Skippy, Replay Challenges, and Fumbles: Steelers-Saints High(Low)lights

So that was weird. The defending Super Bowl champs, struggling with injuries and consistency, won a huge game at home on national television. The Steelers, it turned out, were just part of the Halloween sideshow.

And before I get to the hows and whys, it’s worth pointing out that the Saints, despite what happened last week against the Browns, can be an extremely dangerous team — on both sides of the ball. It’s easy to say Pittsburgh was out-coached (and I think they were), but New Orleans also made plays, something the Steelers struggled to do.

Most games come down to a handful of plays. On Sunday night, three things (all different than Ted’s three weaknesses) stuck out:

1) To recap: Tomlin will waste a first-quarter challenge on a Lance Moore fumble that even my wife saw and said, “He was down when his arm hit the ground, right?” (Yes, yes he was.) But on what looked like a Rashard Mendenhall touchdown during that stupefying goal line series? He just stands there.

Look, I’m fine with Tomlin’s notion of “imposing your will” in the “we only need one yard” situations, but if you have no intentions of challenging the Mendenhall play how about just cut out the cute play-calling and have Ben run a QB sneak three times in a row? Collinsworth couldn’t quit talking about Maurkice Pouncey’s awesomeness. Just a thought: awesome guys, in general, are capable of picking up one yard.

Finally: no clue what that fourth-and-4 was all about. None. I wasn’t completely against going for it, but next time it might be worth calling a play that doesn’t have two receivers occupying the same space as the ball arrives. Just spit-balling here.

2) Skippy Fail. Gretz mentioned it earlier in the season and it took me roughly three minutes to buy his argument: Yes, kickers miss kicks. But if Jeffy is supposed to be the guy who can handle Heinz Field and all that comes with converting kicks there, we can’t give him a free pass every time he lines up and honks a field goal from beyond 45 yards. Anybody can do that. And the Steelers certainly aren’t going to pay somebody a premium for it.

You can argue that Tomlin shouldn’t have let Reed even attempt a 51-yarder with enough time on the clock to give Brees and the Saints a chance to score. That’s a fine point and one I won’t protest vehemently, but I’ll just say this: Skippy has to make those kicks. If you’re a franchise kicker and you’re indoors, you make 51 yarders. Also: last week, Tomlin mismanaged the end of the first half and admitted that he should have given Jeff a chance. Perhaps that had something to do with his decision Sunday night. Whatever, here’s the bottom line: Jeff has to convert. That’s all there is to it.

3) Heath Miller fumbles. Here’s a glimpse into the life of Ryan Wilson watching a typical Steelers offensive play: “DON’T FUMBLE.” I do that 60 or so times a game. And while I was thinking it during Miller’s catch and run, it was in the back of my mind because, for the most part, Heath doesn’t fumble. Well, he did. Ball game. Shit happens.

Those three plays cost the Steelers at least 13 points, and possibly 17 (Rashard’s TD, Skippy’s 3 and either 3 or 7 if the Steelers had scored after Heath’s catch). The final score: New Orleans: 20 Pittsburgh 10.

This isn’t to say that the Steelers would have won easily had the three outcomes above turned out differently, but they certainly wouldn’t have lost by 10 points. Unlike Ted’s take that there are roster issues holding this team back, I’d point to mental mistakes. In general, those are a lot easier to fix.

Plus, as JJ mentioned on the last podcast, if the Steelers are going to lose, this was the weekend to do it. I’m not excusing it, and it pains me to even write those words, but practically speaking, dropping a game to an NFC opponent shouldn’t mean jack for Pittsburgh’s postseason hopes.

Some other random thoughts from Sunday night:

* IKE. Seriously, you throw that pass to Ike 1,000 times, you’d have 1,000 incompletions. Still can’t believe he hauled that in. Nice play, and I thought he had one of his best all-around games in a long time.

* I know Ted was upset with B-Mac, but I love the guy. On the touchdown pass to Marques Colston, the camera showed Sean Payton calling the play into Brees and you could read his lips: “Marques Colston blah blah blah play call blah blah blah.” Payton repeated it. I yelled at B-Mac: “It’s going to Marques!” Didn’t matter. Brees dropped back, looked right, saw B-Mac in single coverage, pitch, catch, touchdown.

