A lot of fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers are down on the team following their 28-21 loss to the New England Patriots in Week 1. Most will point to a 'garbage time' touchdown which made the score a one-touchdown difference as they claim the game was much more lopsided than originally thought.
However, if you look at the statistics in depth, it tells the tale of a game within the game that took place at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, MA. Time to break down the numbers.
Steelers moving the ball through the air to a variety of targets
The Steelers essentially moved the ball with ease against the Patriots' defense and they were very efficient through the air. Other than the obvious efficiency, the Steelers had four receivers who had more than five targets averaging more than 10 yards per reception. Markus Wheaton averaged 18.3, Antonio Brown 14.8, Darrius Heyward-Bey 14.5 and Heath Miller 10.5. That's the perfect picture of pushing the ball downfield to create big plays.
Defense not getting near passes
The Steelers had one pass defensed in the opening game, and that was by linebacker Lawrence Timmons who batted down a Tom Brady pass. In fact, if you go back to Week 16 in 2014, Antwon Blake was the only player who recorded a pass defensed. In Week 17, it was a batted pass by Cameron Heyward and Brice McCain, and in the AFC Wild Card game, it was only William Gay who registered a pass defensed.
In other words, the Steelers secondary is not the type of defense that's going to be around a lot of passes. Look at the names above, take away those who aren't defensive backs or named McCain and you've got two players who have registered passes defended when it mattered the most.
The Steelers implemented the Cover 2 to help with the defensive backs in making plays on passes. But this scheme has yet to be effective in the preseason or in the first game on Thursday night. It should be noted the team didn't run a lot of Cover 2 against the Patriots, as it would have caused even bigger matchup problems with a player like Rob Gronkowski.
Tackling totals a bit misleading
Some fans might take a gander at the Box Score to see Will Allen leading the Steelers in tackling and immediately think it was a poor defensive effort. However, this statistic can be misleading. If a team runs all over a defense and the safeties are the leading tacklers on the team, there's a direct correlation to the front-7 getting abused on a play-by-play basis. On Thursday night, however, the Patriots attacked the Steelers primarily through the air. The Patriots having such great success in the passing game leads to a safety having the most tackles on the team.
Other than Allen's eight tackles, Ryan Shazier (7), Cortez Allen (6), William Gay (4) and Mike Mitchell (4) were tops on the team in total tackles.
Self-inflicted wounds always hurt
The Steelers certainly shot themselves in the foot on more than one occasion (insert Plaxico Burress joke here) on Thursday night. Most will point to Josh Scobee's two missed field goals, but there were plenty of others to note as well. Ben Roethlisberger's interception was one of those of the head-scratching variety which couldn't have happened at a worse moment in the game, but the Steelers were also penalized eight times for 77 yards. Many of those penalties were pre-snap fouls, which are the worst kind because they immediately put the team behind the proverbial 8-ball in terms of down and distance.
Red-Zone woes all around
The Steelers offensive Achilles' heel in 2014 was their red-zone offense. The official statistic for the team in the red-zone wasn't so bad, as they converted two out of three trips to the red-zone. However, it was the other side of the ball which truly struggled in the red-zone. The Patriots were 4-4 in the red zone, never once forcing Stephen Gostkowski to have to kick a field goal throughout the entire contest. It was bad enough that head coach Mike Tomlin talked about the red-zone defense in his post-game comments and emphasized how you must hold teams to field goals...at least a few times.
Not the picture of balance, but good enough
The Steelers offense moved the ball with relative ease against the Patriots, and although the numbers weren't totally balanced between run and pass, it was good enough to be effective. The Steelers threw 38 passes versus 25 runs. However, when looking at the 134 total yards gained on the ground, it was clear that the ground game had an impact in opening up the passing attack.
The Steelers are naturally going to lean on the passing game more than the ground game. After all, in a game without Le'Veon Bell, it would be smart to trust players like Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Heath Miller. But DeAngelo Williams proved more than capable in his regular season debut for the Black-and-Gold.
Third Downs called into question
There was a time in 2013 when Todd Haley's offense was the best third-down offense in the NFL. Regardless of the distance to gain, it seemed a guarantee the team would convert. That certainly wasn't the case on Thursday as the team struggled to under .500 in terms of converting on third downs as they went 7-for-15 on third downs. If the offensive struggles on third down weren't enough, the defensive struggles to get off of the field on third downs might be even more puzzling. The Patriots converted on 7 of 11 third down conversions, which led to long, time-consuming drives for New England.