By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — Sure, the Pittsburgh Steelers lead the NFL in rushing defense, and they were on a record-setting pace in that defensive category at the season’s midpoint.
However, for the third straight week, the Steelers basically allowed an opponent to pass at will on them. Also, until the game was out of reach, the offense showed little ability to move the ball.
And after a 39-26 loss to the New England Patriots Sunday night at Heinz Field, the Steelers’ second in those three games — they barely escaped defeat at Cincinnati in the middle contest — the club is 6-3 overall and should be concerned about the direction that they’re going.
The Steelers’ defensive backs are taught not to press, but play off and not give up the long pass, not allow a receiver to get behind them. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady took full advantage of the open field and limited pass rush to torch the Steelers secondary for xxx passing yards and two touchdowns.
Whether he was throwing to Deion Branch, Ron Gronkowski or Wes Welker, Brady stood tall in the pocket and found an open receiver. Gronkowski scores capped New England’s opening series in both halves. After the Steelers went three-and-out to open the game, Brady engineered an eight-play, 70-yard drive in 4:07.
Brady completed four short passes to get to the red zone, along with a 17-yard run by BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and then connected with Gronkowski for a 19-yard score. The Patriots added a field goal and led 10-0 at the half.
But the Steelers defense isn’t the only area that should be chastised in this game. The offense had just 12 first-quarter yards and barely got going after that. If not for a spectacular 34-yard run by Rashard Mendenhall, the first-half yardage would have been miniscule.
Mendenhall’s burst appeared to emotionally charge a previously impotent offense, but it couldn’t cross the goal line after gaining a first down at the 11. After a Mendenhall run to the 8, wideouts Mike Wallace and Antwaan Randle El dropped passes in the end zone.
That’s a spot where wideout Hines Ward was needed, but a late first-quarter neck injury sidelined him. Tight end Heath Miller has just one touchdown, so a toss to him might have been a surprise, but he had to stay in to block. The Steelers settled for three points and only trailed 10-3 at halftime, but the score was much closer than it should have been.
Ward actually said he wanted to come back into the game, but the NFL’s policy is that after suffering a concussion the player must remain out of the game. Ward said he felt fine, but the trainers saw him stumble, and that was it.
The longest offensive play for the Steelers was a 38-yard pass-interference penalty that made it first-and-goal at the 8 with about four minutes remaining in the third quarter. However, a Mendenhall run and two Ben Roethlisberger passes netted zero yards, and Jeff Reed missed a 26-yard field goal.
After the miss, Brady took the Patriots 80 yards in seven plays and 3:18 to apparently seal the win. He connected with Brandon Tate for a 45-yard gain and eventually ran it in from the 1. There appeared to be little passion on defense for the Steelers in a scheme that doesn’t promote aggressiveness.
The Steelers offense finally showed some desperation after that, as Roethlisberger led a seven-play, 71-yard scoring drive in 3:11. And he might have found another clutch receiver in the process, as rookie Emmanual Sanders laid out for a six-yard scoring catch. Wallace caught a 20-yarder to set it up.
For those who believed the Steelers had some life, Roethlisberger ended that when his poor pass was picked off by New England safety James Sanders. He returned it 32 yards for a touchdown to seal the win.
Roethlisberger hit Wallace with a touchdown passes for 15 and 33 yards, and Mewelde Moore ran in a pair of two-point conversion with 6:44 and 2:59 remaining. But the ensuing onside kick attempts failed. The Patriots scored on a Brady pass to Gronkowski with four-plus minutes left to make the Steelers final touchdown way too little, too late.
The season is far from over for the Steelers, as they are tied for the AFC North lead with the Baltimore Ravens. However, they must visit Baltimore Dec. 5 for another Sunday night matchup.
And at this point, the Steelers don’t look like a strong Super Bowl contender right now.