As was said by the players and Coach Tomlin, the better team won yesterday. They converted third downs. We didn't. They scored once they got to the red zone. We settled for field goals. We turned it over once and gave up several critical sacks. They protected both the ball and Tom Brady.
That said, this game, like most in the National Football League, was largely decided by just a handful of plays.
1) 63-Yard TD to Moss.
Seems a bit obvious to include a 63-yard TD pass as a critical play, but beyond giving NE a 14-3 lead, it changed the entire complexion of the game in terms of how we should play them defensively. Once our safetys were forced to respect the deep threat, Brady went to work underneath and with the screen game.
2) Incompletion to Hines Ward on 3rd and 2 from Patriots 26.
Man was I proud of the way this team responded when we went down 14-3. Fantastic job by Ben making the first rusher miss, and helluva catch by Najeh Davenport on the TD. And when our defense buckled down after the mishap on the fielded punt, I was ready to believe we had a fighting chance to take this one down to the wire. However, on our final FG drive before the half, Big Ben and Hines Ward weren't on the same page on a hot route to Ward. We were moving the ball beautifully, mixing the pass and run, rolling the dice successfully on 4th down, and playing with the kind of toughness and ability that we hadn't seen since parts of the Browns game.
It's rare that Roethlisberger and Ward fail to connect on those types of plays, and under normal circumstances, it wouldn't have been that big of a deal to have to settle for a FG there. We did convert two 4th downs to get in range in the first place, right? Sure, but we really needed 7 there, and I'd bet that Roeth and Hines make that connection 95 times out of 100. Very unfortunate that rare miscommunication happened then and there.
3) Roethlisberger sacked for -8 yards on opening series of 2nd half.
Heading into intermission, we were all pleased with the team's gutty and composed response to the Patriots 14-point blitzkrieg, no? Did we all not think, 'ok, we've got the ball to start the 2nd half, let's get some points and we're in this one till the end.'?
I sure did, and when Willie Parker broke off that 19 yard run to midfield on our first play, I was convinced we had ourselves a game. Next play? Sack for -8 yards. Prescient question by steeltown to beantown to the Pats blogger when he asked if Vincent Wilfork could move the pocket even if he was double-teamed. Answer: yes. We never recovered from that point on.
4)Illegal Block In The Back on Lawrence Timmons on Kick-Return.
After the throw-back from Moss to Brady to Gafney that put the Pats up 24-13, the Steelers had to respond with something positive on offense. A TD, a FG, hell, even just a few first downs to keep Brady off the field for a few minutes would have sufficed. Allen Rossum returned the ensuing kickoff to the 39 yard line for a solid return, but wait, a flag against the Steelers and we're starting from our own 8. Two unsuccessful running plays in between the tackles and a rare errant throw by Roethlisberger and we're forced to punt. Brady takes the field, leads another TD drive and the game's suddenly in danger of getting out of hand. Who knows if anything changes if we don't have that penalty, but when you unecessarily put your backs up against the goal line on the road to start a drive that must yield points, you're asking for trouble.
5) 1st and goal from the NE 6 leads to 0.
As bad as the third quarter was going, we still had a chance to at least give ourselves a shot in the 4th had we punched it into the endzone when we had it on the New England 8 with a fresh set of downs. Real quick: anyone else remember seeing Nick Eason return that pooch kick 10 yards? Was anybody else wondering what the hell he was doing in the second to last line of returners? Rare instance when I wished Chris Berman was on the call there. 'Rumblin, Bumblin, Stumblin and the Steelers are in business from their own 43 on this critical drive, Tom.'
Anyway, we start the drive with good field position - our own 43 - and quickly enter the redzone with a 21-yard completion to Nate Washington. Najeh converts on 3rd and 1, and we're set up nicely to cut it to 10 or 11 depending on whether or not we would have gone for 2. I liked the shovel pass call to Hines from the 5, but we came up a yard short, and were faced with 3rd and goal from the 1.
I forget the exact number, but I remember the announcers saying Davenport had converted all of his 3rd and 1 runs this year. So, we give it to him twice right? No, so then we tried the QB sneak? Wrong again Blitzburgh. We tried the fade route to Santonio, who stands an impressive 6'6" tall and is as healthy as he's ever been. Whoops, never mind. He's under 6' and has a gimpy ankle. I abhor the fade route almost as much as the prevent defense in the 2-minute drill. To nobody's surprise the pass was incomplete (arguably due to interference that wasn't called), and it's 4th and goal. One school of thought says kick the FG there, as it's a 3 score game. But I think we all agree we had to go for it, especially considering the success we were enjoying running the ball. I guess Arians assumed our running game was still stuck in neutral, because neither Parker nor Davenport had their number called on 3rd or 4th down. I didn't totally dislike the reverse to Ward (I would have preferred a bootleg with Ben with an option to throw to either Miller or Spaeth), but let me ask you this: why was it that New England strategically employed their three timeouts in the 2nd half, while we ended the game with all three of our 2nd half stoppages in our back pocket? Would it not have been wise to give our defense a breather on one of those ridiculously efficient scoring drives of theirs? Might it have been smart to call a timeout and come up with your absolute best play call to get that TD?
Confusing, and to this point, my only complaint about Mike Tomlin. He will learn and he will evolve. Anyway, on the 4th down play, Ward runs in to one of his own linemen. Guess who? That's right, Willie Colon. Fall forward, chop block, anything, anything but get stood up and pushed back in that scenario. Hines will break a tackler or leap to the goaline if his forward progress is not impeded by one of his own. It was, and with that play, the lights went out on our chances for good.