. Health. Period. That's it," Foster said, when asked about the importance of the bye week. "I won't elaborate, but that's pretty bold. It's health. Point blank, period." The Steelers should get DeAngelo Williams, Cam Heyward, Ben Roethlisberger, Markus Wheaton, Eli Rogers and Marcus Gilbert back and suited up in the coming weeks after the bye. Tight end Ladarius Green is also available to return.
BY THE NUMBERS
3: This was the third consecutive meeting the Steelers have lost to the Patriots.
5: Mike Tomlin's fifth regular season loss to the Patriots as a head coach. He holds a 2-5 record against New England.
7: Boswell went 3 for 5 on field goal attempts to make the seventh time in his career he's tallied three field goals in a regular season game.
28: Brown now has 28 career games with 100-or-more yards receiving. He now is one game away from tying Hines Ward for the most in franchise history.
151: Will Gay extended his regular season games-played streak to 151, which ranks first among all NFL cornerbacks.
"It stings because we were right there. We left a couple plays out there, a couple of opportunities where we could have had things go our way,"Brown, on how bad the loss hurt.
Week 8: Bye
Week 9: at Baltimore Ravens, M&T Bank Stadium
Sunday, Nov. 6: 1 p.m. (CBS)
The Steelers haven’t had a three-game losing streak since the ill-fated 2013 season when they dropped their first four games en route to a second straight 8-8, non-playoff season. When the Steelers return from their bye in two weeks, they will try to stop the bleeding against an AFC North rival that they’ve had little success against of late. Dating back to the 2014 AFC wild card, the Steelers have lost three in a row to the Ravens. In 2015, the Steelers were beaten twice by Baltimore by a combined score of 43-37, including a 20-17 loss at M&T to journeyman backup Ryan Mallett. All-time, the Steelers are 24-20 against the Ravens with a 9-11 record in Baltimore. The Ravens fell to 3-4 with a 24-16 loss Sunday to the New York Jets, who the Steelers beat 31-13 in Week 5. While the Steelers are still atop the AFC North at 4-3 after Sunday’s loss, they know they must be better if they hope to maintain that lead. “I guess if you look at the records, that’s nice,” wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey said. “I guess the team that wins the division goes to the playoffs, but after that loss I can’t really think about that. You have to learn how we’re going to get better, get healthy and find a way to beat Baltimore in two weeks.” Under Mike Tomlin, the Steelers are 6-3 following their bye week but have lost their last two in a row (Week 12 at Seattle in 2015 and Week 13 vs. New Orleans in 2014).