For the second week in a row, the Patriots offense was sputtering, having been held to just 10 points deep into the third quarter in Pittsburgh. When the offense is struggling the way this one has so far this season, you need the defense or your special teams to come up with a big play and that’s exactly what happened in this week’s turning point.
Outside of a Nick Folk field goal and an outstanding touchdown grab by receiver Nelson Agholor to end the first half, the Patriots offense could not do much against the Steelers’ defense. When the New England defense provided a turnover, the offense gave it right back three plays later. Even after drives started out nicely, a penalty would inevitably back them up and kill any momentum the offense had. That’s exactly what happened as Jake Bailey found himself lined up to punt with 4:06 left in the third quarter.
A week after having none of the bounces go their way in Miami, the Patriots caught a few breaks in Pittsburgh, with none being bigger than the muffed punt by former Patriot All-Pro returner Gunner Olszewski. Rookie Brenden Schooler was on the spot to recover the muff at the Steelers 20-yard line, and thanks to a Pittsburgh penalty, the Patriots set up shop at the 10. Running back Damien Harris was able to score three plays later to give the Patriots a 17-6 lead.
Schooler was in great position to recover the muff because the Steelers interestingly enough failed to cover him on the punt. ESPN’s Mike Reiss provided some still photos of the sequence on his Twitter, and you can see Schooler untouched while Matthew Slater was doubled on the other side. It was the play which turned the tide in this one and left Steelers coach Mike Tomlin lamenting his team’s inability to make the most of crucial situations.
"“Really one of those really tight ball games that’s going to come down to a few things, and we knew it going in. That’s why you put the weight on the weight downs or the situational moments. They made more plash plays in that circumstance than we did…obviously, when we didn’t handle the punt, that was a significant play.”"
However, the Steelers shouldn’t have even been in position to field a punt at that point in time. Two plays prior to the punt, the Patriots had another bounce go their way, when an ill-advised Mac Jones pass was dropped by Pittsburgh cornerback Cameron Sutton. Instead of an interception and great field position trailing 10-6, the Steelers forced a punt and found themselves down two scores just a few plays later.
These are the bounces that will continue to need to break the Patriots way as the season progresses, especially if the offense continues to struggle.