Pointing the finger at Belichick

PITTSBURGH -- A performance such as this produces a lot of questions for New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick.

Should he have kicked off late in the game instead of calling for an onside kick? Should he have challenged tight end Rob Gronkowski's potential touchdown at the goal line late in the fourth quarter, which could have saved the team two valuable minutes to try to pull off a comeback?

Those relate to in-game strategy, always an easy second guess, but there is an even larger question looming after what unfolded in the team's not-as-close-as-it-looked 25-17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.

Has Belichick lost his fastball when it comes to defense, both in terms of schemes and personnel evaluation, and is it time for him to open his mind to outside thinking?

Perhaps it's an overreaction to one loss in a 16-game season, but that was the first thought after watching Ben Roethlisberger put it in the air 50 times while ringing up 365 yards as New England's Jekyll-and-Hyde defense put up little resistance. The Steelers threw to control the clock -- they had a time-of-possession edge of 39:22-20:38 -- and the Patriots were helpless to stop them.

For all the progress the defense seemed to make in recent wins over the New York Jets and Dallas Cowboys, this was a decisive step back. And it's not like the up-and-down trajectory is anything new when it comes to the Patriots' defense. Belichick preaches consistency to his players, but when he looks at his own work as a personnel evaluator and defensive coordinator, it looks a lot like the stock market: wildly unpredictable.

It makes one wonder whether it's time for new thinking and a different approach, because under his direction, the defense doesn't seem to be getting better. One also could say not enough players are improving, which is evidenced in 2010 second-round pick Jermaine Cunningham, a defensive end who played 50 percent of the snaps as a rookie but has practically disappeared this season, a healthy scratch Sunday.

Basically, the Steelers decided the best way to beat the Patriots was to throw it, and the unit constructed and coached by Belichick couldn't come up with the answers. The Steelers said they simply took what was there, a lot of short and intermediate routes, and there were plenty of those to be had.

"It was obviously a disappointing game," Belichick said. "They outplayed us, outcoached us. We just didn't do a good enough job. That's really all there is to say."

Belichick's mantra is to do what's best for the team, which is how he explains decisions such as releasing veteran cornerback Leigh Bodden -- signed to a four-year, $22 million contract in 2010 -- two days before the Steelers loss. Surely Belichick has his reasons, which he won't be sharing any time soon, but did anyone else look at the defense Sunday and ask the question, "Couldn't Bodden help?"

Bodden's replacement as the team's third corner, Antwaun Molden, was pulled in the third quarter for Phillip Adams, who has been signed by the Patriots three separate times this season.

That sums up the Patriots' defense at this point -- all over the map, never knowing which unit is going to show up.

"We do what we think is best every week, whatever we think gives us the best chance to win," Belichick said of personnel decisions. "That's what we've always done [and] that's what we'll continue to do, whatever is best for the team."

Third down was a particular trouble spot against the Steelers, who converted 10 of 16 times. It didn't matter whether it was third-and-1 or third-and-15; the chains were moving and the collective shoulders of defenders were slumping after another failed play.

Roethlisberger, whose work in getting the ball out quickly negated the Patriots' hopes of pressuring him into mistakes, looked like he was working against a scout team. A Patriots defense that entered the day ranked last in the NFL in yards allowed now slips further into the 32nd spot, having given up 300-plus passing yards in six of seven games this season.

"From the first drive, they kind of declared it is an inside passing game," cornerback Kyle Arrington said. "Shoot, you never want to give it all up in one play, either, [but] we were trying to mix the defenses up, trying to do what we could do. But they did a great job.

"Normally we read better when we drop in a zone. We read the routes, read the concepts better, and anticipate the route coming at us. It just wasn't a good day."

If there's a silver lining, it's that it was only one day, and the Patriots have had days such as this before. Players didn't seem discouraged, but instead, determined to better themselves.

"It's just a bump in the road. That's how I'm approaching it; that's how the rest of the team is approaching it," said linebacker Jerod Mayo, one of the defensive captains. "I say it all the time; it's worth it if we learn something from it. You can take games in the past where we've lost handily, and how we responded has been a positive way. Hopefully we'll do the same."

The players aren't the only ones. This type of performance makes it easier to question the coach leading the defense as well.

It starts at the top. It starts with Belichick.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.