That aside, I didn’t have a problem with how McFadden played. He tackles well and keeps plays in front of him. You know, exactly what Dick LeBeau likes his cornerbacks to do. Frankly, clock management and how to utilize replay challenges are much bigger issues on this team.

In fact, I thought the defense as a whole played well. The game plan was to rush three or four and drop everybody else into coverage. Let Brees dink and dunk his way down the field. Save a couple instances, the plan worked.

* I lived in DC when Gregg Williams was the Redskins defensive coordinator. Huge douche. But I give him credit: the Saints were down three good cornerbacks and still managed to wreak havoc all night. Well done, dude.

On the other hand, I have no idea why the Steelers offense didn’t adjust. Williams loves to blitz. And I don’t mean bringing five guys once a series. I’m talking eight guys, and the more trouble the offense has picking up the extra rushers, the more often Williams brings them. It’s a debilitating cycle, particularly when Pittsburgh’s offense seemed incapable of doing anything about it. Some free advice: DON’T RUN 15-YARD ROUTES. A few people mentioned it in the game thread, but how about somebody mix in a slant?

And I’m sure you all know what this means now, right? Open season on Bruce Arians. BA bothers me a lot less than some of you, but there’s no defending Sunday night’s game plan, especially the inexplicable decision to continue to run the ball on first down. Look, I get it: establish the run. (Even if you don’t agree with the philosophy, if Pittsburgh wants to utilize Mendenhall, fine. No problem.) But 2nd and 8 or longer made Williams’ job a lot easier. The Saints basically had to stop the run on first down (which they did with very little trouble) and blitz Ben silly on 2nd and 3rd down (also effective).

The great irony, of course, is that we were all bitching about BA’s one-sided offensive play-calling a year ago. Lesson learned, I guess.

* Manny Sanders had another fumble but I applaud his effort. He appears to be a legit returner, something the Steelers haven’t had in, well, forever. He’s also contributing on offense.

Rookie Contributor Honorable Mention: Stevenson Sylvester knocking the crap out of Lance Moore. I love that guy.

Alright, that’s a wrap. The Steelers are 5-2 and in great shape in the AFC. As far as I’m concerned, Sunday night’s issues aren’t roster-related, just above-the-neck related. Things could be much worse.

Next up: the hapless Bengals. But first, another Steelers Lounge podcast (taping tonight!): recapping the Saints. If you have any questions or comments, leave them below.

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  • David

    Ryan, nice article. It bears repeating that, even though we are deficient in several areas, three plays cost us this game.

    It doesn’t get any easier. We get the Bungels, who view us as their SB, then the Patsies at home.

  • Bigswa

    Steelers still struggle with heavy blitzing teams. They don’t have a small ball offense. BTW – counting the No Plays – They passed it 14 of 21 times on 1st down.

    • ryan

      Wow. It sure seemed like a lot more than that. Thanks for looking it up.

  • Dr Obvious

    When they settled for 3 instead of trying on 4th and goal, I knew the game was over. Someone needs to point out that you give them the ball on the 1 inch line, with no running game, and good things happen.

    But the Saint’s are the perfect team to beat the Steelers. Taking away the run and forcing them to complete 10 short passes to move the ball down the field plays right into what they do anyway. Our WR / play calling can’t beat man pressure, and our O-line can’t handle overload blitzes on long downs. Cincy is going to play us the same way on defense.

    • Bigswa

      My Natti Breakdown

      They are going to commit Roy Williams in the Box to eliminate running game
      Even thought they are banged up in the secondary, they are still going to blitz heavy and put Hall on Wallace – They had success before blitzing the Steelers heavy and will do it again

      they are a left handed running team whitworth vs hood will be key – must stop Benson
      have to be physical with TO on Line of Scrimmage

      Will be a close lose-able game.

  • Josh

    I guess my biggest issue with Arians is his refusal to adjust during the game. I suppose that’s been said enough elsewhere. In other news, I think 2010 will be known as the year of the spin move. Waiting for Ben to incorporate it into his pre-snap routine.

    • David

      Agreed. But part of it is on Ben.

