Kevin Gorman’s Take 5: Steelers ride Jaylen Samuels to top Patriots
There is nothing like a Pittsburgh Steelers-New England Patriots game in mid-December to tip the balance of the NFL playoff picture.
And the AFC arch-rivals didn’t disappoint in delivering the drama, even if the game was far from what anyone expected.
If you predicted a low-scoring, run-oriented game instead of a shootout between Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady, you were dead wrong.
This one came down to the final play
For once, it went the Steelers’ way.
The Steelers started by winning the coin toss and electing to receive, as Mike Tomlin went against his preferred method by putting his offense on the field first.
The Steelers responded with an 11-play, 75-yard scoring drive that saw them convert a critical third-and-3 from their 32-yard line with a pass to Eli Rogers.
The slot receiver was active for the first time this season after suffering a torn ACL in the playoff loss to Jacksonville, and he came up with a pair of catches on the first drive.
The biggest play was a 25-yard run by Jaylen Samuels, who got nice downfield blocking by Antonio Brown. The Steelers went to Samuels on three consecutive plays — a pair of 4-yard runs sandwiched around a 10-yard pass — to set up another big third down. On third-and-goal at the 5, Ben Roethlisberger found Vance McDonald for a touchdown. McDonald must have forgotten the Steelers’ history of tight ends and touchdowns against the Patriots, as he immediately fell to the turf but held onto the ball.
Not only was the drive methodical in picking apart the Patriots but it covered six minutes, 20 seconds for a 7-0 lead, keeping Tom Brady off the field and putting him behind to start.
That proved a necessary evil.
2. Hogan’s a hero, again
The Steelers knew better than to leave Josh Gordon all alone, given that he scored the tying touchdown for the Browns in the season opener at Cleveland.
But they blew it on Chris Hogan.
Hogan was the hero for the Patriots in the AFC championship win over the Steelers in January 2017, catching nine passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns.
One play after being penalized for having 12 players on the field, the Steelers had a major breakdown in the secondary. Hogan lined up in a bunch on the right and ran left, but cornerbacks Artie Burns and Joe Haden and safety Sean Davis all followed Gordon on a post pattern.
That left Hogan wide open near the Steelers sideline, and Brady found him for a 63-yard touchdown to tie the game at 7-7 with 6:48 left in the first quarter.
The Patriots’ drive covered 77 yards on three plays and in 1:52.
3. Big Ben, good and bad
The box score will show it as a 92-yard drive, but the Steelers started it with a holding penalty that pushed the line of scrimmage back to their own 4.
Roethlisberger completed 7 of 8 passes for 70 yards, using a 26-yard pass interference penalty to set up his 17-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown for a 14-7 lead.
The Steelers’ next possession started at the 1, after a challenge failed on a punt that was saved from a touchback by Jonathan Jones and Rex Burkhead.
Stevan Ridley’s 12-yard run was followed by Roethlisberger’s 24-yard pass to Brown and a 17-yard run by Samuels.
Just as the Steelers were gaining momentum, Roethlisberger threw a drive-killing interception to safety Duron Harmon at the New England 24.
The Steelers took a 14-7 lead into halftime but the lead could have been bigger — and necessary — against New England.
4. Tale of two kickers
Not only did Samuels crack the 100-yard rushing mark for the first time in his career, but fellow rookie James Washington came up with a couple big catches.
Washington made a spectacular 32-yard sideline catch over cornerback Jason McCourty, then broke free from McCourty for a 24-yard gain two plays later.
Samuels added a 14-yard run to the 4, but that’s where the drive stalled. Roethlisberger tried to avoid a sack and throw it out of the end zone but instead drew an intentional grounding penalty.
That led to a hold-your-breath move.
The Steelers turned to Chris Boswell, the embattled kicker who missed two field goals – including the game-tying attempt with five seconds left – in the loss at Oakland.
And Boswell missed a 32-yarder wide right.
Brady and the Patriots answered with a 13-play, 63-yard drive that ended with Stephen Gostkowski drilling a 33-yard field goal to cut it to 14-10 with 17 seconds left in the third quarter.
No one inside Heinz Field felt that was enough of a cushion.
5. The big break
The Patriots had their share of self-inflicted wounds, from false starts to holding penalties to pass interference.
What they didn’t have was Tom Brady making turnovers.
Not until he did.
On a second-and-goal at the 16, Brady was under pressure when he threw off his back foot toward the Steelers sideline. The throw was intended for Julian Edelman but cornerback Joe Haden leapt high for an interception – the Steelers’ first since Carolina – at the 4.
That served as only the second-most surprising play of the second half. The Steelers drove to the New England 30 before facing a fourth-and-6 with 2:30 remaining.
And Boswell trotted out for a 48-yard field-goal attempt.
And, to the surprise of everyone, he nailed it for a 17-10 lead that would prove to be the difference.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.