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Poor strategy, special teams
doom Steelers 2nd-half rally

November 29, 2013 - Ray Eckenrode

Blogger’s note: The 15 Minutes Blog home technology center suffered a catastrophic failure sometime in the wee hours of a truly Black Friday. We lost our nearly complete game blog (along with the first five chapters of our novel, and you’re going to have to trust us when we tell you it’s spectacular) so this abbreviated version will have to suffice.

The score: Baltimore 22, Pittsburgh 20

The bottom line: We’ll remember the coaching miscues, the special teams gaffes, the brutal goal-line collision and the worst onside kick in the history of football. But more than that, we’ll remember the Steelers Thanksgiving night loss to the Ravens as a game where Pittsburgh was good enough to win, just not smart enough. It leaves Pittsburgh heading for the worst possible outcome to this bizarre season, both failing to make the playoffs and failing to get a desperately needed Top 10 draft choice.

It was over when: In retrospect, throwing a back shoulder fade on a critical two-point conversion play in the final minute of a critical game to a receiver who had already dropped two critical passes was probably not the best decision Ben Roethlisberger has ever made, not that we’re being critical. Even though it was a well-thrown ball, the low-percentage pass slipped through the fingers of Emmanuel Sanders, who likely didn’t get a good look at it as he was being face-guarded (legal in the NFL).

Play of the day: Pittsburgh’s first TD midway through the third quarter had turned a “ho hum” 13-0 Ravens lead into an “uh oh” 13-0 Ravens lead, but Jacoby Jones stole the momentum right back on the ensuing kickoff, dashing through a 10-yard wide seam in the Steelers wedge en route to a 73-yard return that resulted in a Ravens field goal. Not only did the play provide the margin of victory in the game, it provided another bizarre sidelight as Jones nearly collided with a clueless Mike Tomlin, who was watching the return on the Jumbotron. Many will see evil intentions in Tomlin’s actions, but we see it as just another indication of how truly UNAWARE the man is during the games, as evidenced by his ongoing and repeated strategic gaffes.

Game mismanagement: Trailing by eight and getting the ball back with just a little more than 5:00 left, here is what Pittsburgh’s strategy should have been: Score a TD as quickly as possible without using a timeout. A two-point conversion is not a sure thing like an extra point. In fact, it’s a less than 50-50 proposition (conversion rates usually hover between 44 and 46 percent). You cannot play those final five minutes counting on that two-point conversion. By keeping all your timeouts intact, you are preserving the ability to get the ball back for a game-winning field goal if you don’t hit the two-point conversion. If you get the conversion, great, you’re in a tie game and you’ll take your chances. Instead, the Steelers pursued a strategy that was stupid on two counts. Not only did they not try to score quickly. They meandered down the field at a leisurely pace that ensured their two-point try would be do or die. Tomlin then compounded the gaffe by using his timeouts (taking the first with 2:41 left) in a way that preserved time for the Ravens. Had Pittsburgh converted the 2XP, they’d have left more than a minute for Baltimore. It was literally the worst of two worlds. Don’t get us wrong, plenty else went wrong that led to Pittsburgh losing that game, but that’s the point of game management. Plenty of stuff goes wrong for every team every week. But in the parity-driven NFL there’s almost always a chance to win the game in the final four minutes if you play your cards correctly. Not only does Mike Tomlin not play his cards correctly. He doesn’t even seem to be aware there’s a card game going on. It’s the same kind of disconnect that cost Pittsburgh a win in Oakland earlier this year and that has probably cost six to eight wins during the Tomlin era. The guy obviously has done a remarkable job resurrecting this team from the dead. He obviously has a lot of truly special attributes as a head coach. He’s just a nightmare on game day.

Hot topics:
+ It’ll be the topic of a lot of discussion over the next 10 days, but Pittsburgh ran very little no-huddle in the first half and Ben Roethlisberger looked just terrible in the regular offense, sometimes missing receiver by 8-10 yards.
+ The Steelers weren’t in nearly as good a playoff position entering that game as many assumed (their chances were still only about 20 percent before kickoff) so the damage that loss inflicted on those hopes is not as severe as it might seem, given the opponent. Bottom line: If Pittsburgh wins out, they’ll get the sixth seed. Bottomer line: Winning out is very unlikely.
+ There’s a faction of football fans (and players and coaches) who view kickers like this: When they succeed and their team wins, they’re just doing what they’re supposed to do, and when they fail and their team loses, they’re responsible for that loss. In that regard, there are a lot of people again calling for Shaun Suisham’s head on a platter after his bizarre mistimed field goal miss and even more bizarre onside kick attempt. While those errors (and their likely affect on Suisham’s confidence) are concerning, they were not of prime importance in that game.
+ How ironic (and somehow fitting) that Le’Veon Bell’s coming out party ended with him being concussed on one of the most brutal hits we’ve seen in the “concussion era” of the NFL. It was a reminder of the undeniable truth league officials are trying to deal with: Their game is violent by nature. Let it continue as it has and players are going to continue to be debilitated. Try to legislate a lessening of the violence and risk forever changing the appeal of the game.

Zebra hunting:
+ Clete Blakeman’s crew lived up to its reputation as one of the most restrained in throwing flags with one exception (and it’s a welcome exception for Steelers fans), calling Michael Oher for the false starts he’s been getting away with for three years.
+ While it was excruciating as a fan seeing two called TDs overturned by review in the final two minutes of the game, there was no argument that the calls were correct.

In the booth:
+ Michaels and Collinsworth were superb, as always. Collinsworth adds so many little things to the games – like noting William Gay likely avoided an early PI call by turning his head at the last minute or pointing out Ike Taylor got a PI call because his grab of Torrey Smith’s arm went beyond the usual hand fighting that’s allowed or quickly reminding fans that face guarding is legal in the NFL – and he often does it in real time.
+ NBC actually devoted about a minute of second-half airtime to a report from Michele Tafoya about how dangerous Ben Roethlisberger is outside the pocket and how the Ravens wanted to focus on stopping that.

A word from our sponsors: Of all the grating Black Friday commercials, none was moreso than Wal-Mart’s temporally-challenged “Black Friday isn’t over” spots that started running at noon on Thursday. By the 467th viewing Thursday evening, we were starting to wonder if it really was Friday. Also, we know it’s the one question you’re never supposed to ask, but was Store Manager Petra pregnant in those ads?

Sweet tweet: @rumbunter: Something Bill Cowher never said: Guys, guys, bring it in … We’re going with the Harry Potter left-footed onside kick.”

New week: The Steelers get a much-needed 10-day break before trying to preserve their slim playoff hopes in what amounts to an elimination game with the Dolphins at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh’s hopes of hanging around in the playoff chase likely hinge on the severity of injuries to Fernando Velasco and Kelvin Beachum.

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