Patriots vs. Steelers: Takeaways from Pittsburgh's 55-31 Loss to New England
As the Steelers fall to 2-6 on the season, they do so as a result of a pitiful effort by the Pittsburgh defense and, yet again, inexcusable individual mistakes.
This crippling level of individual inconsistency has plagued this team all year. Even going from drive to drive, it has become maddening.
So with all that, what are the takeaways from the team's latest gaff? Read on to find out.
All statistics courtesy of ESPN.com.
The Pittsburgh Secondary Got Torched
On some level, this is excusable, because covering Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is one of the five toughest assignments in all of the NFL. However, beyond Gronk, the Steelers struggled mightily to cover any of the Patriots' other pass-catchers.
It is time for the Steelers to re-build this secondary. Age is catching up to the starters, and the youth behind them is just not developing the way the coaching staff had expected.
And this was not a result of a poor pass rush either. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was working under duress all game but always seemed to have a man open when he needed one.
Big Ben Can Make the Big Throw
Yet, for all that went wrong on Sunday, the play of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was still tremendous.
When all else fails, this team should just pile on Big Ben's back and hope he can carry them to victory. His mix of arm strength and touch are as good as any quarterback in the league.
Even on the Roethlisberger interceptions, it was the fault of the receivers in both cases. Roethlisberger is having a career year with so little around him to help him out. Roethlisberger finished with his second 400-yard passing game of the year and his first game with four passing touchdowns this season.
No One Can Cover Gronk
This point bears repeating.
The Patriots could have thrown to Gronkowski 25 times on Sunday, and it would have worked. Cornerback Cortez Allen had the best success in defending him, but at the point the team finally realized this, it was too little, too late. Everyone the Steelers threw at him was either too small or too slow to contend with the massive target.
The Steelers would do well to pay attention to what type of player Gronkowski is and how the Patriots use him. This upcoming draft is a perfect opportunity for the Steelers to add that sort of weapon to this offense.
Jerricho Cotchery Is Playing for a Job
Admittedly, I've been hard on wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery. He's had some games that were real head scratchers. However, tonight was a game for the ages for the veteran.
On a day where Roethlisberger's favorite target, wide receiver Antonio Brown, was kept in check, Cotchery blew up. Cotchery finished with seven catches for 93 yards and three touchdowns.
He is one of two Steelers receivers on the bubble for next season, and it appears that he's working hard to stay in Pittsburgh in 2014.
Todd Haley Was Up and Down
One of the most noteworthy points of debate this season has been the play-calling of offensive coordinator Todd Haley, as there isn't a player or coach that gets fans in an uproar like Haley.
In Sunday's loss, Haley was very much up and down. His offense generated 31 points, which should have been enough to win the game. In fact, he called some excellent plays on the Pittsburgh touchdowns.
However, there were instances of bad choices—such as in the first half when the Steelers went for it on 4th-and-short twice on the same drive.
Logic dictates that if the inside run works the first time, a team like the Patriots will be waiting for it the second time around. That didn't stop Haley from trying it again though. Also, with the Steelers offensive line struggling so much, slow-developing run plays and route trees set Roethlisberger up for far too much pressure.
Cameron Heyward Playing Like a First-Round Pick
This is the second week in a row that three-year veteran defensive end Cameron Heyward has played big. Heyward has slid into the starting lineup and has never looked back.
Heyward finished the game with five tackles and a sack, along with multiple pressures on Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. The onus on this front line has been to do more, and Heyward is the one member of the unit to step up to the challenge in recent weeks.
With age catching up to defensive end Brett Keisel and with fellow young defensive end Ziggy Hood struggling this year, it's been refreshing to see how well Heyward is playing. His ability to rush the passer from a base defense gives the Steelers much more flexibility in their pressures and coverages.
Emmanuel Sanders Is Playing for a New Zip Code
When the Steelers chose to not re-sign wide receiver Mike Wallace, I assumed it was because the Steelers staff had confidence in wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to fill the WR2 role.
Unfortunately, things haven't really worked out that way. Sunday's game was an unfortunate repeat of the previous week's performance. I'm not sure what is worse: cutting off routes early or giving up on plays that he should make. Regardless, neither will be tolerated.
Pittsburgh fans need to hope rookie wide receiver Markus Wheaton can get healthy and back on the field for the second half of the season.
Time to Start Thinking About 2014
Like it or not, the remainder of this season has little meaning in the context of 2013. There will be no playoff push in the second half, and there will be no rallying of the troops.
So, in that case, what should be the focus?
In most cases, the answer would be the young players on the roster, as the team should start working those guys into the mix and see where they stand for 2014. Unfortunately, the Steelers have had to deal with so much adversity this year. All of the youngsters on this roster are already seeing plenty of reps.
Instead, attention might need to be focused on the coaching staff and how they work with these young players going forward. As the old saying goes, "You can't fire the whole team".