Steelers overwhelmed amid dropped passes, blown coverages and missed tackles

The score: New England 36, Pittsburgh 17

The bottom line: Needing a near-perfect effort to win, the Steelers rolled out their worst performance in more than two months Sunday at New England, with young receivers dropping critical passes and young defenders blowing critical coverages, allowing the Patriots to cruise into Super Bowl LI with a 36-17 blowout win that will overshadow a season of critical growth that will allow Pittsburgh to compete for a championship again soon.

It was over when… Trailing the Patriots by 11 midway through the third quarter and facing a 4th-and-7 at the Patriots 39, Mike Tomlin, who apparently forgot Tom Brady quarterbacked the other team, waved the white towel by punting. Eight plays later, Brady had the Patriots in the end zone for the dagger.

Play of the day: Nursing an eight-point lead early in the third quarter, Tom Brady appeared to routinely sneak for a first down on a 3rd-and-1 play then the Steelers began signaling the ball was theirs. Javon Hargrave came out of the pile with the football. Referee Terry McAulay signaled Patriots ball. Mike Tomlin threw the red flag. Then McAulay made the mistake of trying to explain the replay would have to show a fumble and a clear recovery. Many, most notably CBS’ Jim Nantz, misinterpreted McAulay’s words to mean officials had already ruled a clear Pittsburgh recovery. Once under the hood, McAulay saw that Brady indeed had fumbled the ball. But, the standard for a recovery on replay are different than for a live play. The official must see a Steelers player clearly falling on the football for possession to change hands. Emerging from the pile, by rule, does not stand up. So the officials who blew the call live now had a fumble on replay and Hargrave’s recovery, which would have stood up if officials had gotten the call correct live, did not stand up, by rule, via replay. Got it?

Playoff picture:

+ How scary are the Falcons right now? We knew about all that offensive skill, but the physicality in the NFC playoffs has been over the top. Add to that a great kicking game and a coach who gives game management the weight it deserves, both in preparation and on gameday, and you’ve got a dominant force.

+ Sort of scary how similar the Packers and Steelers stretch runs were on a positive note and ended on similarly depressing blowouts.

Hot topics:

+ Only The Hoodie could game plan to take Antonio Brown away from the Steelers and then have Le’Veon Bell get injured in the first quarter for good measure. The Patriots are an immensely talented and well coach football team, but man, do they need to get every break?.

+ After having very, very good seasons, Marcus Gilbert and William Gay had very, very bad games Sunday. Gilbert was noticeable for the first time this season and most times it was being driven backward into the Steelers backfield.

+ We have been too harsh on Ben Roethlisberger and this game drove that home. He’s been operating for much of the season with one legitimate receiving threat, one marginal one (Eli Rogers) and a whole bunch of guys who should be playing WR in the NFL. That guys like Sammie Coates and Cobi Hamilton dropped huge passes in huge moments Sunday is no accident. That’s exactly how Bill Belichick game planned it.

+ So what to do at WR? Markus Wheaton is a free agent. Has he shown enough to merit re-signing him? Can Pittsburgh afford not to? Martavis Bryant looks focused and ready to return, but he’s one joint away from a life sentence. You can’t possibly count on that guy, can you? We think you’re looking at taking one WR high in the draft and at least one other.

+ We are not being too harsh on Roethlisberger when we say he’s terrible at quarterback sneaks and it really hamstrings the Steelers on short-yardage situations not having that play in their arsenal. Beyond that, we’re not sure there’s much to be said about Pittsburgh goal-line failings late in the first half. Last week, fans and media screamed when the Steelers threw in that situation. This week, they screamed when they ran. Players have to execute, whatever the play call is. It looked like three Steelers, most notably Xavier Grimble, missed assignments on the 1st-and-goal play.

+ Fire alarm pulled at Steelers hotel in the middle of the night? NFL should address it, but had zero to do with the outcome of this game. Steelers hit by a stomach virus? Good for TV news schlock but had zero to do with the outcome of this game.

Zebra hunting:

+ At halftime, there were zero penalties called and everyone was raving about the work of Terry McAulay and his all-star crew. That changed quickly with an obvious missed hold against James Harrison on the Patriots first offensive play of the second half, a ridiculous illegal hit call on the next play with a Patriots receiver falling into Ryan Shazier’s low strike zone and then the botched fumble-no-fumble call a few plays later on Brady’s sneak.

Game mismanagement:

+ Despite getting a lot of Twitter heat at the time, Mike Tomlin was absolutely justified in risking a second half timeout to challenge the Tom Brady fumble.

+ But in typically infuriating Tomlin style, it makes no sense to have taken that risk and the refuse to risk going for the fourth down at the Patriots 39 a few minutes later. It makes no sense, of course, unless you just make every decision in a vacuum, based on gut instinct, and never really step back and study how things fit together.

In the booth:

+ We chuckled when Simms exclaimed, “The Patriots have run this flea flicker for years! This was a different formation, though.” Got it, Phil.

+ We’re sure Jay Feely’s detailed explanation of why Chris Boswell missed the first extra point was technically accurate, but without an illustrated replay, matching up what he was saying with what was happening, it was worthless. Topic #2.

+ As we noted/feared in our pregame blog, the last hour of that broadcast was absolutely as bad as watching football on television gets.

Sweet tweets:

+ @PandaPSU: “Well, at least Coates extended there and gave it his all.” (Blogger’s note: Whatever picture was in the dictionary under “alligator arms” got replaced by that effort.)

+ @15MinutesBlog: “The Not Ready for Prime Time Players.” (Blogger’s note: After Cobi Hamilton’s TD drop. Ooooof.)

Next year:

+ This ugly, ugly loss obscures (for now) a season where the Steelers made great strides toward remaining a championship contender for the foreseeable future. The overhaul of the defense is now largely complete, with nine of 11 positions secure for next year. Old men Lawrence Timmons and James Harrison are the only big question marks for 2017. Rookies Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave are going to get much better, as most NFL players do, between years one and two. On offense, the big three return (assuming Le’Veon Bell is tagge again) with the potential to be joined by Martavis Bryant and, presumably, Ladarius Green. Meanwhile, the Steelers offensive line emerged under Mike Munchak as one of the top three units in the league. As noted above, the WR position must be addressed. Also, Chris Boswell and Jordan Berry give Pittsburgh its best kicking duo in years.

+ The Steelers will pick 30th in this spring’s NFL Draft. The last time they picked 30th was 2005, also after a loss to the New England Patriots, when they selected Heath Miller.

+ 2017 schedule: HOME = Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Jacksonville, Tennessee, Green Bay, Minnesota, New England. AWAY = Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Houston, Indianapolis, Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City.

+ 2017 potential free agents (unrestricted) = Lawrence Timmons, Jarvis Jones, DeAngelo Williams, James Harrison, Le’Veon Bell, Cody Wallace, Greg Warren, David Johnson, Ricardo Matthews, Steven Johnson, Markus Wheaton, Shamarko Thomas, Landry Jones, Bruce Gradkowski. 2017 potential free agents (restricted) = Ross Cockrell, Chris Hubbard.


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