Out of the locker room walked -- not hobbled, not limped -- Ben Roethlisberger, and as he strolled down the tunnel on the cleaned-up meniscus in his left knee, he symbolized the hope that the Steelers would be fit to play the Patriots again in January. Roethlisberger wants to play against the Baltimore Ravens in two weeks when the Steelers return from their bye. The Steelers will go into that game in first place in the AFC North and with the knowledge that even without Roethlisberger and their best defensive player (Cam Heyward), the Steelers presented more of a challenge for the Patriots than most opponents do.
Most do against the Patriots, who, despite a baffling series of special teams miscues -- it's time to start worrying about kicker Stephen Gostkowski's misses, for one -- managed to shape-shift their way to another victory and a 6-1 record. This time, running back LaGarrette Blount, who once quit on the Steelers, led the way with 127 yards on 24 carries. This is not the defense of Steel Curtain lore, but Blount's success was maddening to the Steelers and an indication of how dangerous the Patriots can be even when Rob Gronkowski is not being targeted -- until two big plays that changed the course of the game -- and Tom Brady has fewer yards passing (222) than Landry Jones (281).
Linebacker Jarvis Jones said the Patriots essentially tried to lull the Steelers into complacency by ignoring Gronkowski, until Brady hit him with 6:27 remaining in the third quarter on a 36-yard pass down the seam, the first time he targeted him in the game. The next time the Patriots had the ball, Gronkowski caught a pass to the deep left side for 37 yards. And on the next play, Blount rolled in for the touchdown.
Bill Belichick said Blount was able to get good runs when the Steelers used a nickel defense against Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett, and Belichick said the Patriots needed Blount's explosive plays, especially when the Patriots' lead was down to four points and the Steelers' pass rush was closing in on Brady in the third quarter. Blount settled the offense down.
"When they're getting 6, 7 yards a pop, they are dictating the tempo," said Jarvis Jones. "As a defense, you want to make a team one-dimensional, and we didn't do that tonight."
"We just didn't get off our blocks well enough, we weren't consistent in the run game, we didn't make tackles. They've got two tight ends that can stretch the field and they get you in certain pressures and they run a totally different offense."
That's a common refrain from Patriots opponents, but the Steelers' insight is particularly critical because, as the regular season approaches the halfway point, it is clear the Steelers are one of a small handful of teams who might be able to challenge the Patriots in the AFC playoffs. They had obvious deficiencies with Jones, going 1 of 4 in the red zone and missing wide open passes. And they made critical mistakes, with an interception in the end zone and a holding call wiping one touchdown off the board on a drive that resulted in no points after Chris Boswell missed a field-goal try. But the Steelers were also able to move the ball on the Patriots' defense (375 yards of offense) and generate enough pressure on Brady to force him to extend several plays with his legs. It is not difficult to imagine that with Roethlisberger and Heyward, the outcome would have been different.
Instead, Roethlisberger spent most of the day tutoring Jones on the sideline, and Roethlisberger's teammates and coaches were left to ruminate on the small margin of error that exists when they play the Patriots.
"In practice, you might have a look and it's third-and-7 and they give you a different look in the game -- you've got to know what to do," Bell said. "Plays here and there, we make little mistakes.
"Maybe we'll see them again down the road," Bell said. "If we start playing well enough and they play well enough."