5 takeaways from the Patriots’ 17-10 setback to the Steelers

Penalties were, and have become, a killer.

Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Joe Haden celebrates after intercepting a pass intended for New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman during the second half.

COMMENTARY

Five takeaways from the Patriots’ 17-10 setback to the Steelers, which further dents New England’s hopes for a first-round bye and leaves the Pats with more losses than any Bill Belichick team since 2009…

The offense can’t finish.

Offensively, the Patriots got exactly the start they were looking for: After the Steelers used more than six minutes to march down the field for a touchdown, the Pats answered in the way they haven’t usually in road games this season, and did so in a flash. Josh McDaniels called a well-designed fake reverse on New England’s third play from scrimmage, the blockers executed perfectly, Brady stepped up into the pocket, and Chris Hogan was completely uncovered. Sixty-three yards later, he was in the end zone.

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However, that remains too rare of a destination for the Patriots of late. In fact, Hogan crossed the goal line with 6:48 left in the first quarter, then no Pats player repeated the feat the rest of the game, and so that 63-yard score stands as the Patriots’ only touchdown in their past six quarters.

What makes it all the worse is that since Rob Gronkowski’s 16-yard scoring catch in the second quarter against Miami the Pats have made six trips to the red zone — and come up empty every time. They ruined a chance to score with an ill-timed sack late in the first half against the Dolphins, twice settled for field goals in the second half of that game, then went 0-for-3 at Heinz Field on Sunday. For the season they’re now scoring touchdowns on just 58 percent of trips inside the enemy’s 20-yard line (last year that was 69.2 percent), and in road games they’re converting less than half of their opportunities.

Sunday’s efforts were plagued by penalties and a rare Brady interception, but coupled with Sunday’s 3-for-10 performance on third-down conversions the broader view reveals that despite the name-brand nature of New England’s offense, this group has not been good in those crucial moments. Julian Edelman caught seven balls for 90 yards Sunday, but he also had a couple of big drops. Rob Gronkowski was shut out over the first half, and he combined with Josh Gordon for just three grabs and 40 yards. James White wasn’t much of a factor until the final drive.

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Brady, for his part, was good most of the day. Under a decent amount of pressure, and facing a different Pittsburgh scheme than Mike Tomlin’s team typically throws at him, he navigated the pocket and generally stood in there against contact.

The unfortunate exception came on the last play, when it looked as though Edelman had cut the face of the defense and might’ve been open for the first down. With traffic around his feet, and the knee he tweaked a few weeks back, Brady didn’t step into the throw, and didn’t drive it to Edelman. Instead his body spun open a bit early, and the ball sailed. Edelman never had a chance.

History is now against them.

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At 9-5, and now positioned as the No. 3 seed in the AFC, history is suddenly stacked against the Patriots on a few levels.

The Pats are still abundantly likely to win the AFC East, needing one win or one Dolphins loss over the last two regular-season weeks to wrap up the division. That would assure them of a home playoff game. However, they’re now trailing the AFC West co-leaders (the Chargers and Chiefs are both 11-3) by two games, and they’re also trailing the South-leading Texans (10-4). Unless Houston slips up against Philadelphia or Jacksonville, the Patriots are looking at missing out on a first-round bye, and needing to play on wild-card weekend.

They haven’t needed to play on that opening weekend of the playoffs since 2009, and they haven’t won a wild-card game since 2006. Of Brady’s eight Super Bowl appearances, none have started with a wild-card game.

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The five losses are the Pats’ most since that 2009 season (when they lost six), and it marks the fifth time since 2001 has lost at least five regular-season games. The first time, they won the Super Bowl. Since then they’ve twice missed the playoffs, and twice were essentially proven to be outclassed in their eventual postseason ouster. No Patriots team since the 2001 champs has lost at least five games and advanced past the divisional round. Never has it ended well.

Then there’s the fact that New England is now facing a scenario where it will need to win a playoff game on the road. The last time that happened was at San Diego in January 2007, and with Sunday’s loss the 2018 squad slid to 3-5 away from Gillette Stadium, thereby joining the 2009 club as the only teams of the Brady-Belichick era to finish a regular season under .500 on the road. That team nine years ago was trailing 24-0 by the end of the first quarter of its lone playoff game, and is regarded by some as the worst of this 18-season run. That’s not the company any Patriots club wishes to keep.

So now it’s up to the current club to see that the comparisons don’t continue to apply.

Penalties were, and have become, a killer.

Entering their bye week, the Patriots had committed a total of 47 penalties in 10 games. Of those, only 16 were infractions against the New England offense, equating roughly to three over the course of every couple contests.

