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Steelers' real problem in loss was defense, not dysfunctional headsets

Mike Tomlin and his Steelers had bigger problems than the malfunctioning headsets in their opening night loss to the Patriots. 

FOXBORO, Mass. —The Pittsburgh Steelers’ not-nearly-as-close-as-the-score-would-indicate 28-21 loss to the New England Patriots on Thursday night in the NFL season opener went about as expected for their side.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was good. Receiver Antonio Brown was uncoverable. DeAngelo Williams did a great LeVeon Bell impersonation in place of  the suspended running back. Even offensive coordinator Todd Haley had a couple of calls that will keep Pittsburgh sports talk radio humming until the next game.

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On defense, a secondary that ranked 27th and 28th in the league last season in passing yards and touchdowns allowed, respectively, allowed Tom Brady to do what he wanted: 25 of 32 for 288 yards and four touchdowns for a nearly perfect passer rating of 143.8.

Just another Sunday for these Steelers, whose past cap problems, ineffective drafting and questionable coaching have left a once proud defense a shell of its former self, and half a contender in the AFC.

Everything was as expected…. until coach Mike Tomlin strided to the podium and was indignant that the Steelers’ coach-to-coach headset communications went out in the first half.

“That’s always the case,” he snapped.

At Gillette Stadium?

“Yes,” Tomlin growled.

“We were listening to the Patriots’ radio broadcast for the majority of the first half on our headsets.”

Tomlin said the Steelers “eventually” got satisfaction with the situation, but the stone-faced coach left little room for interpretation: Tomlin indicated that he thought the Patriots were trying to gain an advantage, and it wasn’t the first time. Tomlin had an animated discussion about the topic with owners Dan and Art Rooney, and general manager Kevin Colbert, outside the team’s locker room.

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But Patriots coach Bill Belichick said his team also had problems, although it wasn’t clear whether his issues were as a result of the Steelers’ (league rules dictate that if one team’s coach-to-coach communications are out, they are turned off for the other team), or a problem with their frequency as well.

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“We had a lot of problems,” Belichick said. “We had to switch headphones a couple times. The communication system wasn’t very good. We deal with that it seems like weekly. It was a problem all night.”

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The NFL quickly put out a statement following the game that put the onus on the league, which is in charge of headset communication.

“In the first quarter of tonight’s game, the Pittsburgh coaches experienced interference in their headsets caused by a stadium power infrastructure issue, which was exacerbated by the inclement weather,” spokesman Michael Signora said in an email. “The coaches’ communications equipment, including the headsets, is provided by the NFL for both clubs use on game day.  Once the power issue was addressed, the equipment functioned properly with no additional issues.”

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If anything, it was certainly curious timing that there would be a controversy regarding game operations on this night, when the Patriots and their fans were celebrating their fourth Super Bowl title, and Brady’s first home game since having his Deflategate suspension vacated by a federal judge.

Sports Illustrated had a lengthy story this week about the suspicions that other teams have about perceived subterfuge by the Patriots. Yes, the headsets were included.

Incidents that might be considered innocent snafus elsewhere are viewed more skeptically in Foxborough. Headset failures are not uncommon around the league—Sun Life Stadium in Miami, for instance, is notorious for frequency issues. But representatives from several teams told SI they have experienced problems with the coaches’ equipment at Gillette—echoing a complaint from the Jaguars after their 2006 playoff loss there, when coach Jack Del Rio said his team’s headsets “mysteriously malfunctioned” for most of the first half. In May, Browns linebacker Karlos Dansby told that his on-field headset stopped working when his Cardinals played the Patriots in 2008, and he does not think it was an accident: “They gonna do what they gotta do to win. It’s just how they operate.”

Home teams are supposed to provide certain communications equipment, but opponents often don’t trust the Patriots to do it. One team griped to SI that New England supplied a corroded battery pack. Another current head coach brings his own equipment because he doesn’t trust the Patriots to supply anything of quality. A representative of a third team says the Pats provided headset gear that looked “like it had been run over by a lawn mower. Frayed wires, the speaker is all chopped up. . . .” James says that it is league policy for all headset batteries to be changed 30 minutes before a game, and that the team has “always complied with that.” He adds, “We’ve never been cited by the league for doing anything wrong as it pertains to communication device violations.”

Another team executive says, “Anybody who has gone in there in the last five years will tell you some sort of problem or snag they never hit any other place. They are the worst hosts in football.”

Of course, sometimes it’s easy to find an excuse for porous play and communication in the secondary. It’s somewhat embarrassing for a team to enter its first game, with an entire offseason and training camp to prepare, and have the kinds of issues the Steelers had.

Scenes from Steelers vs. Patriots at Gillette Stadium

The Patriots were 4-for-4 in the red zone and there were coverage problems on all the touchdowns (three to Rob Gronkowski and one to fellow tight end Scott Chandler). On the first touchdown, no one covered Gronkowski, or Chandler on the other side of the field.

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“We have to be better; we will,” Tomlin said. “I thought we got a little frazzled at times from a communication standpoint when they changed the pace. We have to be better than that. Some of the young people have to grow up in a hurry.”

The Steelers are hoping to defend their AFC North title against two talented teams in the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals, and a first-place schedule. The offense won’t have trouble scoring many points once Bell and suspended receiver Martavis Bryant return to the lineup (and Haley throws away the receiver option pass play that stalled a promising opening drive with an 8-yard sack). But that defense, in its first year with Keith Butler replacing legendary Dick LeBeau as coordinator, showed on Thursday night it has a long ways to go. Headsets or no headsets.