What we wanted to see more than anything from the Pittsburgh Steelers in their season opener was how their passing game would be affected by the absence of All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown.
This debut was a disaster, to put it mildly.
That Brown orchestrated an offseason trade to Oakland and his release from the Raiders only to sign with the New England Patriots on the eve of the opener at Gillette Stadium was of no consequence to Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.
At least, not that he was willing to admit.
“I’m not specifically worried about anything relative to Antonio Brown,” Tomlin said. “I’m worried about the guys in the locker room. The quality of execution of what we did or didn’t do. Antonio’s been off our team for a number of months. We moved on from that stuff in March.”
Wake-up call: The guys in the locker room should have the Steelers worried, as there was little quality to their execution. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was blunt about taking blame, saying he wasn’t good enough. Wide receiver Donte Moncrief considered it a wake-up call, one that both he and the Steelers needed.
The Steelers’ sleepwalking through a 33-3 loss to the Patriots on Sunday night at Gillette Stadium wasn’t just a pathetic performance. This was a pull-the-hotel-fire-alarm type of wake-up call, the kind that should keep the Steelers up all night.
Tomlin said the Steelers weren’t ready for prime time. Not ready? They were playing their AFC arch-rival, the reigning Super Bowl champions, the team that tied their record for most Lombardi trophies and could surpass them on the Stairway to Seven. How could they overlook the Patriots?
“To come out on Sunday Night Football and play (that way), I guess you could say that,” said JuJu Smith-Schuster, who led the Steelers with six catches for 78 yards. “It’s NFL football and, yes, all eyes are on us but we’ve got to come out and execute.”
Poorly prepared: That is as much about lacking proper preparation as it is failing to execute, especially for a team that missed the playoffs, and that starts with Tomlin and his coordinators, Randy Fichtner and Keith Butler. They’ve had since April to get ready for playing Bill Belichick and Tom Brady and the Patriots.
Yet the Steelers weren’t on the same page from the start. Roethlisberger undershot Johnny Holton on a deep route on a third-and-6 in the Steelers’ first offensive series, and they punted on their first four possessions before a turnover on downs.
The offense was so ineffective that the Steelers trailed, 17-0, in the second quarter. Roethlisberger couldn’t find a rhythm and didn’t complete a pass longer than 10 yards until his 19-yarder to Smith-Schuster late in the second quarter. That drive ended at the Patriots’ 47 when Moncrief dropped a pass on fourth-and-1.
“I wasn’t good enough,” said Roethlisberger, who was 27 of 47 for 276 yards with an interception for a 65.6 passer rating. “I wasn’t giving guys balls where they needed to catch them. I was putting them in front, behind, things like that.”
Roethlisberger repeated himself: “I wasn’t good enough.”
Moncrief struggles: Neither was Moncrief, who signed a two-year, $9-million free-agent deal this offseason. His 10 targets were the most of any Steelers receiver but he finished with three catches for 7 yards.
One play after Roethlisberger connected with James Washington for a 45-yarder, Moncrief dropped a pass in the end zone. They also failed to connect on a corner fade on third-and-goal at the 1, forcing the Steelers to settle for a Chris Boswell field goal.
“We just weren’t on the same page at some times, and we’ve got to fix it,” Moncrief said. “It starts with all of us. Nobody points fingers at nobody. It was all of us, everybody that was on the field. …We’ve got to make more plays for 7.”
Roethlisberger blames himself: Roethlisberger reversed that criticism, showing that he’s learned from publicly blaming Brown for the Denver debacle last year.
“I’m not worried about him,” Roethlsiberger said of Moncrief. “I’m worried about myself. I need to play better. He’ll be just fine. I have all the confidence in the world in him that he’s going to be a guy for us that I can count on. I told him that. I’m not going to shy away from throwing him the ball.”
Steering away from Brown talk: The Steelers shied away from talking about how bad they were without Brown. They didn’t want to discuss how much they missed him drawing double teams (Smith-Schuster struggled to get open in single coverage against Stephon Gilmore) or catching passes on third downs (they converted only 3 of 12).
The Steelers didn’t want to talk about how Brown regularly rescued them with game-changing catches, at Cincinnati, Jacksonville and New Orleans last season alone.
And they most certainly didn’t want to talk about him signing with the Patriots. When asked, Roethlisberger lofted his left arm dismissively and mumbled, “Whatever.”
Brown most definitely was missed: Brown, however, certainly cast a shadow over the Steelers, from his absence in their offense to his signing with New England. Brady completed 24 of 36 passes for 341 yards and three touchdowns for a 124.9 passer rating, connecting twice with Phillip Dorsett on scoring passes. Imagine what Brady will do with Brown at his disposal.
We saw what the Steelers looked like without Brown, and it wasn’t pretty.
“People always are going to talk about not having certain players that we had last year,” Smith-Schuster said, avoiding mentioning Brown by name. “I think this year, the guys that we have here … we’ve just got to make our plays. If we make our plays, it’s crucial. It’s a game-changer.”
Instead, the Steelers got a wake-up call that they weren’t ready for prime time against the Patriots. They didn’t make plays. They didn’t have a game-changer. They looked lost and were soundly defeated. That should sound the alarms.