      Case in point: on the last drive, Vilma initially covered the checkdown, then sacked Ben. Ben’s got to realize this and get the ball to the checkdown once uncovered. Instead, we lost 14 yds and snapped from the 7 yd line.


      Completly right, Josh, my only concern is that maybe it is not that he does not want to adjust, more and more I see that he does not HOW and to WHAT adjust. BA is no Grand Master, and if his Plan A fails, there is no such thing as a Plan B under his sleeve.

  • steeler junky

    I have to agree the Steelers were out coached! and I agree with the blitzing assessment.One of the jobs of the Coaching staff. To design and call plays that minimize the weaknesses and maximize your offense……. No I am not an Arians hater. I just think he could do better.
    I did see more screen plays, most were successful. Glad to see that, more should have been used.The Steelers should have run them till the Saints defense got tired of blitzing or stopped them.
    But I have seen other teams use rolling pockets. max protection schemes and spread offenses at the goal line when running the ball. Just to name a few things the Steelers could have done at New Orleans and did not.
    The hostile inviroment at New Orleans was probably one of the few places the Steelers have ever played with such a strong local fan base. Also I am sure it hurt the Steelers offense a lot.

  • David

    Mendy was in on 2nd & G. I don’t buy Tomlin’s excuse that they don’t show the replay as much for road teams. We saw it as home, his coaches saw it upstairs. Use the red flag at the goal line, not on the stupid non-fumble play at the 40!

  • Cols714

    What is with the assumption that replay would’ve overturned the call on Mendenhall’s run on 2nd and goal? It looked too close to call for me.

    And I think the Steelers passed a pretty good amount on 1st down last year. The passes didn’t work though. It really looked like Ben and the receivers were not on the same page at all last night. Maybe the crowd noise had something to do with it. The Steelers are not used to playing in a hostile road environment.

    The big question is, why don’t the Steelers use the QB sneak on 1st and goal from the one? I’d just sneak it 4 times, eventually you’ll get the TD.

    • GlennW

      I agree Cols, I don’t think Mendenhall’s downing short of the goal line would have been overturned. I went back and reviewed it several times and there was nothing conclusive about it, much less “indisputable” evidence of a TD (not that a referee has never stretched that standard before, but still). But I do agree that because Tomlin had needlessly blown his first challenge, he couldn’t take a flier with another.

    • David

      Cols714, no assumption. No, well, I do think he was in.

      My main point is that the 1st challenge was stupid, the 2nd that should’ve happened was bona fide challengeable (is that a word?). If anything, it would give our O-line and Mendy a breather.

      Anyhow, I’m gonna follow SteelerBill’s 24 hr rule and no more rants and raves after 8 PM Pacific tonight.

  • Matt

    I know his game falls squarely on BA’s shoulders. You’d think since that massacre at Philadelphia a few years ago, he would have a game plan for heavy blitzers. To do this day he still doesn’t.

    Our Defense took control of the game in the first half, if we had thrown slants to the TE more, we would have more success. I mean. on the replays where they blitzed 8 guys, our wr’s were running far downfield. Really? 8 men are crowding the line of scrimmage. No one has a hot read route? I suppose Ben is to blame as well for that one, for not adjusting a wr to run short. But NO successfully did that blitz on the next series.

    As for the WR thing, I don’t think our receivers are too slow. For all those calling for more of the rookies, note that Ben was yelling at Sanders on that 4th and 4, he ran the wrong route. ARE seems to get open, he was wide open twice last night, but Ben couldn’t get him the ball.

    Tomlin is not impressing me much. Twice I saw him telling the defense to watch for the screen (easy to lipread him), and both times it was a deep pass completed, and no screen. I can’t help but wonder if the guys he was talking to were supposed to blitz. I know he’s the head coach and has a defensive background, but don’t try to do Lebeau’s job too. Tomlin has enough problems managing his challenges and decision making.

    In short, we beat ourselves. I was not mad about Miller’s fumble. I was mad it took so long to utilize him.

  • Djanyreason

    This is exactly the sort of game that always bugs me about BA. Arians is pretty much incapable of adjusting his own game plan. He runs the same plays in the same situations regardless of who he’s playing against. We have a lot of offensive talent, so often it works, but not always. This is also probably why we do so much better in the no-huddle – suddenly, someone else is calling plays, so the defense sees something different.

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