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Secondary a primary issue for Steelers in loss to Patriots

| Sunday, Nov. 3, 2013, 11:03 p.m.
The Patriots' Aaron Dobson makes a catch over Steelers cornerback William Gay in the fourth quarter Sunday, Nov. 3, 2013, at Gillette Stadium.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Patriots' Aaron Dobson makes a catch over Steelers cornerback William Gay in the fourth quarter Sunday, Nov. 3, 2013, at Gillette Stadium.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass.— It was all or nothing for the Steelers' secondary in their efforts to defuse New England's high-powered offense Sunday.

The Steelers figured they had to roll the dice to disrupt quarterback Tom Brady's rhythm. Mostly, they rolled snake eyes, especially in a first half in which safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark were largely ineffective.

Yet, despite spotting the Patriots a two-touchdown lead, Polamalu ignited a Steelers' flurry when he stripped the ball from running back Stevan Ridley on New England's first possession in the second half. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hooked up with Jerricho Cotchery for touchdowns covering 20 and 8 yards to tie the game at 24-24.

From there, it came unglued for the Steelers.

A secondary that surrendered the fewest yards the past two seasons was torched by Brady for 432 yards and four touchdowns. The Steelers' aging secondary looked flat-footed as the defense yielded the most points in team history in a 55-31 thrashing at Gillette Stadium.

“They were making plays, and we weren't making any,” said Polamalu, who was penalized three times. “We just weren't sound. We hadn't played a game like this since I've been here.”

The Steelers' usually stingy secondary was fourth best in the NFL in allowing completions longer than 20 yards. But they surrendered seven passes of more than 20 yards to Brady's supposedly gimpy receiving corps — including tight end Rob Gronkowski and receiver Danny Amendola, who had catches for 34 (touchdown) and 57 yards.

“We gave them everything. We let them run the ball and throw it on us,” linebacker LaMarr Woodley said. “We had some missed tackles and we gave up big plays, and that started with us not putting any pressure on Brady.”

“We didn't play well up front,” linebacker Lawrence Timmons added. “It opened up everything else for them.”

With Brady picking apart the secondary, Ridley amassed a game-high 115 yards rushing on 26 carries. The Patriots' ground game left the Steelers' secondary vulnerable to play-action passes, Woodley said.

“We didn't stop them – bottom line,” said coach Mike Tomlin, who again insinuated personnel changes are forthcoming.

The Steelers' secondary is ranked as the league's second best. But its disjointed performance factored prominently in leaving the Steelers entrenched in the AFC North cellar at 2-6.

Brady, though, didn't beat the Steelers as much as the Steelers beat themselves. The secondary was plagued by blown coverage and uncharacteristic penalties —– including three pass interference penalties that aided two New England scoring drives.

Polamalu had a pass interference penalty with 1:05 left in the first half that positioned the Patriots at midfield after the Steelers had narrowed their deficit to 17-10. Then, cornerback William Gay missed a tackle and safety Shamarko Thomas was flagged for interference in the end zone to set up Ridley's 1-yard scoring run.

Gay was flagged for pass interference early in the fourth quarter. Ridley muscled his way into the end zone from the 5 to give New England a 41-24 lead.

However, long passing plays were even more damaging. Aaron Dobson delivered the decisive blow — an 81-yard touchdown in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter to put the game out of reach.

The stat sheet reveals a compelling story of the Patriots' dominance, particularly during their 31-7 run over the last quarter and a half. Three Patriots' receivers — Gronkowski (143 yards), Amendola (130) and Dobson (122) — had more than 100 yards receiving. Brady had his fifth career 400-yard passing game in passing Fran Tarkenton on the all-time list for passing yards.

“When Tom's on fire, it doesn't matter who's out there,” Polamalu said.

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