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Disastrous 20-second stretch dooms the Steelers in ugly loss to Patriots

The 20-second sequence ended up being the dagger for the Steelers in Week 2.

NFL: New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

(Editor’s Note: We are aware of another outlet who is deploying a similar article weekly following games. Despite us being the first ones to use this format, we have no plans of stopping the series simply because someone else is using the idea.)

Following each game this season, I’m writing an article that takes one play, or a small sequence of plays, and examines how it became the “turning point” in each Steelers contest. This week, the focus is on a 20-second stretch of the 3rd quarter that saw the Steelers commit a series of self-inflicted wounds that set up a decisive New England touchdown in a 17-14 loss to the Patriots.

From the moment Ben Roethlisberger took the reins as Pittsburgh’s starting quarterback in 2004, the contests between the Steelers and Patriots felt like heavyweight fights. The fact the Patriots got the better of those fights shouldn’t diminish their gravitas. Pittsburgh-New England in the Big Ben vs. Brady era were must-see contests that regularly featured two of the best teams in the league. They produced some of the most memorable games in my tenure as a Steelers fan, from the Halloween slugfest in 2004 where Jerome Bettis rumbled through the Patriots, to the infamous Jesse James catch/no catch, to numerous soul-crushing playoff defeats. I hated those Patriots teams and wanted nothing more than to beat them.

Sunday’s contest between these two proud franchises resembled their predecessors in name only. Neither the Steelers nor Patriots are very good right now. The 2022 version of their rivalry promised to be a contest decided less by which team would win and more by which would make enough mistakes to lose.

In that sense, it did not disappoint.

Unfortunately, the team whose mistakes proved most costly was the Steelers. Granted, Pittsburgh was hamstrung by an offense that was utterly feckless for most of the contest. Their “small ball” approach featured an array of dinks and dunks designed to protect quarterback Mitchell Trubisky from both the Patriots and himself. According to NextGen stats, Trubisky threw just three passes that travelled 20+ air yards while making six throws at or behind the line of scrimmage and 14 others that travelled less than 10 yards. The logic of such an approach was to keep things safe, not lose the game on offense and, in the words of the immortal Hank Stramm, to matriculate the ball down the field. Inevitably, the Steelers were not good enough to sustain drives in this fashion, as penalties, an inconsistent running game and Trubisky’s incompetence did them in. Pittsburgh gained a paltry 243 yards while authoring a passing attack that resembled a high school JV team.

They lost this game because their offense stinks. That’s the bottom line.

Trubisky’s hit chart shows a continued absence of throws to the middle of the field

And yet, despite that reality, it’s possible the game would have ended in Pittsburgh’s favor were it not for a disastrous 20-second stretch late in the 3rd quarter from their defense and special teams. Trailing 10-6, the Steelers botched a gift from New England quarterback Mac Jones when Jones inexplicably threw a ball directly into cornerback Cam Sutton’s lap that Sutton dropped. Then, two plays later, the normally sure-handed Gunner Olszewsky allowed a punt to careen off his facemask and onto the ground, where New England recovered deep in Pittsburgh territory. The Patriots quickly scored to take a 17-6 lead, which amounted to a knockout blow given the state of Pittsburgh’s offense.

While Olszewski’s botched return was the more egregious mistake, it never would have happened had Sutton caught Jones’s errant throw. It’s hard to understand what Jones was thinking on the play. New England had a 2nd-and-9 from their own 43-yard line. The Patriots, who, like the Steelers, orchestrated a bland passing game that was heavy on underneath routes and throws outside the numbers, ran a simple high-low concept from a 2x2 formation. Pittsburgh rushed four, and though Jones didn’t have substantial pressure in his face (he could have simply slid to his left, stayed square and kept his eyes downfield), he chose to bail from the pocket. Fleeing to his left, Jones flung a ball from an awkward throwing platform to his slot receiver, who was blanketed by two Pittsburgh defenders. The throw was low, and Sutton fell to his knees to catch it. It hit his right arm, and for a second it looked like he had it. But then, as he leaned towards his right, the ball squirted out behind him:

