Bill Belichick is a man of few words after his team loses a football game. So it was no surprise when he stood in front of the media Sunday night disgusted with what he had just witnessed. Twenty-one wins in a row? Who cares? He sure didn't as he unsuccessfully went for No. 22.
The Streak, as it became known, was a nice accomplishment in a historical perspective, but when Belichick downplayed its significance, he was sincere because he knew a game like Sunday's embarrassment in Pittsburgh always looms willing to humble the overconfident.The Patriots weren't overconfident Sunday, simply overmatched by a team that was better on that day. Belichick admitted as much in his few chosen words.
"It was pretty clear that the Steelers were the better team," he admitted in what was obvious to all onlookers. "We got killed."
The Steelers used the Patriots' winning formula against the defending champs, who made a series of mistakes and seemed helpless to do anything about it as Pittsburgh took advantage. The Patriots didn't force a turnover for the first time in 22 games. They turned it over four times. The last time they gave the ball away four times? Their last loss, which came at Washington on Sept. 28, 2003.
The Steelers played Patriots football and while teams have talked about how the Patriots win, the Steelers were the first team in more than a calendar year to mimic it and do it better than New England.
When the door cracked open, Pittsburgh, unlike so many of the teams during The Streak, was prepared to kick it in and go rampaging through the Patriots' belongings. The Steelers took advantage of every opportunity the Patriots presented them and the result was a humiliating end to the winning streak in game that was nearly reminiscent of the 2003 season opening 31-0 loss at Buffalo.
The Patriots recovered from that one. But this is a different challenge. Many of these Patriots haven't had to respond to a loss, never mind an embarrassing one, in 398 days. Belichick's Patriots now face their first adversity of the new season. They are shorthanded with injuries once again mounting to an insurmountable level. Running back Corey Dillon sat out Sunday's defeat. But the biggest loss was Ty Law to a foot injury that left him in a walking cast.
"Ty's the best cornerback in the league," safety Rodney Harrison opined. "We're going to miss him."
That's an understatement. Beyond Tom Brady, Law might be the most irreplaceable player on the roster, which is why New England was willing to eat his exorbitant salary cap figure of more than $10 million this season. If he is out for an extended period, the Patriots are in trouble.
So moving on from their first loss in 13 months is the least of New England's problems. Trying to match up with Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce with the likes of Randall Gay and Asante Samuel might just have Belichick's foul mood lingering during the week.
It's amazing how quickly adversity can test a team, but the Patriots, even at 6-1, now face that challenge.
"It's the way you come back from adversity that shows what kind of team you have," Harrison said. "You always want to know how you'll respond to it. I think we'll respond well."
There is no reason to think otherwise for a veteran team that has proven it can handle just about anything thrown its way, but it has been so long since this team has had to deal with it that there has to be some uncertainty.
"This team has a lot of fight in it," quarterback Tom Brady said. "We're not demoralized. It's one loss and it's going to be tough again next week."
The Patriots finished last season with a plus-17 turnover ratio. Through seven games this year, New England is minus-2 in that category despite its 6-1 record. But before Sunday's debacle in Pittsburgh, New England had allowed 21 points off turnovers this season while scoring 51 off its own takeaways. The Steelers, in their dominant win over New England, scored 24 points off turnovers, including 14 in a swarming first quarter that saw them knock the Patriots into the ropes and down to the mat with an early uppercut.
"You hate to turn it over like we did, especially when you give them a short field," quarterback Tom Brady said. "They took advantage of it. We've been on the other side of that when we take advantage of those types of mistakes."
Three of the Patriots' four turnovers Sunday came on their own side of the field. Brady lost a fumble at his 27 and threw an interception that was returned 39 yards for a touchdown while Kevin Faulk lost a fumble at his own 17. The Steelers converted all three miscues into touchdowns. New England had allowed 10 first quarter points in its first six games of the season before the Steelers hung 21 up in the first 15 minutes.
