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Steelers Have No Answers as Patriots Accomplish Blowout Win in AFC Championship

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The Pittsburgh Steelers had no answers for the New England Patriots, as they fell short in 36-17 AFC Championship loss.

The Pittsburgh Steelers lost in every phase of the game, as they had no answers for Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. With a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, there was not much of a fight in the AFC Championship game as Tom Brady and company coasted to a victory.

With the Pittsburgh Steelers having no shortage of drama heading into this week, it was clear to see that they were not prepared the way the Patriots were. For the Steelers to have any chance at advancing to the Super Bowl, they were going to need a flawless performance, and this was far from that. During their nine game winning streak, the Steelers had forced a turnover in every game. But with the Patriots failing to turn the ball over a single time, the Steelers didn’t have the opportunities that they had created for themselves over the past two months.

The Steelers offense was supposed to be one of the highest scoring in the NFL heading into this postseason, but they couldn’t put up touchdowns when needed over the last two weeks. The Patriots, who held opponents to the fewest points in the league made it a priority to limit the production of Pittsburgh‘s top weapons Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. With Bell going down early in the game due to a groin injury, Deangelo Williams stepped into his place at starting running back. Williams did have one touchdown, and one run for 15 yards, but gained just 19 yards on his other 13 carries.

The young Steelers receiving corps was supposed to have the answers for the Patriots defense, but five total drops hurt their cause. In the Pro Football Focus era (beginning in 2006), a Ben Roethlisbeger-led receiving corps has never had more than three drops in a game. Antonio Brown was somewhat shut down by Malcolm Butler, as he had just seven receptions for 73 yards.

Possibly the best unit of the Steelers team all season was the offensive line, but they looked far from their themselves in this matchup. Roethlisberger was pressured for a season high eight times, and posted just a 56.1 QB Rating on those plays. The offensive line could not open up very many holes for either running back, as the Steelers ran for a total of just 54 yards. Offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert talked about the disappointing performance after the game.

“A lot of guys were feeling good about this game, the game plan and everything else. Then the whole climate changed, we weren’t moving the ball, we weren’t converting third downs. Then they scored, and we were behind, we tried to play catch up, and that’s when bad things happen. You aren’t going to win football games like that. There is no next game so I can’t say we need to work on it. It’s a disappointing way to end the season.”

As if the offense playing bad wasn’t enough to write the story for the Steelers loss, the defensive play couldn’t have been worse. The Steelers tried to pick their poison with Tom Brady by constantly running zone, and forcing him to find the soft spots in the defense. In theory, eight players in coverage should be able to slow down five to six route runners. But when you’re dealing with a guy like Tom Brady, nothing is ever a sure thing.

Contrary to popular belief, the Steelers did send multiple blitzes throughout the game. Many believed that getting to Brady would have some impact on his performance. But against the blitz, Brady was incredibly efficient and had all the answers, going 6/6 for 108 yards, one touchdown, and posted a perfect 158.3 QB Rating. Throughout the season and postseason, Brady has been unbelievably great, posting the highest grade ever on Pro Football Focus with a 99.5.

The Steelers secondary continued to allow huge plays over and over again. More specifically allowing wide receiver Chris Hogan to break a Patriots postseason record by going off for 180 yards. Hogan also found the end zone twice. Every player that was targeted in the Steelers secondary allowed at a completion percentage of at least 66.7. The young secondary of the Steelers can take this beatdown as a lesson from one of the greatest to ever do it in Tom Brady. Artie Burns, who was visually distort on the sideline after the game, commented on the game.

“They were nickel and diming us. At times, they were just making some great passes out there. His teammates, they were able to get down the field and get some run after the catch with the ball. That was all it came down to, really. It was just him doing what Brady does. He and his receiving corps, they were doing a good job of getting open. That was all it really came down to. They didn’t really do anything spectacular. They were just executing and doing the small things.”

The Steelers did not accomplish their goal of a Super Bowl victory, but they were one of the four remaining teams at the end of it all. Losing in the AFC Championship game is a tough pill to swallow, but the Patriots are clearly the superior team and they proved it on Sunday. The Steelers hope to get back to the position next season, but they will need to find answers at multiple positions in the offseason.

Statistics and quotes referenced via Pro Football Focus and Pittsburgh Steelers Media Guide