Remember when the Steelers used to at least try to beat Tom Brady-led Patriots teams at Gillette Stadium?
The Steelers are now 0-6 against Brady in Foxborough, and Sunday night’s 33-3 flogging to open the 2019 season might be the worst of those six losses.
Oh, it might not be as infamous as the Anthony Smith Guarantee Game against the unbeaten Patriots in 2007, or the Speed Limit 55, Steelers 31 Game in 2013, or the loss in the 2016 AFC championship game.
At one point or another, however, the Steelers made some kind of effort in each of those games. On Sunday night, they started the season as if they were 53 kids who didn’t feel like getting out of bed on the first day of school.
As we sift through the wreckage and look back on the good ol’ days when the Steelers actually made the Patriots secrete at least a few beads of sweat, we find that the Steelers have other problems they need to wrestle with if they want to have any chance of getting another shot at Brady this season.
They’ve scored 19 points in the two games since Antonio Brown stopped playing for them. With Brown wearing a fur coat on the sidelines in Week 17 last season, the Steelers managed just 16 points against the Bengals in a game they needed to win to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Entering this season, any Steelers receiver not named JuJu Smith-Schuster should have been wearing a Riddler costume instead of a Steelers uniform, because beyond Smith-Schuster there are a whole lot of question marks at the position.
Can free-agent signing Donte Moncrief be a legitimate second option?
Can James Washington make a significant second-year leap?
Can Diontae Johnson step right in and contribute, or at least have a better rookie season than Washington?
Moncrief, who had 200 career catches in five seasons coming into 2019, hurt the Steelers more than he helped them Sunday night, hanging on to just three passes for seven yards. Washington caught two passes for 51 yards, including a 45-yarder on the Steelers’ only scoring drive. But just like last year, it seemed that Ben Roethlisberger and Washington had enough missed connections to fill a Craiglist page on deep throws.
Question marks also punctuated sentences about the Steelers’ play-calling Sunday night. After the Patriots took a 10-0 lead, the Steelers turned a second-and-2 into a three-and-out. Roethlisberger completed a pass to Ryan Switzer at the line of scrimmage that gained just one yard and James Conner was stopped for no gain.
On their next possession, the Steelers faced a third-and-1 at their own 44. Needing to go forward one yard, Roethlisberger pitched the ball sideways to Conner and the Steelers lost four yards. While the Steelers typed “45-yard line” into their GPS app, the Patriots increased their lead to 17-0 on Brady’s 25-yard TD pass to Phillip Dorsett.
Conner entered his third NFL season averaging 4.5 yards per carry. It would have been nice if the Steelers gave him a chance to gain that yard they needed without trying to get fancy.
And it would have been nice if Conner was on the field at all on fourth-and-1 from the Patriots’ 47 right after the two-minute warning in the first half. He was on the field, but the Steelers called timeout and decided to go five-wide. Moncrief dropped Roethlisberger’s pass, and the Patriots had enough time to add a field goal and take a 20-0 halftime lead.
The Steelers had the ball to start the second half and reached the Patriots’ 1-yard line after Conner had gained three yards on second down. Instead of letting Conner try to gain that last yard, they called timeout and decided to throw another futile pass to Moncrief, who dropped a touchdown pass earlier in the drive. Then on fourth down they inexplicably kicked a field goal.
It was maddeningly reminiscent of the field goal they settled for late in the first half of their AFC championship game loss in 2016, pulling to within 17-9 in an eventual 36-17 loss. At least they scored two touchdowns in that game. The Steelers were the only team in the NFL not to score a touchdown Sunday (the Bears didn’t score one Thursday). At least in the 55-31 loss in 2013 they tied the game 24-24 in the third quarter.
One reason the Steelers weren’t out of it by halftime of those games is that they had Brown.
Now the Patriots have Brown.
The Patriots have question marks swirling around their wide receiver situation, too. But with Brown on board those questions are more like which car to take for a spin? The Porsche or the Lamborghini?
Brown’s behavior in his final days in Pittsburgh and in his cameo role in Oakland go beyond the typical wide receiver diva drama that comes with the territory in the NFL. If he did actually throw furniture off a balcony last year, it would suggest along with everything else that there could be a clinical reason that he’s been acting the way he has. If that’s the case, then the kool-aid that is the Patriot Way isn’t going to cure that and the Patriots will have the same problem on their hands that the Steelers had last year, only Bill Belichick probably won’t let Brown stand on the sidelines wearing a fur coat.
There could, however, be a method to Brown’s madness. The Steelers weren’t going to trade Brown to New England, but if someone behind the scenes devised another way to get Brown to New England, then the NFL needs to look into it. It just seems fishy in the same way that LeGarrette Blount’s sudden departure and immediate signing by the Patriots did in 2014.
If Brown suddenly minds his p’s and q’s in New England, then plan the championship parade now, but get ready for Browngate.
The good news for the Steelers is that they don’t have to play the Patriots every week, although they face stiff tests each of the next two weeks at home against the Seahawks and at San Francisco. The only West Coast city where they’ve won any games in the 21st century, San Diego, no longer has a football team.
But the Steelers probably won’t face another team as good as the Patriots for the rest of the regular season. If they do pile up enough wins to make Sunday’s loss a distant memory, they can convince themselves that they’re a Super Bowl contender. But at some point the Patriots will haunt them again in the same way that “It” haunts the kids of Derry, Maine every now and then.
If the Steelers don’t find people not named JuJu who can catch the ball and do something with it after catching it, however, then they won’t have to worry about seeing the Patriots again this year.
Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.