Headed into Sunday’s AFC Championship game, many people thought the Pittsburgh Steelers would come away with the victory over New England. A lot changed since the Steelers faced the Patriots in week seven, when they lost 27-16. They were going to have Ben Roethlisberger at the helm in the title game, rather than Landry Jones who started for them in week seven. The team was riding a nine game winning streak and New England would be playing without Rob Gronkowski, their biggest offensive weapon. Despite all that seemed to be going in Pittsburgh’s favor, the Steelers fell to the Patriots in a 36-17 loss in Foxborough. The following played a key role in the Steelers loss.
3 Reasons the Steelers Lost the AFC Championship
1 – Poor Red Zone Efficiency
Despite losing running back Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers were able to move the ball pretty well in the first half. Pittsburgh’s struggles came in the red zone. The team’s difficulties in the red zone can be attributed to lackluster play calling by Todd Haley, and a stingy Patriots defense.
Instead of having 6’5″, 240 pound Ben Roethlisberger sneak the ball in on first-and-goal from the one-yard line, Todd Haley called for a run play to the weak side of the offensive line. DeAngelo Williams ran the ball behind the left side of the line rather than towards the teams two best run blockers in right guard David Decastro and right tackle Marcus Gilbert. The play resulted in a one-yard loss. Haley decided to send Williams up the middle, more towards the left side, and the run lost another three yards. The following third down play was an incompletion by Roethlisberger. He was looking for Eli Rogers on a flat route towards the right sideline. The Steelers were held to a field goal, making the score 17-9, in the favor of New England.
Similar play-calling occurred late in the third quarter when the Steelers earned another first-and-goal. This time, they had it at the six-yard line. Haley, once again, called for a run down the middle, which picked up a mere yard. Then, Haley called for another run to the left side of the line which picked up three yards. An incompletion on third down, followed by an incompletion on a fourth down fade route to Cobi Hamilton, resulted in a turnover on downs.
Pittsburgh went one for three when inside the red zone and inevitably left points off the board.
2 – The Defense
The Steelers defense in Sunday’s title game was nothing short of a nightmare. Despite not having Rob Gronkowski, Tom Brady threw for 384 yards and three touchdowns while completing thirty-two of his forty-two passing attempts. Pittsburgh had no answer for Brady as he found wide receivers Chris Hogan and Julian Edelman open time after time. The pair of wideouts combined for seventeen catches for 298 yards and three touchdowns. Hogan set the Patriots franchise record for receiving yards in a postseason game with 180 and Edelman broke Deion Branch’s record for the most postseason receiving yards in Patriots’ history.
Of course, it did not help that the Steelers defense seemed like they could not tackle. A large portion of the Patriots’ yardage came after contact, as many Steeler defenders found trouble tackling the ball carriers. To make matters worse, the Steelers front seven, which were so dominant in their first two postseason games, were only able to sack Brady twice and muster up a mere three quarterback hits on the future hall-of-famer, despite facing an average Patriot offensive line.
In the end, the Steelers lack of pressure on Brady allowed him to pick the Steelers zone defense apart and the secondary’s inability to tackle helped cost them the game.
3 – The Officials
Terry McAulay, is a seasoned NFL referee, with nineteen years of experience and was the referee in Super Bowl XLVIII. All of McAulay’s crew for the AFC Championship matchup had a minimum of 10 years of experience. However, the crew still managed to miss a couple calls in Sunday’s game that could have altered its result.
Their first mishap occurred late in the first quarter when the line judges did not flag Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower. Hightower blatantly lined up in the neutral zone, but no call was made. The Steelers were only able to run the ball up the middle for one yard on that same play. Despite the miscall, Pittsburgh scored one of their two touchdowns on that very drive. However, that one play impacted the whole game. That was the play in which Le’Veon Bell suffered a groin injury, which ended up sidelining the all-pro running back for the rest of the game.
Had Hightower been flagged, the play would have been called dead and Bell may have never left the contest.
The crew’s biggest mistake came early in the second half. Tom Brady had fumbled while trying to sneak the ball up the middle for a first down. Javon Hargrave clearly recovered the loose ball. However, the officials determined New England still had possession. Mike Tomlin challenged the play, but lost. Upon review, Terry McAulay announced that the “call stands”, but offered no further explanation. According to sportscaster Jim Nantz, “[the officials] did say, though, after the challenge flag, that they had a clear recovery by Pittsburgh.” Phil Simms also commented on how the ball was clearly out before Brady was down.
The official’s blunder cost the Steelers as Stephen Gostkowski nailed a 47-yard field goal to give the Pats a 20-9 lead.
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