What is a key play in the National Football League? Is it one that occurs at a certain point in a game? Is it a play that happens at any point in a game?
Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick had an interception in the first half of Sunday’s regular-season home opener against the Patriots at Acrisure Stadium. Fitzpatrick’s play nullified an interception thrown by quarterback Mitch Trubisky a few plays earlier, with New England leading, 3-0.
It was a nice play, Fitzpatrick’s pick, but it simply led to a field goal by Chris Boswell to tie the game.
Late in the second quarter, with the game still knotted at three, Patriots quarterback Mac Jones threw up a 50-50 ball down the right sideline to receiver Nelson Agholor, who was being covered quite well by cornerback Akhello Witherspoon. But instead of jumping up and trying to play the ball at its highest point, Witherspoon put his arms out as if to try and make an over-the-shoulder interception. Not a bad idea, usually, but it’s all about who wants it more when it comes to those 50-50 balls. Agholor did jump up to play the ball at its highest level by reaching over Witherspoon to pull in the catch and take it into the end zone for a 44-yard touchdown with just 22 seconds remaining before halftime.
In a game where the Steelers offense again was putrid—it tallied just barely over 100 yards in the first half—that felt like two touchdowns.
The Steelers had to play catch-up the rest of the game, a tall order for an offense that continued to lack drive, explosiveness, imagination and, most importantly, productivity.
It was even a tall order for a defense that was missing T.J. Watt. Sure, the defense played a good game, but it spent the entire afternoon looking like a shell of its former self, failing to sack Jones one time and barely getting any pressure on him all afternoon long.
But, much like the 50-50 ball with Agholor and Witherspoon late in the first half, there was a key play to be made in the second.
New England faced a second and nine from its own 43 late in the third quarter.
A stop would have been nice, but how about a turnover? The Steelers appeared to have that right in their grasp when Jones scrambled to his left and let loose with a pass that hit cornerback Cam Sutton right in the breadbasket. An interception there would have given Pittsburgh possession at midfield or, heck, a 13-10 lead if Sutton, who was all alone and down on one knee when Jones’s pass came his way, had been able to get up and take it to the house.
Sutton, being a cornerback and all, failed to secure the interception.
Sutton and the rest of the defense did stop the Patriots one play later to force a punt. Unfortunately, that punt bounced off of the facemask of return man Gunner Olszewski, landed on the turf of Acrisure Stadium, and Brenden Schooler pounced on it to give the Patriots the ball at the Pittsburgh 10 with a little help from Cam Heyward and an unnecessary roughness penalty.
Running back Damien Harris ultimately scored a touchdown from two yards away to give the Patriots a 17-6 advantage.
I guess you can say the Steelers made some semi-key plays to get back into the game by immediately driving 75 yards on nine plays and cutting the deficit to three on an eight-yard touchdown pass from Trubisky to tight end Pat Freiermuth, as well as a pretty two-point conversion from Trubisky to receiver Diontae Johnson.
This was very early in the fourth quarter, and another key play or two could have made the difference down the stretch.
They never came.
The defense did force the Patriots to punt on back-to-back series, but the offense failed to sniff a sustained drive, going three and out twice.
The Patriots offense had a few more key plays left in its bag and used them to run out the final 6:33 of game clock against a tired and compromised Steelers defense.
Final score: 17-14, visitors.
The offense was again ineffective.
The defense played well but not well enough without Watt.
It all came down to a few key plays, none of which were made by the home team.