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The breakdown? A system failure

By Ron Borges
November 1, 2004

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PITTSBURGH -- Whatever the Patriots practiced last Friday isn't likely to be the topic of Bill Belichick's news conference today.

Belichick went to some lengths to offer up unsolicited last Monday how the Patriots had practiced two days earlier "exactly the situation" his team faced the previous day against the Jets just before halftime, when it marched downfield for what proved to be the winning touchdown. This was not the first time Belichick had talked after a victory of some prescient moment he'd had during one of the team's closed practices a day or two before a game. Always, it seemed, whatever they'd practiced miraculously came to fruition when it counted.

Well, unless they practiced picking their quarterback up off the ground last Friday, there couldn't have been much they worked on last week that had anything to do with what occurred yesterday at Heinz Field, where the Steelers manhandled the previously undefeated Patriots, 34-20.

Poor Tom Brady was pummeled all afternoon and so was New England's run defense. So, too, was the prevailing theory that rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger would be so mentally taxed by Belichick's schemes and mind-numbing defensive game plan that he would be reduced to a rubber room by halftime. That latter idea went up in smoke when by that point his quarterback rating was 141.7 and his team was leading, 24-10.

One loss does not a season break, however, and it should be noted this one came with Belichick's troops depleted with running back Corey Dillon, tackle Tom Ashworth, wide receiver Deion Branch, and cornerback Tyrone Poole out before the game began, and cornerback Ty Law and tackle Matt Light joining them on the sideline by halftime. What this may lead to, though, is a shocking lesson for some of the Patriots' more rabid followers.

Simply put, systems without their best players executing them are considerably less baffling to their opponents than systems with their best players executing them. Asking Law to demonstrate your genius is one thing. Ask Randall Gay to do it and you better have something around to put out the flames.

Gay, an undrafted rookie free agent, had played well in limited roles the past few weeks but when Law went down with Poole already out Gay was forced to play cornerback for real, which is to say actually on the corner. Just two plays after Gay entered the game, Steelers wide receiver Plaxico Burress entered the end zone with a 47-yard touchdown catch that made it 7-3. Pittsburgh never trailed again.

"We know when a player like Ty Law goes out of a game," Roethlisberger said. "It's one of those things where we have to keep an eye on who's over there. I said `Let's get the ball to Plaxico.' "

Remarkable though it may seem to some, although not to Brady, he could not win the game by himself. This was especially difficult for him to do with his best running back in street clothes and his body turned upside down far too often by linebacker Joey Porter, who had three sacks and two forced fumbles.

Yet even after both of Brady's starting tackles were on the sideline, the Patriots continued to insist he throw on nearly every down. In fact, New England ran only six times the entire game, so anyone who wonders why they only had the ball for 17 minutes and 2 seconds need look no farther than that decision.

The absence of Dillon was part of the reason, but New England was only two scores down when the second half began and it had just scored before going into the locker room so there was not yet a reason for panic. So what play was chosen to open the second half with the ball on their 17-yard line?

A pass that turned into a disaster when Kevin Faulk fumbled after being drilled by Porter. Three plays later the score was 31-10. Although there was still plenty of time left there was not much fight left in a defense that found itself on the field endlessly (42 minutes and 58 seconds in a 60-minute game) with predictable results -- it was worn down and finally plowed over by a powerful Steeler running game that amassed 221 yards, 125 by Duce Staley. Things grew so woeful that backup Jerome Bettis gained more yards yesterday (65) than he had in the previous six games (64), and Pittsburgh's offense ran the ball as many times (49) as New England's offense possessed it.

"It was pretty clear out there that the Steelers were the better team," a terse Belichick said. "They outcoached us, they outplayed us. We were not very good in any phase of the game. We didn't do much right.

"We just did not do anything the way we're capable of doing it. Pittsburgh played an outstanding game. That's about the result you would expect when those two forces collide.

"We did not run the ball very well. We didn't throw it very well. We turned it over. We didn't play defense very well. There was not too much to build on. We got killed."

The loss ended New England's 21-game winning streak and made clear once again how thin the margin is between victory and defeat. You can win two Super Bowls in three years and more games in a row than any team in NFL history yet still be undressed if you turn the ball over four times. You can be trampled if your run defense is shredded. You can be beaten by anyone if a few of your key parts -- Dillon and Law in particular -- are unfit for service. If those things happen it doesn't matter what your plan was or what you did in practice.

"The way we lost hurts," said safety Rodney Harrison, whose 18 tackles made obvious that the front seven was something less than stout yesterday. "You kind of understand if someone flat-out beat you. Maybe they did, but we contributed to it. We turned it over and they were able to take the ball up and down the field, so obviously they were more physical than we were."

The one thing the Steelers wanted to avoid was putting their rookie quarterback in a situation where he had to play from behind and with his help they avoided that as Roethlisberger threw two first-half touchdown passes and cornerback Deshea Townsend returned an interception for a 39-yard score after Brady's receiver, Bethel Johnson, fell as the ball was in the air. A second interception in the second quarter on an ill-advised Brady heave into triple coverage led to another Steeler field goal and when Faulk fumbled to open the second half the Patriots' fate was sealed.

They had done this day what so many of the teams they had beaten during their long winning streak had done. They had conspired against themselves.

"We did things some people thought we couldn't do," center Dan Koppen said. "We made mistakes."

They fumbled the ball. They threw interceptions. They couldn't stop the run. They were unable to baffle a rookie quarterback. They did little right and much wrong and so things ended differently this time.

That is how it goes but it is only one Sunday. Only one loss that dropped them to 6-1 and into a half-game lead over the Jets, who play the Dolphins tonight with a chance to move into a tie in the AFC East. What does it mean? That will be up to the Patriots, but it is a reminder that it is players who win games and winners who write history.

"It's something we worked on all week in practice," Townsend said of his interception. "Actually, I caught one of those in practice earlier in the week. I saw the fullback go to the flat and I kind of knew that the curl was coming."

Must have known Bethel Johnson was going to fall down, too, a costly pratfall that in some ways was symbolic of the kind of day it was for the Patriots.

A long day. The kind of day they hadn't had in a long time. The kind they don't want to make a practice of having either, regardless of what they practice on Fridays.

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