Taken from the grade book of a teacher who watched his students soar through the second semester and on through the first 2 preliminary exams only to come crashing down to earth during the 3rd prequalification exam, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the latest AFC Championship loss to the Patriots.
For the record, Ben Roethlisberger threw 47 times and connected on 31 of them, for one touchdown and one interception. Given the injury to Le’Veon Bell, Ben Roethlisberger was forced to take a lot on to his shoulders, and the force of his leadership was clearly evident on the field. Likewise, at one point Roethlisberger 13 consecutive passes.
- Yet there were two other plays early in the game where the wide receiver was forced to play defensive back.
It is true that Ben Roethlisberger didn’t get much help from his receivers as he had at least two drops in the end zone. There were other catchable balls that receivers failed to land. While that’s not his fault, the game called for Ben Roethlisberger go the extra mile, and deliver passes that made his wide outs look better than they were. Ben didn’t quite reach that level, and it was what would have been required of Roethlisberger for a win. Grade: B-
Injuries limited Le’Veon Bell to 6 carries meaning he never got a chance to get revving. The Steelers plan had been to ride Bell as far as he would take them, and that wasn’t very far in the playoffs. DeAngelo Williams stepped in and ripped off some impressive runs early, but was ineffective after that, although he didn’t have help from the line in the Red Zone. DeAngelo Williams did score the team’s first touchdown and he caught all 7 passes thrown his way, which raises his mark. Grade: B-
David Johnson had 1 catch for one yard, while Jesse James had another strong playoff performance bring in 5 passes for 48 yards and almost scoring a touchdown. He also did well in the blocking game. While there’s not much to fault the Steelers tight ends, the group also didn’t do anything to stand out when the outcome remained in doubt. Grade: B-
The Patriots did their best to bottle up Antonio Brown and kept him under 100 yards. Still, Brown caught 7 of 9 balls thrown his way, and showed off some excellent cornerbacks on one of the incomplitions that came his way. Moreover, Brown played with the passion and demeanor of a champion.
- Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of his counterparts.
Sammie Coates had a horrible game, dropping the first pass the Steelers threw in a play that could have set the tone for the entire game. Coates also dropped another catchable pass in the end zone. Eli Rogers caught 7 of 9 passes, but his fumble essentially put the game out of reach for the Steelers. Inexcusable in a playoff game. Cobi Hamilton too had a case of the butter fingers, and negated his own touchdown pass by stepping out of bounds. A rookie mistake, and a costly one. Grade: C-
On the positive side, the Steelers offensive line kept Ben Roethlisberger spotless for almost the entire game. However, the offensive line’s run blocking, especially at the goal line at the end of the first half, left a lot to be desired. The Steelers could have sent a resounding message by punching it in before the second half, instead the offense traveled backwards.
Victory in this game would have meant the line giving a little something extra. Something the line didn’t have. Grade: C
Javon Hargrave dropped Tom Brady on New England’s second 3rd down in what could have been a tone setter, but that was the high water mark of the defensive line’s achievement. The Steelers did contain LeGarrette Blount, but the Patriots overpowered them on Blount’s rugby-like 18 yard maul. The Steelers didn’t blitz much, which left it to the line to get pressure Stephon Tuitt hit Brady once, but that was it. L.T. Walton and Hargrave all had tackles for losses, but the line ultimately didn’t deliver. Grade: C-
For the record, Lawrence Timmons led the team in tackles with 14 and dropped two people behind the line of scrimmage. Ryan Shazier was next with 7, followed by Bud Dupree with 5, James Harrison with 4 and Jarvis Jones with 3.
- None of those numbers mask the fact that this was a rough day for the Steelers linebackers.
The unit didn’t pressure Brady and couldn’t defend his short passes. The Steelers needed more from what is the strongest unit of their depth chart and didn’t get it. Grade: F
Sean Davis had a garbage time sack and a hit on Tom Brady. Artie Burns had 6 tackles including a very physical one which sent his man back several yards. But the real number for the Steelers secondary in this game is zero. As in zero passes defensed, zero interceptions, zero sacks, zero forced fumbles. The simple fact is that Tom Brady picked apart the Steelers pass defense, and he made it look easy.
Some of that is just Brady being good, but at other times this unit seemed to go out of its way to help him. Grade: F
Chris Boswell missed an extra point, and while that didn’t have any impact on the game’s outcome, it confirmed that this was not an evening where the Steelers would get any breaks. On the positive side, Antonio Brown had one punt return for 1 yards. Sammie Coates also looked competent as a kick returner, although Justin Gilbert did not. The Patriots only returned one kick for 18 yards. Jordan Berry’s punting average of 38 yards looks OK, but is 10 yards below his counter parts. Special teams wasn’t a liability for the Steelers in this loss, but it didn’t provide anything extra. Grade: C
If the Steelers first series of the game offers any indication, Todd Haley’s base game plan was to alternate between feeding the ball to Le’Veon Bell on and trying to make the Patriots pay for focusing on stopping him by throwing downfield.
- That type of strategy only works if Bell doesn’t get hurt and receivers don’t drop passes that they should catch.
The Steelers of course couldn’t overcome Bell’s loss, but those lie in errors of execution as opposed to being rudderless without Bell.
On defense, Keith Butler had the unenviable task of breaking some horrendous defensive history against Tom Brady on the second biggest stage that the NFL has to offer. Ever since the game ended there’s been a firestorm over why Butler and Mike Tomlin didn’t shift to the man-coverage approach that worked during the 2011 upset of the Patriots.
- You’ll find no such second guessing here.
The Steelers had the NFL’s most experienced defense in 2011. In 2016 they had one of the younger NFL defenses. Trying to learn a new scheme in the heat of the playoffs simple wouldn’t have worked. If Tomlin’s post game comments are any guide, he and his staff considered and ruled out the option. A wise move even in 20/20 hindsight.
- Which doesn’t let the Steelers coaches off the hook.
Mike Tomlin is right that the gravest errors were execution errors – it is hard to imagine that whatever play was called on Chris Hogan’s first touchdown play envisioned EVERY Steelers push rusher getting COMPLETELY blocked AND allowing Hogan to have HALF of the end zone to himself.
But regardless whether its execution, game planning or preparation, Mike Tomlin and his staff are now 1-6 against Tom Brady with no sign that they’ve got any viable answer to offer against the NFL’s best quarterback. Until Mike Tomlin finds those answers, the Pittsburgh Steelers will remain also rans. Grade: F
Unsung Hero Award
Determining the Unsung Hero for this game is hard, because so few Steelers did anything to stand out. We’ll give our nod to Antonio Brown. While mistakes and struggles defined the night for Steelers other Steelers receivers, Antonio Brown like Ben Roethlisberger gave it his all, with tough catches, impressive runs after the catch and excellent improvisational defensive back skills on one bad pass. For that Antonio Brown is the Steelers Unsung Hero for the latest AFC Championship loss to the Patriots.