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Too many self-inflicted mistakes by short-handed Steelers

Jon Ledyard breaks down tape of the Steelers' loss to the Patriots.

The last time the Steelers had more penalties in a game than they did against New England was Week 4 of the 2014 season, when they had 13 in a loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It’s stating the obvious, but you can’t expect to beat New England while beating yourself to this extent, especially with your starting quarterback and best defensive player out with injuries. Three false-start penalties (at home!), three holding penalties and two offensive pass interference calls helped bury Pittsburgh, despite the fact that defensively they only committed one infraction. It’s trendy to blame Landry Jones for a loss, but his teammates put him in tough situations all day with their carelessness.

- On Jones’ interception early in the first quarter, Antonio Brown ran a simple go route on cornerback Malcolm Butler, who was matched up against the Steelers' speedy receiver in man coverage for the vast majority of the game. With the line of scrimmage at the Patriots 16-yard line, Brown didn’t have much space to get vertical separation, and Butler’s inside leverage meant that the ball had to be thrown to the receiver’s outside shoulder to have a shot at a completion.

Jones did a terrific job of moving the Patriots single-high safety with his eyes during the play, guaranteeing Brown a one-on-one matchup when safety Duron Harmon broke toward the opposite side of the field. I don’t mind Jones taking a shot, given Brown’s propensity to win 50-50 balls in tight coverage, but the throw was absolutely awful, a driven ball with no air under it that Butler easily turned and caught between the numbers. Credit to Brown for trying to turn into a defensive back and rip the ball loose, but there was nothing he could do to prevent the turnover.

- Despite his interception, Butler can’t enjoy seeing Brown show up on his schedule. The Patriots cornerback is an excellent player, but he’s been mostly overmatched the past two seasons in man coverage against Brown, surrendering nine catches for 133 yards and a score last year. Brown simply outran Butler on a deep over route in the second quarter, getting open for Jones to drop his best pass of the day right over the receiver’s shoulder for 51 yards.

- New England’s screen pass to James White to open the scoring was a great call given Pittsburgh’s struggles to defend the play the past few weeks, but it was also a prime example of how important Cam Heyward is to this defense. One of Heyward’s best traits is his ability to diagnose quickly, but Ricardo Mathews was on the field in his place and was late to recognize the play’s development. The result certainly wasn’t his fault, but with Steelers cornerbacks down the field in man coverage, Pittsburgh had no defenders to stop White when Lawrence Timmons got cut down. L.T. Walton nearly made a terrific hustle play to stop White, but the defensive lineman just missed on a diving tackle attempt near the 10-yard line.

- The Steelers continue to use that faux 4-3 look with one outside linebacker dropping off the ball and the other aligning in his normal position on the line of scrimmage. You can see James Harrison isn’t used to the spot, as he struggled to key-and-diagnose quickly enough to stop LeGarrette Blount on one nine-yard run in the first quarter. After playing on the line of scrimmage for most of his career, that’s a big adjustment for Harrison to make at this point. Anthony Chickillo seems more natural at it, so it’ll be interesting to see how Pittsburgh continues to use its personnel in this look moving forward.

- The Patriots tried to crack Robert Golden a couple times when he was just outside the box, but the safety’s ability to key-and-diagnose so quickly against the run typically prevailed. Golden was beaten twice by Rob Gronkowski in man coverage (as many defenders are), but outside of those two plays the safety has been excellent this season for Pittsburgh.

- Really strange to me that Pittsburgh left Timmons on the field to match up one-on-one with Julian Edelman so many times. I think the Steelers hesitated to go to dime, even nickel, looks early on because they were worried about the Patriots' run game, but you can’t leave Timmons in that situation and expect successful results. Ryan Shazier was typically on Gronkowski or Martellus Bennett when the Patriots spread the field, and his results were much more favorable.

Jarvis Jones told me he wasn’t pleased with his performance on Sunday, but it was definitely the best game I’ve ever seen the outside linebacker play, especially as a pass rusher. Like last year, Jones continued to give Nate Solder fits, using a couple of inside, two-step moves to whip the tackle. Solder was forced to hold Jones on back-to-back plays, sabotaging an early third quarter Patriots drive almost single-handedly.


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