Typically, they are a team that tightens things up after a week off — but Sunday was painfully emblematic of the way penalties have become a huge problem for the Pats over the past month. They were whistled for 14 enforced infractions on Sunday, the second time in four games that they were tagged with at least 11 penalties that cost them at least 100 yards of field position.

They did it against the Jets, too, back on Nov. 25, but what seemed to be an aberration at that point has evolved into a troubling trend. New England has now been called for 37 penalties over its past four games, meaning they’re being flagged at basically double the rate they were before the bye. And it’s the offense that bears the blunt of the blame.

In the first three games coming out of the bye the Patriots had been called for 14 penalties on offense, nearly matching the 16 they were called for before the break. Then Sunday they blew past that total, and kept adding to it at the worst times.

On the fourth-quarter drive when the Patriots were trailing 14-10, and poised to take the lead, they enjoyed first and goal from the Steelers’ 5. A Sony Michel run would’ve moved the ball to the 2, with three cracks to score from there, but that was undone by a Marcus Cannon holding call. The ball moved back to the 15, Pittsburgh blew up a screen pass on the next play, and on the next snap Brady was intercepted under heavy pressure.

The Steelers added a field goal to their lead on the ensuing series, so the Patriots still had a shot, and moved to the Pittsburgh 11 facing second and five. At that point, though, Shaq Mason picked up a holding call that thrust the Patriots into a whole other realm of desperation with the 10 yards it cost them. It was the second penalty of the drive, and this one they couldn’t overcome.

Maybe most frustrating about the fouls against the Patriots was that eight of them came before the snap — suggesting they weren’t about over-aggressiveness or being on the wrong side of the borderline. Pre-snap penalties are usually the result of sloppiness and inattention to detail. Those are two areas in which New England usually exploits its opponents, but instead has this year become evidence of the ways the Pats have come back to the pack.

Gashed in the run game

The pregame news that James Conner wouldn’t play seemed a boon to the Patriots’ chances. He has excelled this season as the replacement for holdout Le’Veon Bell, and without him the Steelers were down to their third and fourth options at running back.

Except it hasn’t mattered who’s carrying the ball against the Patriots over the past three weeks. Whether it’s the electric Dalvin Cook, future hall of famer Frank Gore, special teamer Brandon Bolden with two of his first carries of the season or — in Sunday’s case — rookie reserve Jaylen Samuels, the yards have come way too easy against New England lately. On Sunday afternoon, Samuel was over 100 yards within his first dozen carries, and in total the Steelers racked up 158, becoming the third foe in five weeks to gain at least 150 rushing yards against the Patriots. (All three of those opponents have won the game.)

What’s worse is the efficiency with which teams are running the ball on New England. Pittsburgh averaged 6.3 yards per attempt. Last week the Dolphins picked up 9 yards per try. The Vikings averaged 7.3 yards the week before that, and so coming into the weekend the Patriots ranked 27th league-wide by allowing 4.9 yards per haul.

There are times when yards per carry can be a misleading marker on how a game is going, and in the end a talented Steelers offense managed only 17 points against New England. But Pittsburgh’s effectiveness in the run game allowed it to control play. In Sunday’s game, through the first 28 minutes of play, the Steelers translated their 9.4 yards per rush attempt to doubling the Pats’ time of possession. When Jonathan Jones and Rex Burkhead teamed up to pin Pittsburgh at the 1 with brilliant punt coverage, the Pats gave up 12 yards to Stevan Ridley on the next play, and the Steelers were instantly out of trouble.

And if one were to take a bigger picture view of what the Steelers’ success with the ground game showed about the Patriots, it would be difficult to ignore how slow New England looked when trying to react to the misdirection and toss counter plays Pittsburgh used to make most of its yardage. It would also be tough to overlook how poorly the Patriots have tackled lately.

Give credit to the pass coverage.

Despite their struggles against the run, the Patriots defense deserves credit for the job it did against the Steelers’ two elite receivers. Antonio Brown and Juju Smith-Schuster each caught four passes and combined for 89 yards, but that came on 17 targets. In the second half, the tandem totaled just one grab between them, and it gained just a single yard, as Ben Roethlisberger connected on just five of 11 throws after intermission.

Stephon Gilmore got his hands on two passes, and rookie J.C. Jackson continued to impress while handling the responsibility of Smith-Schuster with regularity. Roethlisberger’s preferred target appeared to be Jason McCourty, though if the Pats had been presented with a scenario where the Steelers would finish with 218 net passing yards and would offset a pair of touchdown passes with two interceptions, they’d likely have signed for it quickly before the game.

Coming in, those two big-play pass-catchers were the biggest concern — but as it turned out, limiting them was arguably the one area of the game where the Patriots managed any success.

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