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Steelers lose opener to Patriots, have only themselves to blame

So are we supposed to be encouraged by the fact that the Steelers only lost to the Patriots by seven points in Thursday night’s season opener?

Tom Brady is 4-0 against the Steelers at Gillette Stadium. The first three victories came by an average margin of 20 points.

Thursday’s 28-21 final score was deceptively close. Ben Roethlisberger threw a garbage-time touchdown pass to Antonio Brown with two seconds left.

Still, this was the most winnable of the Steelers’ four encounters against Brady in Foxboro.

Are the Patriots better than the Steelers? Yes. Not only can the Steelers not cover Rob Gronkowski, they couldn’t cover any of the Rob Gronkowski cardboard cutouts that adorn every Dunkin’ Donuts from New London to Bar Harbor.

But the Steelers could have overcome Gronkowski’s three touchdowns and Tom Brady’s 25-for-32 passing if it weren’t for their own incompetence.

The Patriots couldn’t stop the Steelers on the game’s opening drive.

But the Steelers sure could.

After Pittsburgh moved the ball 76 yards to the New England 24 on five plays, Todd Haley called a momentum-killing gadget play in which Brown was going to throw the ball. Brown couldn’t find a receiver and the Steelers lost eight yards on the play. Then came a holding penalty on Marcus Gilbert, and the Steelers eventually had to settle for a 44-yard field goal attempt that Josh Scobee missed.

At least the Steelers defense kept the Patriots off the scoreboard for one quarter. But then the disaster that was waiting to happen did happen when Gronkowski was left uncovered and caught a 16-yard pass from Brady for a 7-0 Patriots lead in the second quarter. Someone wasn’t in the right place. Not a good first day on the job for Keith Butler.

Scobee then missed his second field goal, a 46-yarder. There’s six points, and a sixth-round draft pick for Scobee, that the Steelers will never get back.

After Gronkowski’s second touchdown made it 14-0, the Steelers were driving at the end of the half and Roethlisberger threw what looked like a touchdown pass to Darrius Heyward-Bey. The Steelers receiver didn’t have a Patriot anywhere near him, but couldn’t keep his feet inbounds.

That’s where Martavis Bryant’s absence was felt. If Bryant didn’t blow through all the second chances that the NFL gives to pot smokers, Heyward-Bey would have played mainly on special teams where he belongs.

It didn’t help that Mike Tomlin was back to his clock-mangling ways. Had he not left a timeout in his pocket, the Steelers might have been able to run at least another play and not settle for a field goal. Scobee did manage to make one from 44 yards out at the end of the half.

The Steelers went to the locker room down 14-3 thanks in part to brain cramps by their head coach and both coordinators. The deficit swelled to 21-3 in the third quarter before DeAngelo Williams ripped up the Patriots defense and set up Will Johnson’s 1-yard touchdown run followed by Roethlisberger’s two-point conversion pass to Markus Wheaton to make it 21-11.

A Will Allen sack squashed the Patriots’ next possession, and the Steelers drove to the Patriots’ 1-yard line early in the fourth quarter. But they couldn’t punch it in and settled for another field goal.

Just when the Steelers pulled to within a touchdown, the good ol’ big play once again afflicted the defense when Gronkowski opened the next series with a 52-yard reception from Brady. He eventually caught his third TD pass to make it 28-14.

If it weren’t for more questionable clock management, there might have been more than two seconds on the clock when Brown caught his touchdown pass. Tomlin neglected to call a timeout to get a play off before the two-minute warning.

Gronkowski fittingly recovered the onside kick to end the game, but even if the Steelers had recovered it, they would have had no time left for a Hail Mary.

Williams’ 21-carry, 127-yard effort was wasted, as was Bud Dupree’s sack. Considering the slow growth of Steelers defensive rookies, a sack by Dupree in Week 1 would seem to be a good sign.

It still might be. And it’s also a good sign that the Steelers remained competitive against the Patriots into the fourth quarter without Bryant, Le’Veon Bell and Pouncey and with a work-in-progress defense.

The Steelers have the talent to win at least a few games this year. This could have been one of them.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets

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