PITTSBURGH - There was reason for optimism.
As poorly as the Patriots had played against the Steelers yesterday, in all three phases of the game, in the waning seconds they still had a chance to win. It would take a last-gasp drive from Tom Brady, but trailing by 6 points with 19 seconds to play, it was possible.
Until it wasn’t.
Starting from his 22, Brady dropped back and was standing tall, surveying the field, and didn’t see Brett Keisel coming. The veteran defensive end smacked the ball out of Brady’s hand, and in the scrum to recover it, Steelers safety Troy Polamalu punched the ball forward.
It rolled through the back of the end zone, giving Pittsburgh a safety, and a 25-17 win. It was the second loss of the season for New England (5-2), and also marked the first time since 2002 that the Patriots lost their first game coming off the bye week.
New England struggled in all facets. Pittsburgh racked up 427 yards of offense, converted 10 of 16 third-down chances, and held the ball for more than 39 minutes. The Patriots offense had just 213 yards (the previous low this season was 371 against Dallas), and ran just 50 plays, down from an average of nearly 75 a game this season.
And on special teams, breakdowns in kickoff coverage meant the Steelers began three drives at their 31-yard line or better. Conversely, with Danny Woodhead serving as returner, New England began at its 20- or 21-yard line after kickoffs.
“Based on today, we need to play better offense, we need to play better defense, we need to play better special teams,’’ Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “We need to coach better, we need to play better. It wasn’t very good execution. We couldn’t get it done.’’
The eternal Patriots optimist will point out that the last time New England traveled to Pittsburgh on Halloween weekend and lost, the team went on to win Super Bowl XXXIX.
But it takes a healthy dose of optimism to believe that the team will repeat that scenario this year after witnessing yesterday’s performance at Heinz Field. Very little went right for the Patriots, against a team and at a venue where so many things had in recent years.
“We just didn’t come to play today, and it showed,’’ defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said.
With Leigh Bodden released earlier in the week, Ras-I Dowling placed on injured reserve Saturday, and Josh Barrett out with a lingering thumb injury, the Patriots were thin in the secondary - and the Steelers took advantage.
Pittsburgh’s first drive went 11 plays, and nine of them were passes, including four completions to tight end Heath Miller, whom the Patriots had no answer for. Two of Miller’s four receptions were third-down conversions, the second a 15-yard gain on third and 11 to give the Steelers a fresh set of downs from the New England 8.
The Steelers got on the scoreboard with another third-down conversion, with Ben Roethlisberger throwing a quick 5-yard pass to running back Mewelde Moore, who fought to get over the goal line.
“They gave us a lot of underneath stuff,’’ Roethlisberger said of Miller’s success. “He is Mr. Dependable. I get the ball close to him and he makes the play. That is a good matchup for us.’’
The Patriots went three-and-out on their first possession, unable to convert on a third-and-3 opportunity.
Pittsburgh took a 10-0 lead on a 33-yard field goal on the first play of the second quarter; it was the first time this season New England has not scored in the opening quarter of a game.
New England moved the ball on its second drive, but Brady was sacked on third-and-long by fellow Michigan product LaMarr Woodley, forcing a punt.
However, the offense got a big assist from Gary Guyton when Roethlisberger threw the ball right to him early in the Steelers’ next possession. Guyton returned the ball to the 8, and two plays later the Patriots had their first touchdown.
Kevin Faulk, who not only played in his first game since tearing his ACL against the Jets just over 13 months ago, but started at running back, had a hand in both plays of the scoring drive. He gained 6 yards on first down, then picked up the safety blitz from Ryan Mundy, giving Brady the time needed to find Deion Branch in the left corner of the end zone from 2 yards out.
It was as close as the Patriots would get the rest of the game.
Pittsburgh was able to succeed defensively in part because it played more man-to-man defense than usual. It played without linebackers James Harrison and James Farrior, and Woodley was lost in the third quarter because of a hamstring injury.
“When you look out there and see some of the guys performing for us on defense, Cortez Allen, Chris Carter, Stevenson Sylvester and others, we just tip our hats to those young men,’’ Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “It wasn’t too big for them. They aren’t perfect by any stretch, believe me. But they aren’t playing with fear, and we like that about our young guys.’’
The Steelers entered halftime with a 17-10 lead. New England got the ball to start the second half, but gave it back quickly, with another three-and-out. Pittsburgh increased its lead back to 10 points with the second of three field goals from Shaun Suisham.
If there was one positive on the day, it was the play of the Patriots defense in goal-to-go situations. That is where it did its best work, three times forcing the Steelers to settle for 3 points instead of 7 and keeping the game from becoming a blowout.
“The defense did a great job,’’ guard Brian Waters said. “They were on the field for a long period of time - they didn’t allow touchdowns and let the game get out of hand.’’
But as cornerback Devin McCourty noted, had the defense gotten off the field on third downs - through the first three quarters, Pittsburgh converted 9 of 12 chances - the Patriots likely wouldn’t have found themselves in many of the defensive situations they did.
“We just have to do a better job,’’ McCourty said. “That’s always something we talk about, is getting off the field on third down.’’
The Patriots scored with 2:35 to play on a 1-yard pass from Brady to Aaron Hernandez that cut the deficit to 23-17. It appeared that tight end Rob Gronkowski had scored a few plays earlier when he caught a pass at the goal line, but Belichick didn’t challenge the call, saying the coaches in the booth hadn’t seen a replay in time to decide whether to challenge.
New England began that 10-play drive with just over six minutes left in the game, but a costly false-start penalty on Sebastian Vollmer (who also gave up one of Woodley’s two sacks and Keisel’s game-ending strip-sack) prolonged the possession and took time off the clock.
The Patriots tried an onside kick to regain possession, but Stephen Gostkowski muffed it. It appeared that he was supposed to kick it up the middle of the field, but it didn’t travel the necessary 10 yards, and the ball went to Pittsburgh.
New England had to burn all three of its timeouts, but back-to-back sacks by Kyle Love and Mark Anderson pushed the Steelers back, forced a punt, and left that glimmer of hope.
But then it was all snuffed out by Keisel.