PITTSBURGH — Although his father was a United States Marine, Steelers outside linebacker Arthur Moats has little use for hand grenades. Or horseshoes, for that matter.
Close doesn’t count, Moats said, a sentiment echoed by much of the Steelers locker room following a 27-16 loss to the Patriots on Sunday at Heinz Field.
This was supposed to be a beatdown by the big, bad Patriots (6-1). Instead, it turned out to be a cruel tease.
Playing without franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger after he had surgery for a torn meniscus last Monday, the Steelers did plenty right. Their defense made Tom Brady look mortal and their offense enjoyed a better-than-expected performance from Roethlisberger’s backup, Landry Jones, but an amalgamation of mistakes contributed to the loss.
“We’re all frustrated because we know how much better we could have been out there,” Moats said. “When you play 60 or 70 good snaps, then you have a handful of snaps that cost you the game, that’s the tough part. But that’s on us. We have to be more consistent.”
Four Steelers trips inside the red zone resulted in just one touchdown, a 14-yarder from Jones to Darrius Heyward-Bey that cut the Patriots’ lead to 14-7 at 9:02 of the second quarter.
They settled for field goals three other times, a Jones incompletion preceding each one. On their second drive of the game, and first inside the 20-yard line, Jones forced a pass to Antonio Brown, throwing a ball that he described as “crappy,” and Malcolm Butler picked it off in the end zone.
“We moved the ball up and down the field,” Jones said. “That was no issue. The issue was in the red zone.”
The most painful bullet to the Steelers’ collective foot came on the drive following Heyward-Bey’s touchdown. The first of Ryan Allen’s two shanked punts landed in the third row of yellow seats, and the Steelers faced a third-and-3 at the New England 14.
Jones threw what appeared to be a touchdown pass to Heyward-Bey, but right tackle Chris Hubbard, filling in for an injured Marcus Gilbert, was called for holding.
Jones and Brown flubbed the next play with a miscommunication — Brown turned in, Jones thought he should have turned out — and kicker Chris Boswell pushed a 42-yard field goal attempt wide right.
“We realized that our margin for error was minimal,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “We left some red zone possessions out there offensively.”
They didn’t stop there. One week after Miami’s Jay Ajayi shredded the Steelers defense for 204 rushing yards, LeGarrette Blount churned out 127 yards and a pair of scores on 24 carries.
Tomlin was OK with ceding some yards — better to defend Brady and the passing game, the Steelers coach figured — but bringing down Blount became an issue.
“We were willing to bleed a little bit in the run game in an effort to minimize big plays,” Tomlin said. “In doing so, we would have to come off blocks and make tackles. There was not enough of that for us to be successful.”
It appeared at halftime that the Steelers (4-3) somehow figured out how to cover top-tier tight ends, a problem that has plagued them for years. Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett had totaled just one catch for 13 yards on a pair of targets.
Then, the mirage disappeared.
Gronkowski busted loose for a 36-yard score down the seam to make it 20-13 at 6:19 of the third quarter and later set up Blount’s second touchdown with a 37-yard reception on the Patriots’ next drive.
Toss in a questionable choice by Tomlin to attempt a 54-yard field goal on fourth and 3 late, plus 10 penalties for 85 yards, and the Steelers made just enough mistakes to detract from what were otherwise excellent offensive performances from Jones and Le’Veon Bell.
Jones, making just his third NFL start, completed 29 of 47 throws for 281 yards, while Bell had 31 touches — 21 rushes and 10 catches — for 149 total yards.
“I think we could have won the game,” Bell said. “But we missed a lot of opportunities.”
Video: A few thoughts on the Patriots-Steelers game