One week after losing in heart-breaking fashion, the New England Patriots again were beaten in a close road game on Sunday. This week, the Pittsburgh Steelers were the team to defeat the reigning AFC champions by winning 17-10. Let’s take a look at those players that stood out during the contest — for better or for worse.
Loser: The offensive line
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was just sacked once all game long, but the blockers in front of him still had a rough outing. The group was oftentimes overpowered at the point of attack, which helped Pittsburgh generate pressure on Brady even when not directly hitting him. This, in turn, kept the future Hall of Famer and the entire offense from getting into a consistent rhythm. Furthermore, the line was responsible for six penalties on the day — four of its five members (all except center David Andrews) were flagged at least once.
Loser: Josh McDaniels
In the last few years, the Patriots offense hardly had any problems against the Steelers defense. Yesterday, however, the unit did not find the end zone after a 63-yard touchdown pass on its third play of the day. While the players’ execution was at times simply not good enough, the group’s play caller needs to be questioned as well. Why did the Patriots not try to get Josh Gordon or Rob Gronkowski involved more? Why did the team not try to stick to running game more consistently? And what in the world happened to James White’s role?
Winner: CB Stephon Gilmore
Primarily going against one of the NFL’s best wide receivers — Antonio Brown — Stephon Gilmore again proved why he is one of the league’s premier cornerbacks. Brown finished the day with just four catches for 49 yards and a touchdown on which Gilmore was not in coverage, and the cornerback’s performance is a reason why. The 28-year old was physical at the line of scrimmage no matter who was on the other side of him, and stuck closely to his assignments all day long.
Loser: The run defense
Last week, the Patriots were gashed for 189 yards on just 21 carries (9.0 yard/run) on the ground. This week, the defense did not fare much better: not counting kneel downs, New England allowed the Steelers to gain 161 yards on 23 carries for a healthy average of 7.0 yards a carry. While the game plan might have again played a role in this, the Patriots — especially defensive tackles Malcom Brown, Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler — simply did not get off its blocks up front to have any form of impact in the running game.
Loser: The team discipline
While penalizing in the NFL at times appears to be a rather arbitrarily-looking affair, the Patriots getting flagged 15 times (one of which was declined) against the Steelers is still very bad. The team lost 106 yards worth of field position in the process and even worse put itself in consistently bad situations — often in easily avoidable fashion: eight of the Patriots’ penalties happened before the snap. In a game as close as yesterday’s, one has to wonder if the outcome would have been different had New England just gotten flagged not as often.
Winner: CB J.C. Jackson
From the very first play of the day it became clear that J.C. Jackson would have a big role in the game: the undrafted rookie was asked to guard the Steelers’ leader in catches and receiving yards this season, JuJu Smith-Schuster. And for most parts, the youngster fared well. While often getting help over the top, Jackson still played a considerable part in New England limiting the wideout to just four catches for 40 total yards — one of the worst statistical performances of the season for Smith-Schuster.
Winner: FS Duron Harmon
During last year’s game in Pittsburgh, safety Duron Harmon made the game-clinching interception late in the fourth quarter. And even though the Patriots did not leave town victoriously this time around, Harmon still had another big performance. The deep safety not only helped limit the impact of Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster, he also registered two interceptions — twice being in the right spot at the right time again.
Loser: TE Rob Gronkowski
In six meetings with Pittsburgh’s defense, Rob Gronkowski combined to catch 39 passes for 664 yards and eight touchdowns. Yesterday and with the Steelers double-covering him on most of his snaps, however, Gronkowski was shut down. The veteran finished with just two catches for 21 yards despite being credited with five targets. One week after playing his best game of the season, the 29-year old had another quiet performance.
Loser: WR Josh Gordon & WR Julian Edelman
With Gronkowski a focal point for the Steelers defense, the Patriots needed their other pass catchers to step up. However, the two most likely candidates failed to do that: Josh Gordon and Julian Edelman. Gordon, who averaged 91.7 receiving yards in his six previous meeting with Pittsburgh, was targeted just two times and registered one 19-yard catch and one costly third down drop. Edelman, meanwhile, was more productive — he led the team with seven catches for 90 yards — but also failed to elevate the offense; all while also getting penalized twice.