The 2018 New England Patriots can best be described as a Jekyll-and-Hyde team: one moment they can look dominant and play like one of the best teams in the NFL, the next they produce breakdowns and make cheap mistakes. This lack of consistency was on display all season long so far, during the team’s victories as well as its losses. Today’s defeat at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers is no different in this regard.
While certain areas looked good — the Patriots were mostly able to limit the impact Steelers wide receivers Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster had on the contest, registered two takeaways, and generally performed well in the kicking game — others were without a doubt concerning and played a big role in New England coming up short in a close matchup that was ultimately decided by just seven points.
Some of the issues we have seen before. Take the team’s run defense, for example, a unit that allowed the Steelers to control the tempo of the game by giving up 158 yards on just 25 carries. One week after getting dominated on the ground by the Miami Dolphins, New England again failed to slow opposing running backs down. The game plan might have again played a part in this, yes, but the Patriots were still constantly losing their one-on-ones at the point of attack.
Some of the team’s issues were new, though, with the most egregious example being penalties. Entering today’s game, the Patriots averaged 5.3 infractions called against them per contest — one of the lowest numbers in the league. Against Pittsburgh, however, Bill Belichick’s team was flagged 14 times, losing 106 yards in the process (a 15th penalty was declined). Eight of those penalties were called before the snap.
This is reflective of how New England time and again made life hard for itself. Whether it was penalties, or drops by the otherwise reliable Julian Edelman, James White and Josh Gordon, or an unnecessary interception thrown by Tom Brady: the Patriots made plenty of mistakes and never hit their groove because of it — especially on offense; the unit produced some very good plays but also failed to score a touchdown on its three red zone trips.
In the end, the Patriots followed a familiar script that ultimately led to their demise: New England failed to play a consistent 60-minute game and in its process shot itself in the foot multiple times. This is not a winning recipe in the NFL, especially when it comes to road games — the team is 3-5 away from Gillette Stadium this season — during which the overall atmosphere in the stadium can have a profound impact on the game.
Luckily for New England, the next two games will be played at home again. And during the upcoming contests against the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets, the Patriots need to build some momentum again heading towards the playoffs. And maybe, just maybe, they can also start to work on their consistency and at stringing together positive plays on a more regular basis than the one that was just on show in Pittsburgh.