By: Bob George/
October 31, 2004

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PITTSBURGH, PA -- Much as Patriot Nation would like to think so, you really cannot win them all.

And despite the great success last year in dealing with injuries, you can't always conceal them.

The Patriots began the game with the startling announcement that Corey Dillon, who injured his leg in practice on Thursday, was a scratch. Kevin Faulk would have to start at running back. Add to that the losses of Deion Branch, Tom Ashworth, Tyrone Poole, and eventually Ty Law, and the Patriots had zero margin for error if they were going to extend their NFL record 21-game win streak to a 22nd straight win.

Zero margin for error. Tom Brady bludgeoned that zero margin in the span of about three minutes in the first quarter, and the rout was on. A Brady fumble and an interception put the Patriots in a 21-3 hole, and the Patriots were totally unable to deal with rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The result was a 34-20 loss to the Steelers at Heinz Field, the first loss for the Patriots since September 28, 2003 at Washington. The Patriots drop to 6-1, the same record as the Steelers.

The Steelers came at the Patriots hard all game long, but the Patriots did not have their usual ability to bite back. The Patriots found themselves to be in their biggest point deficit since the opening day loss last year at Buffalo. Pressure on Brady all game long was the name of the game, along with the opposite on Roethlisberger. That combined with the four turnovers the Patriots committed spelled the end of the long and historic win streak.

The Patriots were bombarded early, and spent the rest of the game trying to claw their way back into the game.

With Ty Law out of the game two plays earlier while covering Hines Ward on a right flat pass, injuring his foot on the play, Roethlisberger faced second and six at the Patriot 47. He dropped back, then stepped up and was one-tenth of a second away from getting clobbered by Mike Vrabel. He launched one deep over the middle, and Plaxico Burress managed to slip in behind Law's replacement, Randall Gay, and hauled in the scoring toss. Vrabel's near sack of Roethlisberger would be repeated several times during the contest.

The next two Patriot plays resulted in turnovers. On first down at their own 29, Brady dropped back to throw, but just before his arm went forward he was clobbered by Joey Porter. Kimo von Oelhoffen covered the loose ball at the 27, and five plays later Roethlisberger found Burress on a fade pattern in the left corner of the end zone. Eugene Wilson could not stop it and it was 14-3 Steelers.

Next play. Brady lines up in a five-wideout set. He drops back and fires a quick slant pass towards Bethel Johnson. Deshea Townsend guessed right and stepped in front of Johnson. He picked off the ball and returned it 39 yards for a touchdown. In three minutes and 33 seconds, the Steelers had 21 points.

It's hard to say this, but the rest of the game was pretty much irrelevant. The Patriots almost made a game of it late in the first half with a late touchdown pass from Brady to David Givens to make it 24-10 at the half. The Patriots had the ball to start the second half, and a chance to make it a one score game. But on the first play of the second half, Faulk took a pass from Brady at the Patriot 27, retreated three yards, and was clobbered by Porter. The ball popped loose and was recovered by Aaron Smith at the Patriot 17. Four plays later, Jerome Bettis put his money where his big mouth is, and punched it in from two yards out. It was 31-10 Steelers and lights out.

During the long win streak, the Patriots were able to overcome many injuries. This was one game where they simply could not do so, and it cost them the game. Dillon took away any chance the Patriots had to run the ball and stem the pass rush. Without Law in the secondary, the Patriots were thin at the cornerback position and were burned several times by Burress, Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle-El. Stripped of their running game, the Patriots really missed Branch today.

But the Patriot that seemed the biggest scratch was Ashworth. Without the starting right tackle in there to protect Brady and to help run block, Brady was besieged all game long from blitzes coming in from the right side. The Patriots also found themselves totally unable to run the ball, as Faulk wound up with a total of four yards rushing on five carries. Brandon Gorin, Ashworth's replacement, was a critical component in the Patriots' loss.

It was one play late in the third quarter which underscored Gorin's bad day. Matt Light came out for a breather after getting the wind knocked out of him. Gorin moved to left tackle, and Porter came right through him with almost no resistance to sack Brady for a ten-yard loss. Brady was sacked a total of four times in the game.

The Patriots made a tactical error in defending Roethlisberger. The elusive rookie proved early on that he was more than able to beat the Patriots' blitz packages and avoid the pass rush at every turn. What the Patriots could have done to avoid this was to bring in multiple defensive back packages to stem this tide, though by game's end the defensive back corps was pretty much down to Asante Samuel, Gay, Rodney Harrison, Wilson, Dexter Reid and Je'Rod Cherry.

The point is this: The Patriots might have been able to force Roethlisberger into some interceptions if they had been able to apply the same defense as they did in Super Bowl XXXVI against the Rams (next week's foe). Rush only a few linemen and drop back everyone else in coverage. Chip receivers at the line of scrimmage. Be physical with them when they run their routes within the five-yard limit. Hit them hard when they make the catches. But the Patriots kept blitzing Roethlisberger all game long, the Steelers kept picking it up, and Roethlisberger enjoyed a great day.

Staley had great numbers because Bill Cowher decided in the third quarter to run the ball up the Patriots' gut and kill clock. By then, the Patriot defense had worn down to the point where holes were there and hits were not. To give you some idea as to how pliable the Patriot defense had become, Bettis had 65 yards on 15 carries against a defense which he normally has lots of trouble with. Bettis, who has been reduced to a one-yard touchdown wonder, never makes that much hay against a fresh Patriot defense.

Well, everyone can now relax and concentrate on winning the Super Bowl as the main goal of the season, and not this streak. The players didn't like it, so the loss shouldn't deflate them that much. They are still 6-1 and still in a position to make a strong run towards Jacksonville in February.

So much for 19-0 being the new magic number in Boston. It's now officially changed to XXXIX.