Mike Tomlin summed up his team's performance in its opener Sunday night in New England pretty succinctly Tuesday.
"We laid an egg," Tomlin said of the Steelers' performance in a 33-3 loss to the Patriots.
Nowhere was that more apparent than in short-yardage situations, as the Steelers failed in four of those instances in a little more than a quarter of game time that largely led directly to the 30-point defeat.
The Steelers ran the ball twice and passed on the other two, failing to utilize a short-yardage package on any of those possessions that included fullback Roosevelt Nix. As Tomlin revealed Tuesday, part of the reason Nix was not playing more against the Patriots was because he was dealing with a knee injury that could keep him out of the next two or three games.
Nix didn't play a single snap on offense against the Patriots, but he did see 18 snaps on special teams. That's nothing new. The Steelers used Nix on offense for just 110 plays in 2018, an average of 6.9 plays per game.
Tomlin wouldn't use the possible unavailability of Nix as a reason why the Steelers were 0-4 in short-yardage situations against the Patriots. The Steelers finished just three of 12 on third downs in the game.
"We failed miserably in that regard and it was catastrophic to our efforts," Tomlin said. "It didn't allow us to sustain drives. It didn't allow us to possess the ball. It didn't allow us to play a certain amount of snaps. It didn't allow us to score points. There were some drops. It made for some tough sledding."
The first came with 10:40 remaining in the second quarter and the Steelers trailing 10-0, following a 25-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal. After two straight passes to Ryan Switzer picked up nine yards, James Conner was stopped inches short on a third-and-1 run, forcing a punt.
The defense forced a three-and-out of its own on the next possession, but after picking up one first down, the Steelers faced third-and-1 from their own 40. They tried to run Conner around left end and center Maurkice Pouncey failed to get out in front on a reach block. Conner was dropped for a four-yard loss.
"We've just got to execute better with what is called," Conner said. "We've got to get those."
Six plays later, Tom Brady threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Phillip Dorsett to give the Patriots a 17-0 lead.
The Steelers faced a fourth-and-1 from the New England 47 on their ensuing possession at the two-minute warning. And after initially bringing a big package onto the field that included Nix and offensive tackle Zach Banner as an extra blocker, they changed personnel, going to a five-receiver package.
The Steelers got the defensive look they wanted, but Donte Moncrief dropped a pass from Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers turned the ball over on downs.
"We went five wides in one instance and they stayed in their nickel, so we knew they would be in zone," Tomlin said. "We ran a nice zone concept and we dropped the ball. Is it a good plan? Only if it works. If you don't catch the football, it's a bad plan. We own that performance, particularly in the short-yardage area."
The final short-yardage play came on third-and-goal from the 1 on the opening possession of the second half, following a four-yard run by Conner. Roethlisberger attempted a fade pass to Moncrief that fell incomplete. Instead of going for a touchdown down 20-0, Tomlin elected to kick a field goal in an effort he said was to get something "positive" out of the possession.
But when you fail on four consecutive possessions to gain a necessary yard, there's not a lot of positive to come out of it.
"When you put yourself in four or five and-one situations and you don't convert any of them, those are four or five possessions," Tomlin said. "You just can't afford to lose four or five possessions when you're playing a group like that."
Things might not be much easier this week against the Seahawks. While Seattle allowed 395 yards passing to the Bengals in a 21-20 victory Sunday, Cincinnati managed just 34 yards rushing on 14 carries.
That's still better than the 32 yards the Steelers managed on 13 carries against the Patriots.
Conner, who earned his first Pro Bowl trip last season, had 21 yards on 10 carries while adding four catches for 44 yards. He'd like to be more involved in the game plan, as well.
But considering he also failed on two short-yardage runs, he also realizes there's more to it than simply running the ball in those instances.
"I'm a team guy, so it's not about what I like," Conner said. "We've just got to execute what's called. We've got to get it."
• As for other players who left Sunday's game with injuries -- corner Joe Haden (shoulder), linebacker T.J. Watt (hip), wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (toe) and Pouncey (ankle), Tomlin expects all to be ready to play Sunday against the Seahawks.
Safety Sean Davis, who sat out the opener with an ankle injury, also could return.
• Tomlin revealed Tuesday that Watt had the coaching speaker in his helmet to make defensive play calls since he was going to be the player on the field the most in the game.
I know many teams are using fullbacks less and less in today's NFL. But they still should serve some purpose other than being specialty players.
Nix is a special teams captain, which is nice. But he should be utilized more in short-yardage situations.
Now that he'll be out, look for the Steelers to use tight ends as replacements -- if they actually try to use a big package in short-yardage situations.
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