- The Patriots scored first in the game for the 15th straight time including
the postseason. The last time New England failed to jump ahead early was in
Houston back on Nov. 23, 2003 in a game the Patriots rallied to win in overtime.
Adam Vinatieri's 43-yard field goal gave New England the early lead and had
Steelers head coach Bill Cowher thinking doom and gloom. "When they scored
that first field goal, I thought, 'here goes another one, the 15th game in
a row that they score first and win,'" Cowher admitted.
- CB Ty Law left the game in the first quarter with what was reported as a
foot injury. After the game, Law left the locker room on crutches and in a
walking plastic cast in place to immobilize the foot. His loss could send
the Patriots looking for help in the street free agent market. The team could
potentially move Eugene Wilson back to corner fulltime and sign a safety if
there are no capable corners ready to step in and make the type of contribution
needed. One name that has been rumored is former Cardinals and Buccaneers
safety Dexter Jackson, who received an injury settlement from Arizona after
being placed on injured reserve. His health status might be a question.
- RB Corey Dillon made the trip to Pittsburgh, but was unable to play. Dillon's
thigh injury is a mystery since he played the entire game against the Jets
the week before and did not appear on the injury report last Wednesday. He
was listed as probable on Thursday and downgraded to questionable on Friday
before making the trip and sitting out.
- QB Tom Brady threw his first interception returned for a touchdown since
Buffalo's Sam Adams returned a pick 37 yards for a score in the Bills 31-0
season opening victory last year. In fact, the Steelers defensive touchdown
was the first allowed by the Patriots since Adams rumbled for that score.
Over that same span, the Patriots scored seven defensive touchdowns.
- RT Tom Ashworth's continued back problems have the offensive line in shambles.
Backup Brandon Gorin is serviceable on the right side, but struggles mightily
on the left side, a position he was asked to fill late Sunday when left tackle
Matt Light also left the game after reportedly "having the wind knocked
out of him." With Gorin fighting for his life at left tackle, the Patriots
had to move inexperienced former wrestler Stephen Neal to right tackle and
then pray for Brady's health. It was an adventure to say the least.
- TE Daniel Graham, who caught five touchdown passes in the first four games of the season, has been shut out since, and Sunday he had his first catchless game of the season. The reason for his absence in the passing game is tied to the mess on the offensive line. Graham was asked to pass protect all day against the Steelers blitz schemes. Despite that, Brady was sacked a season high four times.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
REPORT CARD VS. STEELERS
PASSING OFFENSE: C-minus
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady lost two turnovers in the first quarter that led to 14 Steelers points and put the Patriots in a very difficult spot on the road in front of a record home crowd at Heinz Field. He lost a fumble at his own 27 on a ball he held too long and was sacked, and then one possession (and one offensive play later) he tossed an interception that was returned 39 yards for a touchdown when intended receiver Bethel Johnson slipped down on the play. He also threw a second quarter interception on a deep ball. He was sacked a season-high four times, but did do his best to bring the Patriots back after a slow start. He engineered an impressive touchdown drive before the half, completing 5 of 7 passes for all 56 yards and a 2-yard touchdown pass to David Givens. He later hit Givens on a 23-yard touchdown pass. Givens had another nice day with 8 receptions for 101 yards, his third 100-yard game this season. He completed passes to just four receivers. Kevin Faulk, who made 8 receptions for 72 yards, lost a fumble following one of those 8 at his own 17-yard line, which led to Pittsburgh's third quarter knockout blow. Tight end Daniel Graham was assigned to pass protect alongside a banged up offensive line and did not have a catch.
RUSHING OFFENSE: F-minus
This was arguably, and statistically, the second worst rushing day in Patriots history. With Corey Dillon sidelined, New England did not even try to run the football, which was like admitting defeat before the battle. New England ran a franchise-record low six times for 5 yards. It was the second lowest output in team history behind a 2-yard, 18-attempt effort against the Saints back on Nov. 30, 1986. New England had four rushes for minus-1 yard at the half. Starter Kevin Faulk ran five times for 4 yards. It was pitiful.
