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Patriots’ goal-line stand was a turning point

Patrick Chung (left) and Duron Harmon stopped the Steelers’ Jesse James inches short of the end zone on a play that was originally ruled a touchdown. Four downs later, the Patriots held Pittsburgh to a field goal.
Patrick Chung (left) and Duron Harmon stopped the Steelers’ Jesse James inches short of the end zone on a play that was originally ruled a touchdown. Four downs later, the Patriots held Pittsburgh to a field goal.(CJ Gunther/European Pressphoto Agency)

FOXBOROUGH — When Patriots linebacker Elandon Roberts sprinted from the middle of the end zone and planted himself at the line of scrimmage, defensive tackle Vincent Valentine didn’t know what was going on.

It was second and goal with less than two minutes left in the first half, two plays after Steelers tight end Jesse James had a touchdown reversed by review after he was ruled down 6 inches from the goal line, and a play after running back DeAngelo Williams was stuffed behind the line of scrimmage.

New England, up 17-6, was desperate to keep the Steelers out of the end zone.

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Valentine knew this, but didn’t know why Roberts was now standing next to him. No matter. The rookie decided to stick to his assignment and trust whatever was going on behind him.

When the ball was snapped, Roberts slammed into the Pittsburgh line. Valentine shot through almost untouched and found himself in the backfield. With Williams cutting away from him, Valentine engulfed the running back and dragged him down for a 3-yard loss. The next down, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw an incomplete pass and the Steelers, held inches from paydirt, were forced to kick a field goal.

They wouldn’t score again until they were down 27 points with less than four minutes left in the fourth quarter in a 36-17 Patriots’ victory.

“That yard is so small, and you would think the Pittsburgh Steelers would be able to get that yard,” said Patriots safety Duron Harmon. “But those guys showed so much determination and fight to keep them out of the end zone.”

The goal-line stand, largely engineered by two rookies, proved to be one of the most important series of the game.

“I knew I was going to do what was designed for me on that play, but I didn’t know he was going to run up like that,” Valentine said. “I think it kind of messed with them a little bit, they didn’t know who was coming, and it kind of freed me up.”

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Added a laughing Roberts: “I’m so excited right now I don’t really remember the play, to be honest with you.”

Up, 33-9, early in the fourth quarter, New England would engineer another goal-line stand. Again, a touchdown was called back — this time a penalty on Pittsburgh for illegally touching the ball. The next play, the Steelers tried a fade route on cornerback Logan Ryan, who played the ball perfectly to force a turnover on downs.

“That’s championship defense,” Ryan said. “That’s what it takes to win in the playoffs — is winning down on the goal line when your back is against the wall and things aren’t going great. You have to bow up and prevent them from scoring touchdowns or kicking field goals. We were able to do that, and I think that’s a huge part of winning the game.”

Logan Ryan recorded a pass breakup in the end zone.
Logan Ryan recorded a pass breakup in the end zone.(Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe)

All week, Ryan talked about how the defense was a unit with a chip on its shoulders. The Patriots’ defense was doubted, he said, called out by the media, and that fueled the group to stick together. Even the trade of linebacker Jamie Collins, which forced a cast of rookies and relative unknowns to fill void left by the Pro Bowler, brought them closer.

“This group is just really, really special,” Harmon said. “You look back at the year we had, some guys started the year here and were traded and all that, but somehow we just found a way to stick together. We found out how to play together as a unit and it’s really helped us over the last month.”

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On Sunday, Roethlisberger had just two passes of more than 20 yards and averaged less than 7 yards per throw. On the ground, the Steelers averaged less than 3 yards per carry and ran for just 54 yards, their lowest total of the season.

“I feel like we need one more to be validated,” Ryan said. “That’s the only thing we’re worried about. Numbers are numbers, stats are stats, and people have to spin stories and I understand that, but we’re just trying to play who’s on the schedule and get one more.”

Watch: Ben Volin and Jim McBride break down the Patriots’ win


Everett Cook can be reached at evcook4@gmail.com.