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Despite strategic gaffe,
Steelers still alive in AFC

December 22, 2013 - Ray Eckenrode

The score: Pittsburgh 38, Green Bay 31

The bottom line: Badly outmanned on defense, poorly, almost criminally, coached (again) by Mike Tomlin and handicapped by shoddy officiating, the Steelers players somehow managed to turn in their most stirring performance in a long time, outlasting the Packers in a bizarre game on a bizarre Sunday that found Pittsburgh still breathing in the AFC playoff race by sundown.

It was over when: After Tomlin chose to give Green Bay a possession they never should have had, the Packers responded by marching succinctly to the Pittsburgh 2 with :20 left where they returned the favor by losing their collective mind. First, they illegally proceeded on 1st-and-goal, which comes with a 10-second runoff. Then they failed to spike the ball with :10 remaining (after Referee Carl Cheffers told them in a very loud voice that the clock would start when the ball was set), which would have given them two shots at the end zone. Then quarterback Matt Flynn somehow missed the team’s best wide receiver being wide open in the end zone and went with a low-percentage throw to Jarrett Boykin that sailed harmlessly beyond the end line with :00 showing.

Play of the day: Flynn was on his way to scrambling for a critical first down deep in his own territory in the final minutes when Troy Polamalu launched himself at the Packer’s QB and knocked the ball loose for fellow greybeard (get it?) Brett Keisel to fall on at the Packers 19. The “seems like old times” splash play should have set up Shaun Suisham’s game-winning field goal :05 left, but instead set up Le’Veon Bell’s game winning touchdown with 1:27 remaining.

Player of the day: Punter Matt McBriar completed perhaps the most difficult fake punt pass in the history of football, scrambling to his right, checking down to his second receiver and throwing on the run to David Paulsen, to set up a first-half Pittsburgh TD, then set up Polamalu’s game-changing play by sticking a lob wedge of a kick at the Packers 7 with four minutes to go.

Game mismanagement:
+ There are plenty of times when it’s perfectly fine for a coach to say, “I know what the percentages say, but I was playing a hunch (or ‘I felt some momentum’ or even ‘I trust my defense’).” Football is as much about emotion and heart and guts as it is about strategy. However, let’s make this perfectly clear: What happened in the final 1:25 of that game was NOT one of those times and Mike Tomlin’s explanation of why he did not take two knees and kick a game winning extra point with :05 left – “I’m not into that” – is absolutely, positively, unequivocally horse bleep. We are talking about a 99.99 likelihood of being able to end the game that was eschewed. That’s not playing a hunch or being gutsy. That’s being unaware and flat out stupid. And on Sunday, Tomlin made a strong case as one of the worst strategists in NFL history.
+ There were lots of “right” ways to play the end of the first half for the Steelers, but the way they played it – only getting two plays off after converting a first down with :28 left – was undeniably wrong. What they tried – running a play on first down instead of using a timeout of spike – could have worked if they had not taken 16 seconds to get that play off. That left :12, which is enough time to get off three plays IF you don’t chew up half that dancing in the pocket on the first one, which, of course, is what Ben Roethlisberger did. That left :06, which is enough time for two plays for a team that is well-schooled and well-drilled in clock management. The Steelers are neither and did the right thing under the circumstances and took the field goal on third down.

Zebra hunting:
+ Ugh, when we saw Carl Cheffers’ crew butchering all those pass interference calls in the Ravens-Lions game last Monday, we had a bad feeling about what might happen Sunday in Green Bay. But no one could have expected the chaos that ensued on that blocked third-quarter field goal. And to be fair, despite the Larry, Curly and Moe theatrics, Cheffers crew got the play exactly right from a rules perspective in terms of what they THOUGHT they saw. Where they failed miserably, and almost fatally for the Steelers, was in not recognizing that Ryan Clark took possession of the football on the play, getting three feet (and a knee) down before an ill-advised lateral, a Bill Gay bobble and Ziggy Hood’s inexplicable and wholly illegal bat. Had the zebras recognized the possession, the Steelers would have retained the ball, the penalty would have been assessed from the point of Clark’s recovery and all would have been right with the world. By botching the Clark ruling, they managed to make things worse for the NFL by telling us all that “possession in the field of play” is not reviewable in this instance, even though about half the replays in the league each week involve “possession in the field of play.”
+ For our money, the blocked kick was not the worst officiating mistake in the game. That came midway through the fourth quarter when Antonio Brown was clearly held by his jersey on a 3rd-and-4 play. The CBS replay clearly showed the penalty and clearly showed the back judge looking directly at the action and choosing not to flag it. This was the same back judge who missed a critical pass interference that should have been called against the Ravens in Detroit Monday night. Sometimes, a downgrade just isn’t enough.

Hot topics:
+ Wow, give Round 1 to Le’Veon Bell. Eddie Lacy is a flashier runner, no doubt (Bell’s occasional hurdle notwithstanding), but Bell made Tomlin look like a genius (for once) on Sunday by exhibiting the better all-around game that his coach cited this week as the reason the Steelers took him over Lacy. Bell’s pass pro is especially impressive for a rookie.
+ Stevenson Sylvester and Chris Carter ended that game playing linebacker for the Steelers after Jarvis Jones came down ill and Jason Worilds left the game with an abdominal injury. Carter started in place of Jones and was horribly overmatched. Sylvester spelled Carter before replacing Worilds and was just plain overmatched. Add to that another shaky day from Cortez Allen (despite the gift-wrapped Pick 6) and Ike Taylor’s usual matador tackling and it’s no wonder the Packers were going up and down the field at will on Pitsburgh, which if yet another reason Tomlin never should have put that defense back on the field in the final minute.
+ By now you know the scenario: Steelers must win (1 p.m.) at home against the Browns while the Ravens must lose at Cincy (also 1 p.m.) and the Jets must beat the Dolphins in Miami (1 p.m.). Should those three things happen, the Steelers and their fans would then have to deal with the agony of needing the Chiefs to beat Philip Rivers and the Chargers in a 4:25 p.m. game that has no playoff implications for Kansas City.

In the booth:

+ That was easily the worst announcing of the year in a Steelers game with Solly Wilcots spouting flat-out falsehoods for most of the afternoon and Kevin Harlan having an uncharacteristic off day. No one throws out more unsubstantiated clichés than Wilcots, telling viewers the Steelers are “always tough against the run” (even though they ranked as low as 31st just a few weeks ago), “a solid tackling team” (ha!) and display “championship mettle” on a regular basis (having gone 15-16 in the last two seasons). Harlan was as shaky as we’ve ever heard him, calling the Steelers the “Cowboys” several times, misidentifying the Antonio Brown as Antonio Smith, miscalling a complete pass as an Ike Taylor interception and then misidentifying an airborne Lawrence Timmons as Taylor, which was one of the most unintentionally funny things we’ve ever heard as everyone knows Taylor never tried to make a tackle.

Sweet tweet: “@jimwexell: “Possession in the field of play is not a challengeable aspect of replay.” – Someone officiating a new sport.”

Next week: The Steelers will do something next Sunday that seemed almost unthinkable a little more than a month ago. They’ll play a meaningful game in Week 17 at Heinz Field against the injury-riddle Browns. But will anyone show up for it? After seeing Lambeau Field packed to the rafters Sunday in support of a mediocre team, the growing attendance issues in Pittsburgh seem even more troubling. It is likely to be the last Steelers home game ever for guys like Brett Keisel and Ike Taylor and perhaps even Troy Polamalu.

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