PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers will have to pick up the pieces from an emotional loss to the New England Patriots without Antonio Brown.
Coach Mike Tomlin says Brown will miss Pittsburgh’s Christmas Day visit to Houston with a contusion on his left calf. The NFL’s leading receiver left in the second quarter against the Patriots after getting tangled up while trying to catch a pass in the end zone. Tomlin declined to get into the specifics of Brown’s injury and didn’t put a timetable on a possible return.
“I just know he’s out next week,” Tomlin said.
The Steelers (11-3) will also be without rookie running back James Conner, who was scheduled to undergo surgery on his right knee Tuesday. Conner, who had 144 yards rushing as Le’Veon Bell’s primary backup this season, will be placed on injured reserve. Pittsburgh filled Conner’s roster spot by signing Stevan Ridley. Ridley, a six-year veteran, last played for Atlanta during the 2016 season.
Whoever is available, the AFC North champions will head to Houston likely needing at least one win over their final two games and — maybe two if — to secure a first-round bye.
Regardless of the injuries to Brown and Conner, the offensive line and secondary could get a boost this week. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert returns from a suspension for violating the league’s performance-enhancing substance policy. Tomlin also thinks cornerback Joe Haden may be ready after missing five games with a broken left leg.
Tomlin is only too eager to move forward after a calamitous fourth quarter against the Patriots. Pittsburgh blew an eight-point lead, then botched a chance to pull it out on the final drive when tight end Jesse James’ apparent touchdown was overturned on review. Ben Roethlisberger then threw an interception in the end zone rather than spike the ball to set up a potential tying field goal.
“I’m not happy with the outcome,” Tomlin said. “We played to win. We didn’t win the game. We’re not quantifying level of success. We didn’t do enough to win the game.”
Who exactly did what over Pittsburgh’s final four snaps remains vague. The Steelers were awarded their final timeout after Roethlisberger hit JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 69-yard gain that put the ball at the New England 10. Tomlin said Tuesday his plan wasn’t to call time after the play, saying referee Tony Corrente incorrectly gave it to Pittsburgh because the official saw Roethlisberger mimicking a “time out” signal while looking at the Steelers’ sideline.
Things only got more confusing from there. James appeared to give Pittsburgh the lead when he caught a pass at the New England 1 and stretched into the end zone, the ball shifting as his hands hit the ground. Replay officials took the score away when they ruled James didn’t complete the process of making the catch.
“I think we all can acknowledge that all of this needs to be revisited, it’s not just that play,” said Tomlin, who serves on the NFL’s competition committee. “We’re having similar discussions week in and week out. We’ve got our work cut out for us during the offseason.”
The lengthy review and the reversal appeared to catch Pittsburgh off-guard. Roethlisberger threw short to Darrius Heyward-Bey when play resumed, and when Heyward-Bey was dragged down in bounds, the clock continued to roll. Rather than spike the ball to stop the clock and give kicker Chris Boswell a chip-shot field goal that would have sent the game into overtime, Roethlisberger faked a spike, hoping to take advantage of what Tomlin called an “uncomfortable” situation for the Patriots.
Roethlisberger attempted to find Eli Rogers in the end zone, only to have the ball deflect into the hands of safety Duron Harmon and the Patriots escaped with a 27-24 victory, their fifth straight over the Steelers.
“We wanted to try and win the game in regulation,” Tomlin said. “There were extra seconds there I wanted to take advantage of. If given the opportunity to do it again, I’d do it again.”