The score: New England 55, Pittsburgh 31
The bottom line: The Steelers continued their drive toward a Top 5 draft pick next April in impressive fashion, by turning in the worst performance by a Dick LeBeau defense EVER (610 yards!) and by a Pittsburgh defense EVER (55 points!) while being obliterated by a New England team that had been struggling offensively. Even the most blindly optimistic fans and media types now must stop fantasizing about a salvageable season and face the stark reality that we’re looking at a football team that needs blown up and rebuilt from ground zero.
It was over when: Rob Gronkowski had a career day for the Patriots and it was appropriate he put a dagger in the Steelers by dragging rookie Shamarko Thomas for a first down on a 3rd-and-7 play with 10:48 remaining. A field goal would have kept it a two-score game, but Stevan Ridley put it away by covering the remaining 18 yards on three consecutive runs.
Play of the day: New punter Matt McBriar got off a couple nice kicks, but the game turned on his third-quarter dud, a low 41-yarder that Julian Edelman took on the move and returned 43 yards to set up his team at the Steelers 34 and setting the tone for what turned out to be a four-TD, fourth quarter barrage.
+ Where to start with that defense? How about here: Cam Heyward is really coming on in his third NFL season. Beyond that? Ugly, ugly stuff. The defensive line was pushed around in the run game. LaMarr Woodley was slightly less invisible than last week, but still had no impact on the game. Jason Worilds turned in what might be the most inept two-sack performance in NFL history. Jarvis Jones continues to regress. In the secondary, Troy Polamalu was outsmarted time and time again by Tom Brady and Ryan Clark continued to run himself out of plays. Ike Taylor had an unusual bad game that was masked by Bill Gay’s worse game on the opposite side. Thomas shows promise at safety, but he was overmatched Sunday, just like the rest of his teammates – and his coaches. Yes, overarching all of that horrible play was Pittsburgh’s seeming lack of any kind of defensive game plan. There was no press coverage. There were no corner blitzes and no pressure in Brady’s face. There was no box-and-one on Gronk. What there was, most of the time, was a Patriots receiver running all alone in the secondary or a New England running back hitting a 5-yard-wide gash in the defensive line.
+ Which brings us to Coach LeBeau, one of the most loved and respected figures in Steelers (and NFL) history. Two years after badly botching the firing of Bruce Arians, Mike Tomlin and the Rooneys are now looking at the possibility of having to fire Dick LeBeau. Talk about your no-win scenarios.
+ But not all the blame falls on the defense. Roethlisberger fumble. Roethlisberger interception. Roethlisberger overthrow. You can find 99 other things the Steelers did wrong in the first half of that game, but most of them pale in comparison to those three plays from their franchise quarterback. Pittsburgh’s $102 million man has been ordinary (or worse) for most of this season and let’s not lose sight of that. Roethlisberger is not being paid to throw for 400 yards in defeat. He’s being paid to not fumble on the first drive, to not throw careless passes out of his own end zone and to not overthrow wide open receivers in the end zone when the game is still winnable.
+ We saw some decent plays from Le’Veon Bell again Sunday, but you have to be concerned that he was unable to get 6 inches on three short-yard plays in the second quarter (luckily, he only needed 3 inches on one of them and he got 3.5). Once again, all Jon Dwyer does when he gets the ball is gain yards and run people over. He should be the team’s short-yardage back without question and almost certainly should be spelling Bell every third series or so instead of Felix Jones.
+ The most questionable call of the game was a chop block called on Le’Veon Bell early in the second quarter. On the replay, it certainly appeared the Patriots rusher was not engaged with Steelers center Fernando Velasco, but refereeing guru Mike Pereira contended he saw a push by Velasco.
+ About the only other thing you could nitpick in that game is the relatively late flags on two interference calls against Pittsburgh that seemed to come out after complaints by Patriots receivers. On replay, it was hard to argue against either call.
Game mismanagement: From the “These Things Never Get Corrected Under Mike Tomlin” file: This week, the Steelers had to burn not one, but TWO, precious second-half timeouts to avoid the delay-of-game penalties. It didn’t matter this time, but one of these weeks that’s going to cost them a game. Wait, never mind. It already did. And it wasn’t fixed.
In the booth:
+ Give Phil Simms credit for noting early the Steelers curious decision not to use Cortez Allen on Gronkowski, a matchup that went Pittsburgh’s way when the teams met two years ago.
+ Never has Jim Nantz’s Patriots flag flown higher than during a first-quarter segment when he squealed “touchdown” like a schoolgirl on a Gronkowski catch that officials marked a half yard short of the goal line. Nantz then refused to admit replay showed the officials were right when Simms noted three separate times they were. “You can’t really see the ball,” he finally whined.
Sweet tweet: “@jdunio: I don’t really see what we gain by covering Amendola either.”
Next week: The Bills and their revolving quarterbacks invade Heinz Field in a key contest in the push to a Top 5 pick. Undrafted rookie Jeff Tuell had the Chiefs beat Sunday until he decided to throw a 100-yard Pick 6. Of course, the Steelers will have nothing to do with such a thing next week so it could be a titanic battle of bad football.