The Pittsburgh Steelers dropped their second game in a row - and third of the 2016 season - by losing to the New England Patriots at home, 27-16. The outcome wasn't particularly surprisingly, especially considering New England's dominant start to the 2016 season and QB Ben Roethlisberger's absence from Pittsburgh's starting lineup. The methods by which the outcome occurred, on the other hand, likely turned a few heads.
Namely, backup quarterback Landry Jones played a solid game, as the oft-criticized former Heisman candidate completed 29 out of 47 passes (including 10 to RB Le'Veon Bell, who finished with 100 scrimmage yards for the fourth game in a row) and 281 yards and one touchdown. Jones did throw an early interception in the end zone during Pittsburgh's second drive of the game, though it's hard to blame him for targeting Antonio Brown against single coverage.
Speaking of Brown, the All-Pro receiver returned to form by catching seven passes for 106 yards, including a 51-yard catch-and-run in the second quarter that ignited a discouraged Pittsburgh crowd that had seen the Steelers fall into a 14-0 hole. However, an upper leg injury forced Brown to the locker room for a pair of plays late in the third quarter with Pittsburgh trailing 20-16. As a result, Mike Tomlin kept Brown on the sideline for roughly half of Pittsburgh's offensive plays in the fourth quarter; a wise move with the game mostly out of hand.
Tomlin, meanwhile, didn't do much to quiet detractors who have questioned some of the more prominent nuances of his coaching methodologies. In the first quarter, Tomlin challenged an obvious-looking Rob Gronkowski catch, which cost the Steelers a timeout. On a critical 4th-and-3 in the fourth quarter with Pittsburgh trailing 27-16, Tomlin opted for a 54-yard field goal attempt instead of running an offensive play. Chris Boswell, who, to Tomlin's credit, has made both of his career attempts from 50 or more yards, pushed the kick 15 yards to the right of the goalpost.
For what it's worth, the Steelers have converted just two out of seven fourth downs this season (29 percent), which ranks 26th in the NFL.
With Pittsburgh enjoying a bye in Week 8, Mike Tomlin's job security will be called into question. Numerous outlets - including, I would imagine, this very site - will ask if Tomlin is on the proverbial hot seat.
If the Steelers lost Sunday's game by three or four touchdowns (as many expected they would), Tomlin coaching performance would be the least of people's worries. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh's head man, the Steelers came within a few mishaps of realistically having a shot of beating the Patriots. The closer the outcome, the hotter the seat. I'm not a betting man, but I would say Tomlin's chances of losing his job are substantially less than 29 percent. Let's take a look at the other movers:
The defense/defensive gameplan - Stock down, but it might be worth buying some shares
Pittsburgh's defensive stock fluctuates like Zimbabwe's currency. Tom Brady looked an awful lot like Tom Brady for the first quarter or so of Sunday's game, but a moderate defensive adjustment from Pittsburgh's coaching staff rendered him mostly-useless until the fourth quarter, at which point he became, once again, Tom Brady. I don't have the numbers in front of me, but it appeared as if Pittsburgh blitzed the Hall of Fame quarterback exactly zero times on Sunday. Amazingly, it worked! Brady just barely crossed the 200-yard passing mark on Sunday, and the vast majority of his throws didn't travel further than 10 yards in the air. Aside from a pair of absolute dimes to Gronkowski, Brady was, dare I say, somewhat of a non-factor for most of Sunday's game; then again, he didn't need to be, as former Steeler LeGarrette Blount gutted Pittsburgh for 127 yards and two touchdowns at a 5.3 yards per carry clip.
Gronkowski's stat line (four catches for 93 yards and a touchdown) doesn't tell the whole story of his impact on the game, as the Steelers held the All-Pro tight end (and overall lovable dude, if I'm being honest) to just one catch for 13 yards through three-ish quarters of action.The Brady/Gronkowski combination is every bit as lethal and difficult to defend as the Roethlisberger/Brown connection, so it was only a matter of time before something opened up. It's hard to fault an overmatched Robert Golden for allowing a pair of long passing plays.
As for Blount's performance, it is pretty evident to me that Cameron Heyward is by far the most valuable component of Pittsburgh's defense. The Steelers' front seven has been transformed into a sieve-like, pasta-strainer-looking shell of its former self, but I am fairly confident that Pittsburgh's run-stopping ability will return to form after Heyward returns to the lineup.
Like I said, it was certainly an up-and-down performance, but the Steelers are going to see some stuff on tape that makes them happy.
Jarvis Jones - Stock up
I just wanted to point out that Jones forced, by my count, three Brady incompletions, three holding penalties and a fumble. The sacks aren't there, but this dude has been playing well in other areas all season. The Steelers have the fewest sacks in the NFL, so Jones is far from the only issue.
Le'Veon Bell's future earning potential - Stock up
This is gonna earn some backlash but whatever: if Le'Veon Bell wants $10 million per year, the Steelers should pay Le'Veon Bell $10 million per year.
Admittedly, I found myself falling into the typical "don't pay a running back" trap prior to this season. "He has off-field issues, his knees are beat up, anybody can run behind Pittsburgh's line" etc, etc, etc. Utter foolishness. Bell is every bit as valuable to the Steelers as Brown, Heyward and, no kidding, Roethlisberger, so the team should have some serious discussions about ponying up the cash to keep him in Pittsburgh for the long-term future.
Bell is on pace 1,100 rushing yards, 800 receiving yards and 97 catches. In a 13-game season. Less than one year removed from major knee surgery. And he turns 25 in February. I am having trouble comprehending why anyone would say "okay, thanks man, have fun playing for another team next season." By the way, one of Bell's biggest fans is Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, and according to Over the Cap.com, the Patriots will have $63 million in cap space this offseason. This should terrify you.
Overall - Stock up
The Steelers lost a game that they were supposed to lose. They did, however, keep the game a lot closer than anyone would have bet on. Landry Jones should feel very good about his performance, and he should be able to carry that confidence into Pittsburgh's Week 9 meeting with the 3-4 Baltimore Ravens.
At 4-3, the Steelers still have a full one-game lead in the AFC North, and the aforementioned game against the Ravens could give Pittsburgh some much-needed breathing room. Pittsburgh's bye could not have come at a better time, and the Steelers can use the extra week to game plan for a hemorrhaging Ravens team (who have lost four straight after a 3-0 start) and to get some starters healthy, including Heyward, Brown, Ryan Shazier and Sammie Coates.