From the angle below, we can see the play unfold more clearly. Jones appears to see his receiver break back to the sideline and tries to throw away from the coverage of linebacker Myles Jack (51). He never sees Sutton, though, who is squatting in the flat just outside the numbers. It’s hard to fathom how Sutton drops the throw — he sees it clearly, goes down to get it and appears to have it corralled — but he bobbles it as he tries to bring it towards his body and it winds up on the ground:

Football games are decided by plays that aren’t made as much as by those that are, and this was a wasted opportunity. Had Sutton made the catch, Pittsburgh would have been set up near midfield with the football and momentum. There’s no guarantee they would have capitalized, but as the ball squirted away from Sutton, I couldn’t help but think this was a play that would come back to haunt the Steelers.

Little did I know how soon the haunting would commence. Following an incompletion on 3rd down, New England sent out their punting unit. The play that followed started ominously for the Steelers. In the photo below, you can see that New England’s gunner to the top of the screen, Brendan Schooler, is uncovered. There is no one on him, not in the photo or anywhere else:

Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the field, the Steelers are double-teaming that gunner. What gives? Why put two players on one man and none on the other? If that scheme was by design, it’s a terrible one, for reasons that are obvious. It’s actually surprising the Patriots didn’t have a built-in “hot” call here where the punter could throw to Schooler, who, provided the throw was merely competent, would have had an easy 1st down.

It should come as a little solace to know this was not a designed scheme by Pittsburgh. The error was a product of a different sort of incompetence. Look again at the photo and count the black helmets. There are nine. Olszewski, the return man, is the only other Steeler on the field. Which means, incredibly, the Steelers had just 10 men for this play. The 11th man, who did not report for some reason, was supposed to cover Schooler. Had that 11th man covered Schooler, he would likely have inhibited him enough so that Schooler could not be standing in Olszewski’s face when the punt was muffed, and could not have fallen on it immediately when Olszewski coughed it up:

Watching Schooler run down the field with no interference looks absurd. Frankly, it’s embarrassing, the sort of mistake you expect in a middle school game, not an NFL contest. As of Monday morning, no one in the organization had come forward to say which Steeler failed to take the field. But from what I can tell, it was Levi Wallace. On each New England punt except for this one, Wallace, James Pierre and Terrell Edmunds were responsible for covering New England’s gunners. On this punt, Pierre and Edmunds can be seen doubling the gunner to the right of New England’s formation while Wallace is nowhere to be found. I don’t know if Wallace was temporarily unavailable due to injury and the coaching staff failed to replace him or if he simply didn’t report. Either way, it was a costly error that led to one of the most impactful plays of the game.

We cannot absolve Olszewski for fumbling the punt, either. He simply misjudged it and let it hit his facemask. It was an uncharacteristic mistake for a player who is as sure-handed and sound in the return game as Olszewski. Physical mistakes happen, but Olszewski has to do better here:

While the blame can be spread around on this play, the mistakes made here get people fired in the NFL. Again, Olszewski has to be better. But to allow Schooler to run down unhindered, crowd Olszewski as he attempted to field the punt and then fall on it once it hit the ground, is unacceptable. The Steelers didn’t lose on this play alone. But plays like these create losses, especially for teams like Pittsburgh whose margin for error is so slim.

The Steelers will lose a lot of games this season if they don’t find a way to fix their offense. Whether that means turning to Kenny Pickett at quarterback, getting more aggressive with Trubisky or conjuring some voodoo we haven’t seen yet is hard to say. One thing is certain, though: they aren’t good enough to give away games by squandering opportunities and hurting themselves with mental mistakes. The turning point in Sunday’s game against New England was a 20-second stretch in the 3rd quarter where they did just that.