JAGGED LITTLE PILL

Steelers beat up physically; coaches beat up mentally in embarassing playoff flop

The score: Jacksonville 45, Pittsburgh 42

The bottom line: Flops don’t come much bigger than this one. In front of their home crowd and with a chance at avenging their most embarrassing loss of the year to get a shot at avenging their most infuriating one, the Steelers were sloppy with the football when they absolutely could not afford to be, were outschemed and physically manhandled by Jacksonville all day then totally overmatched strategically in the second half, committing a laundry list of bizarre and indefensible strategic gaffes that short circuited the many, many chances they were given to come back and win. The almost unfathomable stumble leaves the team and franchise exactly where they’ve been since 2011: Successful but. As in, successful but wondering how much time Ben Roethlisberger has left, successful but wondering if they’re ever going to have a game-changing defense again and successful but wondering if their head coach is ever going to get his act together on game day.

It was over when…: Where to even begin? When the Steelers scored with 2:27 left on a funky Ben Roethlisberger scramble/lateral to Le’Veon Bell to cut the Jacksonville lead to 42-35, they were well positioned force overtime with two timeouts and the two-minute warning left. After kicking off, the Jaguars almost certainly would run the ball three times and Leonard Fournette was limited to straight-ahead plunging by a bum ankle. It doesn’t take Pythagoras to figure out whether doing that and possibly getting the ball back with 1:50 left was a better option than a low-percentage onside kick that would give the Jags the ball on your side of the field. But you know what Mike Tomlin opted for and Chris Boswell attempted that kick with all the conviction of guy who knew it was a bad idea. Josh Lambo’s ballsy 42-yard field goal a few plays later (with 1:50 left, by the way) seemed to seal the deal. But it didn’t. With the Jaguars in a prevent guarding the sidelines, Ben Roethlisberger was able to hit a few short crossing patterns to Vance McDonald then a huge one to Martavis Bryant to set Pittsburgh up at the Jags 5 with :58 freaking seconds left. An eternity and a gift from the gods! The strategy is clear here: Take a few quick shots at the end zone and if no TD, kick the FG and go onside. Whatever you do, you cannot commit a penalty (:10 runoff) or be tackled in the field of play. So, you know what the Steelers did next, right? First, Roethlisberger, who was brilliant throwing the ball but totally out-poised by Blake Bortles (did we just write that?), took a stupid grounding penalty and :10 runoff, then Antonio Brown, who was brilliant all day to that point, inexplicably let himself be tackled in the field of play of a swing pass instead of getting out of bounds around the 5-yard-line. The result was that Pittsburgh wasted 25 (25!) of those precious 58 seconds they had been given, resulting in a TD scored with :01 remaining. At this point, the strategy is clear, you need to try to line drive a Jags player with a hard kick, get a bounce then run the Stanford band play, happens all the time. Slim chance? Sure. But still a chance. The Steelers opted to kick the ball deep and let the Jaguars end the game with a kneeldown.

Play of the day: With 9:14 remaining in the game, Antonio Brown made one of the truly great catches in Steelers history to pull his team with seven at 35-28. The Steelers had all the momentum and the notoriously shaky Blake Bortles was now under pressure to perform. Leonard Fournette plunged twice for five yards, setting up a 3rd-and-5 with 7:49 remaining. A stop and the Steelers would have had the ball with a chance to tie in front of a frenzied crowd. We still can’t believe what happened next. A simple swing pass to T.J. Yeldon, the checkdowniest of all checkdowns, went for 40 freaking yards (that’s the second time we’ve typed “freaking” today, now one one-hundredth of the number of times we said it during the telecast). Forty yards! That’s inexcusable. Of all the breakdowns the Steelers had one a day when Jacksonville had ONE PLAY for negative yards (and that was a kneeldown!), this was the worst.

Player of the game: On an afternoon featuring some of the greatest single plays we’ve seen in a football game, the player of the game was Blake Bortles, who did exactly what Blake Bortles can do exactly when Blake Bortles should do it. We’re not joking when we say Bortles played a flawless game, dinking when he should dink, dunking when he should dunk, bombing when he should bomb and scrambling when he should scramble. For all his flash and flair, Ben Roethlisberger made 10 times more mistakes than Bortles.

Hot topics:

+ About those quarterback sneaks: No one will ever admit this, but it sure looks to us like that all lands on Ben Roethlisberger’s shoulders. As with everything else with the offense, if Ben wanted to sneak, Ben would sneak. Beyond that, we’re fairly certain, he has total control of those plays, deciding between sneak, hard count/timeout, run or pass. With Pittsburgh not having run a sneak in several years, the Jags were certainly wary of the hard count, making a sneaky sneak an even better option on those two critical plays.

+ The Steelers defensive line, which played so well all year, was absolutely MIA Sunday, especially Cam Heyward, who was totally neutralized and recorded just one tackle. The team that led the league in sacks rarely got in sniffing range of Blake Bortles. The secondary was serviceable until a huge pass play late that set up Jacksonville’s final touchdown where Artie Burns stumbled and got lost.

+ Todd Haley might be more trouble (personally) than he’s worth (professionally), but he’s largely done exactly what the Steelers needed him to do, develop an offense that keeps Ben Roethlisberger healthy and takes full advantage of all the talent assembled. Complaints about play calling are largely tilting at windmills. Probably half of the things fans get apoplectic over are audibled Roethlisberger called. Now, game planning might be an area where you can take Haley to task, but again, you won 13 regular season games and scored 42 points Sunday.

+ We don’t care what anyone says, our eyes tell us Bud Dupree is now officially a bust. He played like a guy Sunday who wanted no part of the pressure of the James Harrison hype next week.

In the booth:

+ We points this out during the regular season and it was REALLY obvious Sunday. There are MILES between the top three analysts (Collinsworth, Romo, Aikman) and Fouts. Miles! How many times in that game did Fouts say one thing live then the replay showed the opposite? That’s rhetorical. A lot of times.

Game mismanagement:

+ Mike Tomlin is an excellent football coach. The Steelers are lucky to have him. But he is a nightmare on game day and his refusal to accept that and change will keep him (and us) from where he wants to be. And that’s all we have to say about that (and the fact that we’re saying it again, year after year just drive home the point).

Zebra hunting:

+ It was very apparent that crew was determined not to throw many flags. Usually, we like that and we certainly prefer it to flagapalooza, but we think that hurt the Steelers Sunday more than the Jaguars with all the holding and pass interference that was allowed to go on.

Sweet tweet:

+ @ninecombine (Brent Ronan): Steelers were unprepared and great players kept them in game. Tomlin makes same game situation errors as 10 years ago. Team could benefit from more of a baseball like study of game situations. His 2-point approach over years is a great example. (Blogger’s note: Well said, Brent. Maybe he’ll listen to you. He’s been ignoring us since 2007.)

Next year:

SCHEDULE – Home: KC, LAC, ATL, CAR, NE (yay), CLE, CIN, BAL Away: DEN, OAK, NOR, TB, JAX, CLE, CIN, BAL. Note: Looks tough on paper right now. That’d be good, Steelers play better against good teams.

DRAFT – The Steelers should pick 28th in the first round of the NFL Draft on April 26 in Arlington, Texas. The last time Pittsburgh picked 28th was 1980 (after winning the Super Bowl in 1979), when they selected Mark Malone.

THIS BLOG – For the first time ever, we are not typing this final blog wearing a James Harrison jersey. It feels different. Football feels different. We imagine we’ll be back for more come fall, but no guarantees. In any event, thanks for reading our ramblings and tolerating the typos (this is a one-man band and you should never read your own copy). Here we go…..

COMMENTS