It turns out the Steelers were better with Antonio Brown. For all of the legendary moments Brown had in his nine-year career, one of the best examples of his talent was Pittsburgh’s attempt to play without him on Sunday night. The Steelers were embarrassed by the Patriots, 33-3, on the opening Sunday Night Football game of the season as more than 20 million people likely watched. It is scary to think what the Patriots—who will add Brown to their own offense next week—could do to the Steelers if they meet again in the playoffs, but if the Steelers don’t get their passing game together, that won’t be a concern for them this season.
Pittsburgh had nine months to prepare for life without Brown and managed three points, three third-down conversions, and 276 passing yards, much of which came in garbage time. Pittsburgh’s pass catchers were exposed by Bill Belichick and Co. JuJu Smith-Schuster, Brown’s nominal replacement as the team’s no. 1 wideout, had just two catches for 26 yards two-thirds of the way through the game before padding his stats once the game was out of hand. He looked unprepared to spend an entire game blanketed by New England’s Stephon Gilmore, Pro Football Focus’s highest-graded cornerback in 2018. Apparently life is easier when opposing defensive coordinators are focused on an all-time great on the other side of the field.
The receivers alongside Smith-Schuster, who hobbled off late with an injury, looked even worse. James Washington, who lost the competition for the no. 2 job to Donte Moncrief, had one catch for 45 yards on a deep pass—Pittsburgh’s best play of the night—but the second-year receiver’s inexperience showed when he inexplicably veered out of bounds untouched.
One play later, Ben Roethlisberger threw to Moncrief in the end zone, but the receiver dropped the contested pass. It was the second would-be catch of the night that a defender batted away from Moncrief after he couldn’t reel in a crucial fourth-and-1, but it was far from the last pass he missed. Five plays later, on third-and-goal at the 1-yard line, Roethlisberger tossed a ball into the corner of the end zone that landed harmlessly in between Moncrief and Ryan Switzer as they looked at each other. The Steelers kicked a field goal, their only points of the night, and it encapsulated every aspect of the night—inexperience, incompetence, and confusion.
More than anything, the confusion highlighted the absence of Antonio Brown. Roethlisberger repeatedly sidestepped Patriots pass rushers in the pocket, as he has done his entire career. But when he did, he couldn’t find anybody open. Antonio Brown was gifted at getting separation on Roethlisberger scrambles, which requires finding open space but also intuiting which space the quarterback wants you to find. On Sunday, Roethlisberger was unable to anticipate where his young receivers were going because they had little idea of where to be. On one play where Roethlisberger scrambled, he missed JuJu on what could have been a big gain. On another, nobody could get open despite Roethlisberger having plenty of time, and he took a coverage sack in the red zone and fumbled. Big Ben spent most of his Sunday night trying to herd cats, and when the cats didn’t cooperate, he got crushed by 275-pound linemen like Deatrich Wise Jr.
The Steelers receiving corps is worse without Brown is not news. But making up for roster deficiencies is what coaching is about, and Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin did little to help his team win on Sunday night. In fact, he and offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner actively hurt their chances to win with conservatism that bordered on malpractice. Back in the Mesozoic era when the game was 10-0, running back James Conner ran on third-and-1 and looked close to the first-down marker, but the Steelers got a tough spot resulting in fourth-and-inches. Tomlin refused to challenge the spot—his challenge decision-making is famously terrible—and then decided to punt from his own 30-yard line. On the Steelers’ next drive, they faced a third-and-1 and ran a toss left to Conner out of the pistol, in which the running back lines up next to the quarterback rather than behind him. It’s a stunning formation for third-and-1, as it removes the threat of Roethlisberger sneaking the ball from under center and also gives Conner the handoff flat-footed. The play was a toss, and it sent Conner horizontally rather than vertically when he needed just a yard, and he lost 4 on the play. The Steelers’ next short-yardage call was even more inexplicable: They went with five wide receivers and an empty backfield with Roethlisberger in shotgun on fourth-and-1, completely removing the possibility of a run. Roethlisberger found Moncrief on the play, but safety Patrick Chung knocked the ball loose.
Tomlin’s personnel decisions are bewildering, but his conservatism is infuriating considering New England is 11-4 against the Steelers in the Brady-Belichick era. Punting in those short-yardage situations flies against everything we have learned about optimal in-game decision-making, which essentially boils down to something every Madden player knows: Go for it on fourth-and-1 if you are losing, especially by multiple scores. It’s quite the juxtaposition to the Eagles, who had a fourth-and-1 against the Patriots in Super Bowl LII and called the Philly Special. The best argument for Tomlin deciding to kick a field goal there is to ensure the Steelers did not get shut out in prime time against a rival. But when the Steelers are already struggling with inexperienced receivers, the coaching staff should be making Roethlisberger’s job easier, not harder. Adding injury to insult, Smith-Schuster, defensive end T.J. Watt, center Maurkice Pouncey, and cornerback Joe Haden all left the game with injuries in garbage time.
The Patriots played an excellent game from start to finish, suffocating the Steelers offense while Tom Brady schooled them on defense to the tune of 341 yards and three touchdowns while throwing a few deep balls that his doubters may not have thought he could still do at 42 years old. Their defense looked like one of the league’s better units, and their offense may be the league’s best once Brady gets up to speed with Brown, who agreed to a deal with the Patriots on Saturday hours after being cut by the Oakland Raiders. Brown wasn’t active for Sunday’s game but is expected to suit up when New England plays Miami next week.
That move could be the deciding factor in the Patriots-Steelers rivalry, assuming there was much of one to begin with. Pittsburgh got worse when Brown left, and New England will be even better now that he’s joined. The Patriots and Steelers are tied for the most Super Bowl wins with six apiece. With Antonio Brown on board, the Patriots are an even better bet to win their seventh.