By: Bob George/
October 30, 2011

Rob Gronkowski continues to dodge questions about Patriots future
Colleagues take to Twitter to praise ‘perfect’ play-by-play man
Year after year, Gil Santos delivered
Bill Belichick pays tribute to Patriots Hall of Fame broadcaster Gil Santos
Bill Belichick pays tribute to the late Gil Santos

PITTSBURGH -- The final margin was only eight points, but it seemed more like twenty-eight.

The defense was so bad, the Patriots tried an onside kick when the situation screamed for a deep kickoff. The offense was hardly on the field as the Pittsburgh Steelers enjoyed a two-to-one advantage in time of possession. Only some nice red zone stops which turned into field goals kept the score down. The first Pittsburgh punt came with 28 seconds left in the game.

The Steelers prevailed in the end, 25-17 over the Patriots on Sunday at Heinz Field, a game which might have long lasting playoff implications for the Patriots down the road. But even if the Patriots do somehow qualify for the playoffs, their defensive showing against Pittsburgh is a lousy harbinger for how the Patriots might perform in January. Giving up 427 yards to an offense they usually handle with ease, allowing the Steelers to convert 10 of 16 third downs, and Ben Roethlisberger throwing 50 passes and still coming out on the winning side, all this bodes poorly for the Patriots and their defense against a team they could very well face in January.

The ultimate damnation of the Patriot defense came with 2:35 left in the game. The Patriots had just scored to make it 23-17 on a Tom Brady touchdown pass to Aaron Hernandez from one yard out. The Patriots had all three of their time outs left and the two minute warning. Yet Bill Belichick called for an onside kick instead of booting the ball deep and hoping for just one defensive stop. To make matters worse, Stephen Gostkowski whiffed the kick, the ball rolling only seven yards when it needed to roll at least ten yards. The Patriots did manage to get the ball back, but with only 29 seconds left and all their time outs expended.

It wasn't only the defense that played subpar. It was evident right from the beginning that the entire team was going to come up short all game long in terms of effort and intensity. The Patriots deferred the coin toss, so Pittsburgh got the ball first and Roethlisberger led his team on an 11-play, 68-yard drive that consumed just under six minutes of playing time. Roethlisberger hit Mewelde Moore from five yards out on a quick slant left to make it 7-0 Steelers.

The Patriots gave the ball right back with a three-and-out which took only 1:24 of playing time. The Steelers then took the ball and ran off sixteen offensive plays, took off another seven minutes and 47 seconds of playing time, and the Steelers led 10-0 with three seconds gone in the second quarter and the Patriots having the ball for only a minute and a half by that time.

The most remarkable element of this game is that the Patriots hung around until a late safety cinched it for Pittsburgh. Roethlisberger was sacked a total of five times, but two of them came in garbage time just following the ill-fated onside kickoff. The Patriots did force Sean Suisham into three field goals, and he missed a fourth attempt from 43 yards out. But the offense was pretty much stifled all game long, and the defense was dog tired from all the time they were on the field.

Aaron Hernandez caught a touchdown pass with 2:35 left to bring the Patriots to within six points, but it would not be enough in the end. (FILE:Icon/SMI)
One of the reasons the Patriots were able to hang around is that their first touchdown came off a lousy Roethlisberger pass which turned into an interception. On their second possession of the second quarter, Roethlisberger tried to hit Emmanuel Sanders on an intermediate route but instead nailed Gary Guyton right between the 5 and the 9. He returned it from the Steeler 25 to the Steeler 8, and two plays later Brady found Deion Branch from eight yards out to make it 10-7 Pittsburgh. The Patriots would not find the end zone again until 2:35 left in the game.

Overall it was the Pittsburgh edge in energy that carried the day for them. The secondary played aggressively all game long, covering the receivers tightly and keeping pressure on Brady. Wes Welker had only six catches for 39 yards. Local boy Rob Gronkowski, who had three touchdown catches last year here at Heinz Field, led the Patriots with seven catches for 94 yards, but no touchdowns.

One area which really helped the Steelers was shutting down the Patriot running game. BenJarvus Green-Ellis had only nine yards on five carries, but he has been nursing a bad toe. Kevin Faulk saw his first game action of the season, but he was limited to only six carries for 32 yards. This enabled the Steelers to tee off on the receivers and pay more attention to blanketing them rather than needing to respect the run. Brady was sacked three times, twice by LaMarr Woodley.

Another feather in the cap of the Steelers came in the form of dominating the Patriots despite some losses on defense. James Harrison and James Farrior did not play, and both Ike Taylor and Woodley missed significant playing time during the game due to injuries. Yet Pittsburgh never once missed a beat on defense; Brady did manage to reprise his late-game drive against Dallas two weeks ago on the final touchdown drive, but by then Pittsburgh had a 13-point lead and was never seriously in trouble at any time.

The decision to onside kick and not kick the ball deep will not sit well with observers of the Patriots. Kicking the ball deep seemed like the only thing to do. But in a ghastly reminder of fourth and two two seasons ago in Indianapolis, Belichick seemed to display a tremendous lack of confidence in the defense and instead preferred the surprise play to try and snitch a victory rather than to try and win the right way. Given how badly the Patriots had been on third down and how easily Roethlisberger had been moving through the Patriot defense, the decision is understandable, but not perhaps prudent.

Coming off the bye, with two weeks to prepare for the Steelers, this does not bode well for the Patriots. The Patriots were once again exposed as a team that cannot win when Brady is contained. This has been a reason why the Patriots have lost their last three postseason games, and when the Patriots face stiff defenses in January, this sort of thing will continue to happen.

The Patriots may still make the playoffs somehow. But the defense still needs to learn how to stop teams on third down and get off the field. On this day, Brady could not get into a rhythm, and the Patriots literally had no chance to win this game.

Meanwhile, the Steelers just happen to be defending conference champs, and after Sunday's game, the "defending" part may be temporary.