The Rear View Mirror – Game Fourteen
New England needed a late-game defensive miracle to hold onto a 27-24 victory at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. The win moves New England into first place in the AFC, and keeps their playoff destiny in their hands. The game will be remembered for the final 0:52 seconds, over which time the Steelers appeared to be on the cusp of winning before a miraculous defensive play – reminiscent of Super Bowl 49 against the Seahawks – gave Patriots fans an exhilarating ending.
TE Rob Gronkowski pulled his team to victory in the 4th quarter
Photograph by Keith Srakocic (AP), published by Boston Herald
Nine Observations from Game Fourteen…
1. Rob Gronkowski (168 yards on nine catches) was the Patriots’ only offense in their final, 4th quarter, “got to have it” drive. On that drive, Tom Brady completed three-of-four to Gronkowski, covering 69 yards. "Gronk" pulled in highlight reel, shoe-top pass on a deep out to the right sideline to set up Dion Lewis’ eight yard touchdown run.
2. On the Patriots’ critical two-point conversion, the Steelers appeared to be playing the slant, and Gronkowski faked inside before shooting to the back of the end zone for the fade route. Earlier on the same drive, safety Sean Davis nearly picked off Brady’s underthrown attempt Gronkowski. The All-Pro tight end dominated second year safety most of the game, and he took the opportunity of his two-point catch to perform borderline-taunting, “look at me” gyrations over the prostrate Davis.
3. A notable coaching decision on the Patriots’ first drive of the 3rd quarter, when the team went for it on fourth-and-one inside the red zone. Gronkowski split out wide left and ran a slant against corner Artie Burns for the conversion. That led to an eventual touchdown to Brandin Cooks (two catches and 23 yards) to pull the score to 17-16, before New England misfired on the extra point attempt.
4. Pittsburgh LB Vince Williams (three tackles) showed good pass coverage on Dion Lewis in the right flat in the 3rd quarter, which he followed shortly with an interception of Tom Brady. On that interception, Brady (298 yards, one touchdown, one interception on 35 attempts) appeared to be targeting Gronkowski while he was being hit by defensive tackle Javon Hargrave. The Steelers scored a touchdown five plays after the interception, stretching the lead to 24-16.
Duron Harmon catches Eric Rowe’s deflection to seal the game for the visiting team
Photograph by Joe Sargent/Getty Images; Published by CBS Boston
5. The wild conclusion to Pittsburgh’s final drive started with RB Le'Veon Bell smartly angling both Jordan Richards and Devin McCourty out of the play around the Pittsburgh 40 yard line, allowing JuJu Smith-Schuster to take a short crossing route down to the Patriots’ seven yard line. After taking their third time out, Steelers were aligned in a trips-right formation and both Eric Rowe and Malcolm Butler chased Le'Veon Bell into the right flat, leaving TE Jesse James uncovered for an apparent game-ending touchdown reception.
6. James’ “touchdown” was nullified upon review because – in the view of the officials – his outstretched left hand lost control of the football as it hit the goal line. On second down from the Patriots’ seven, New England rushed six men, forcing Ben Roethlisberger to unload short to Darrius Heyward-Bey, whom Malcolm Butler chased down in bounds with 0:22 on the running clock.
7. On the game’s final meaningful play, Ben Roethlisberger (281 yards, two touchdowns, one interception on 30 attempts) first signaled that he would be stopping the clock for [presumably] a game tying field goal attempt. The quarterback changed the hand signal right before the snap, but only receiver Eli Rogers ran a route into the end zone. On the previous play Rogers had run out of the end zone, so he returned to the field for third down from an odd angle and was one of the last Steelers to get aligned. Good job by Eric Rowe to spot Rogers, align over the receiver, ride his slant route into the center of the field and reach out for the winning deflection.
8. To give Brady and Gronkowski an opportunity for their final scoring drive, New England’s defense had to stop a third-and-four at the Pittsburgh 25. Duron Harmon and Eric Rowe combined to bring down JuJu Smith-Schuster a yard short of the first, bringing up a punt with 2:16 left in the game. Despite his late game heroics, Eric Rowe struggled most of the game, allowing the rookie Smith-Schuster six catches and 114 yards on six targets. The Steelers needed the first year receiver to step up after All-Pro receiver, Antonio Brown, left the game with injury in the 2nd quarter.
9. Street free agent Ricky Jean Francois contributed on the defensive line in the absence of Allen Branch (injury scratch). In the Steeler’s scoreless 4th quarter, Jean Francois combined with Lawrence Guy to tackle Le'Veon Bell (117 yards on 24 carries) for no gain. Later in the 4th, he drew a critical holding penalty on left tackle Alejandro Villanueva. Midway through the 3rd, Jean Francois paired with Trey Flowers (five tackles and three QB hits) to tackle Bell at the line of scrimmage, contributing to a Pittsburgh punt.
… And one comment about Game Fifteen.
Despite the exciting win, there was a lot to be desired on both sides of the football. For the third consecutive game the offense struggled, converting only eight of 32 third-down opportunities over that stretch. The defense had trouble getting off the field in Pittsburgh, allowing 10 first-down conversions on 16 third-down attempts. New England will need to stay mentally sharp over their final two contests: Home games against divisional opponents Buffalo and New York.