What should not be lost in the aftermath of a very disappointing 36-17 loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game, is how far the Steelers have come during the course of this season. After overcoming a 4-5 start, the Steelers ripped off nine consecutive wins to appear in their 16th conference title game before falling in their attempt at a 9th trip to the Super Bowl. The Steelers made it to football’s final four on the strength of an aggressive and attacking defense that turned Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree loose, along with developing rookies, Artie Burns, Sean Davis, and Javon Hargrave. They led the league in sacks over the last half of the season and recorded at least one turnover in the prior 12 games. Paired with an offense that has an abundance of weapons, the Steelers seemed primed to have a team that could finally get past the 9 time AFC champion Patriots.
What makes this loss so difficult to accept is the fact that the Steelers didn’t leave all they had out on the field. They simply didn’t put forth their best effort, which goes for both the players and the coaching staff. The proof lies not only with the sloppy play and poor tackling, but in a game plan, that on both sides of the ball, seemed passive at best. How does a team go from looking and playing so fearlessly over the last two months, to looking so helpless in the span of one week? To be honest, the Steelers not only looked helpless, but also looked to be afraid of New England. They were supposed to represent the biggest threat in the AFC, to knock off the Patriots, but instead, they more resembled the Steelers that lost four in a row.
On offense, the Steelers never found any real rhythm to help sustain drives, partly due to dropped passes, and some head scratching third down calls. The Steelers also found themselves in quite a few third and long situations throughout the game, which made them even more predictable. Losing LeVeon Bell after only 6 carries didn’t help matters either. Rather than changing things up, the Steelers kept attacking the Patriots defense in the same manner which has failed against them game after game. Thinking you can win in Foxboro while being passively aggressive on offense is a mistake. Maybe the Steelers initial plan was to aggressively attack them. If so, several huge dropped balls, and the groin injury to LeVeon Bell, were setbacks the Steelers couldn’t adjust to and overcome.
Defensively, the Steelers never came close to approaching what they have been over the last nine weeks. All game long, Tom Brady carved up a secondary that employed soft zone coverage for the better part of the game. When the Steelers defense has had success against Brady, it’s been when they’ve lined up in press man coverage or some sort of press zone, like they did during a 25-17 win on 10/30/2011. It’s been suggested that the Steelers cornerbacks aren’t good enough to be left in man coverage. Isn’t that why Artie Burns was drafted? Isn’t that what Ross Cockrell was brought in for? They are big, physical corners who can jam a receiver at the line, knocking them off their routes to mess up the timing with their quarterback. That is what you need to do to with a guy like Tom Brady, mess up his timing, confuse him, and buy time for the pressure to get to him, which the Steelers failed to accomplish.
Despite such a dissatisfying loss, the Steelers progressed quite a bit this season, and have plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the next several years. The defense is youthful, possessing game changing talent, and will see the return of Cam Heyward and Senquez Folsom, while the offense will be bolstered by the return of scoring machine, Martavis Bryant. While the Steelers may be built to withstand the rigors of the AFC North, they also possess the talent needed to win a championship. To accomplish that however, they must first find the means to get the mystique of the Patriots out of their heads, because whether the Steelers want to admit it or not, that’s exactly where the Patriots are.