Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said the Steelers had a game plan to throw it all day, and that's exactly what they did Sunday in their 25-17 victory. He dropped back to pass 55 times (50 throws, five sacks), and there was little the Patriots could do about it.
New England's defensive line continued to trend in the right direction, and cornerbacks Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington played fairly well. The problems arose over the middle of the field, particularly when linebackers Gary Guyton and Brandon Spikes were in charge of the zone.
Guyton, specifically, was asked if there was a common thread to their struggles in that area of the field.
"I can't tell," Guyton said. "I don't know what's going on. You've got to go out and get better, and we'll see what's going to happen."
That's not exactly a great response. Naturally, the issues will be more apparent Monday when the team watches film together, but moments after the loss, the Patriots still didn't know what hit them.
Guyton has had his moments in pass defense this season, but on the whole, he hasn't been as good in that area as he was in 2009 and 2010. Spikes, who had the headset in his helmet and relayed the calls on the field, is still trying to improve that area of his game.
Roethlisberger took no exception with taking advantage of that, completing 36 of 50 passes for 365 yards (the seventh most of his career) and two touchdowns. He was uncharacteristic by playing it safe, and he hardly forced any bad throws, especially well down the field (aside from, of course, that one bad interception).
By taking a page out of Tom Brady's book, Roethlisberger took what was given to him and kept the Steelers' offense on the field for 39 minutes, 22 seconds, which is unusually high for a team with so many pass attempts. Plus, Roethlisberger averaged 10.1 yards per completion, which is low for him and a sign of reigning it in. He averaged 13.2 yards per completion in his first seven games of the season and 12.8 yards per completion over the course of his career.
The Steelers were extremely efficient on third down, too, converting 10 of 16 attempts. And again, the damage was damning, both because it ran up the Steelers' time of possession and because the Patriots were so susceptible to plays over the middle of the field.
The Steelers converted three third-and-longs (of 11, 15 and 12 yards, respectively), and the conversions weren't exactly small gains, either. Over the course of their 10 conversions, the Steelers accumulated 106 yards, which was extraordinary.
The Patriots' pass defense over the middle of the field will get better once linebacker Jerod Mayo gets closer to full strength, but they've been vulnerable to crossing patterns all season. They've also been occasionally slow to erase holes in the zone, and that was the case during the third-and-15 conversion, when Emmanuel Sanders squatted in a soft spot while Guyton stayed flat in his zone read.
"Those guys were pretty much just finding dead space," Mayo said. "We just have to be better at reading the quarterback or covering our man, man-to-man or being better in our zones and things like that. But I have to go back and watch the film just to put a finger on it."
A few players on the defense mentioned communication as an issue, and that's not too surprising for a team that has changed so many parts this season. For instance, cornerback Antwaun Molden gave up a seven-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Antonio Brown, who camped out short of the end zone, caught the ball and snuck over the line after Molden dropped into a zone coverage where safety James Ihedigbo was already stationed.
Plus, when there's a lot of zone play, the safeties and linebackers have to remain on the same page, and that could have something to do with the communication issues that were raised.
After taking a couple of steps forward on defense over the course of the last two games, the Patriots weren't able to sustain that momentum against the Steelers. The pass coverage is going to continue to be a point of emphasis this week and beyond.
"It's just a bump in the road," Mayo said. "These things happen throughout the season, and we just have to rebound this week."