PASS DEFENSE: F
The Patriots hardly presented a challenge for the Steelers passing attack. New England started off fine, but collapsed when Ty Law left the game with a foot injury. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went right after Law's replacement, Randall Gay, going over him for a 47-yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress. He hit Burress again before the end of the first quarter on a 4-yard touchdown pass. Roethlisberger was never sacked and completed 18-of-24 passes for 196 yards with two touchdowns and no turnovers. With Law and fellow starter Tyrone Poole out of action, the Patriots were helpless. Pittsburgh was 9-for-16 (56 percent) on third down.
RUSH DEFENSE: F minus
Ouch. Forty-nine carries for 221 yards. Ouch. This was, pure and simple, a physical flogging. Duce Staley broke the 100-yard mark in the third quarter and finished with 25 carries for 125 yards. Jerome Bettis added 15 runs for 65 yards and a touchdown. The Patriots trailed throughout, and in the second half, they knew Pittsburgh was running it and were powerless to stop it. The Steelers ran 30 times for 141 yards in the second half, including a 79-yard third quarter drive in which every yard was gained on the ground. Pittsburgh imposed its will on a Patriots team that clearly wasn't up for the challenge. Jerome Bettis looked like his former self in powering his way through a soft Patriots front that left this game with something to prove.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B-minus
This wasn't so bad. Kickoff returner Bethel Johnson had his best game of the season, returning six kicks for 158 yards for a 26.3-yard average with a 41-yarder before the half that set the Patriots up at their 44 - excellent field position to mount a touchdown drive in their 2:00 offense. Adam Vinatieri connected on both of his field-goal attempts and punter Josh Miller was excellent, averaging 52.3 yards on three punts with a 42.3-yard net average that would have been better if not for a bonehead play by rookie Dexter Reid. One of Miller's punts was nestling down inside the Pittsburgh 5-yard line when Reid came running in, fell down attempting to down the ball and kicked it into the end zone for a touchback. Kevin Faulk was ineffective as a punt returner and the Patriots struggled covering kickoffs, allowing Pittsburgh to average 27.2 yards per return.
The Patriots got off to their customary quick start, but then collapsed. Nothing the coaches did could help as the Patriots made mistake after mistake on the way to the loss. Bill Belichick said after the game that the Patriots were outplayed and outcoached. New England gave up on the run after its first attempt lost a yard and permitted Pittsburgh's defense to pin its ears back and come after Tom Brady. That took Daniel Graham out of the offense since he had to stay in to help out a banged up offensive line in pass protection. The Patriots' five-wide formations were ineffective and the coaches were unable to motivate a defense that got pounded physically and mentally. They had no answers to stop the Steelers' running game, which was disheartening. New England quite obviously was not focused while turning the ball over four times. Belichick is typically a master at managing the clock, but the Patriots screwed that up too. Just before the half, the Patriots completed a 17-yard pass to set up and a first-and-goal from the 2 situation with 51 seconds left and they called an unnecessary timeout. After an incompletion stopped it again with :49 left, the Patriots scored on a Brady-to-Givens touchdown pass with :46 left. There was no reason to call a timeout at the :51 mark. A 37-yard kickoff return then set Pittsburgh up at a scoring bid. The Steelers moved to the Patriots 32 with :09 left before Jeff Hartings was whistled for a holding penalty that, fortunately for New England, moved the Steelers out field goal range, and kept them from adding to their lead. Also, two plays after Ty Law left with an injury, the coaches called for a blitz that left no safeties in the deep part of the field and left rookie cornerback Randall Gay exposed. Pittsburgh took advantage by completing a 47-yard touchdown pass over Gay on the play. New England got its butt kicked and the coaches take such an un-Patriots-like performance on the chin.