Tomlin, Arians Learn from 2007 Jacksonville Playoff Loss

Pittsburgh jumped out to a huge early lead and then barely held on for a 24-19 win over the visiting Jets in the AFC Championship game Sunday. The Steelers needed two clutch passes from Ben Roethlisberger to run out the clock and halt a furious 19-point New York rally.

Roethlisberger never got those chances to secure the win in the Steelers’ 31-29 loss to Jacksonville in the wild-card round after the 2007 regular season, Mike Tomlin’s first as the Steelers’ head coach, and Bruce Arians’ initial campaign as the offensive coordinator.

It was the Steelers who mounted a furious rally that day, scoring 19 points in the fourth quarter to take a 29-28 lead over a Jaguars team that was probably a better squad. Still, Pittsburgh had possession and a chance to run out the clock.

However, facing a third-and-6 from their own 26 with 2:56 remaining, the Steelers opted to run time off the clock by calling a quarterback rollout run that had little chance to pick up the first down (with no receivers in the vicinity).

Pittsburgh punted, relied on a defense that was without Troy Polamalu, and saw their season end when David Garrard ran over Polamalu’s replacement, Tryone Carter, on a 32-yard run to the Pittsburgh 11, which set up a game-winning field goal.

Tomlin and Arians were way too conservative that day even though Roethlisberger, who had completed 29 of 42 passes for 337 yards and 2 TDs against the Jaguars, was already an established, fourth-year QB with a Super Bowl championship to his credit.

They were not going to make the same mistake this year. Needing a first down to increase their chances of preserving victory against the resilient Jets, Arians wisely had Roethlisberger throw on second-and-9 from his own 42 with 2:50 left in the game.

The result was a 14-yard completion to Heath Miller. Had Arians waited until third down to pass — as many coordinators would have — the Jets would have expected it, lessening the chance of success.

Now, that was a great call by Arians. However, he may have been too risky in going for another first down a few plays later, when he called a rollout on a third-and-6 from the Jets 40.

Had the Steelers instead run on third down and then punted, the Jets would have gotten the ball at least 80 yards from the end zone with 65-70 seconds remaining, no timeouts, and needing a touchdown.

By attempting a pass — and risking an incompletion (or worse, an interception) — the Steelers risked giving a red-hot Jets offense an extra 30-35 seconds of game clock. However, that gamble paid off when Roethlisberger bought time before connecting with Antonio Brown for a 14-yard completion. The resulting first down enabled Pittsburgh to snap from victory formation for three plays to advance to the franchise’s eight Super Bowl.

Great coaches learn from their mistakes. As a good but raw rookie coach, Tomlin made a mistake by not trusting his franchise quarterback against the Jaguars. Now a great coach, Tomlin has learned to trust Roethlisberger. And the underrated — and always under-appreciated — Arians continually puts his quarterback in position to make plays that win big games.

For those people who always want Arians fired, please remember that the reason the Steelers struggled at the end of the 2007 season had more to do with injuries to defensive stars Polamalu and Aaron Smith that weakened the run defense.

Arians, then in his second season as offensive coordinator in 2008, directed a game-winning drive in the Super Bowl. He followed that up in 2009 by producing a 4,000-yard passer in Roethlisberger, a 1,000-yard rusher in Rashard Mendenhall, and two 1,000-yard receivers in Santonio Holmes and Hines Ward, despite having a lousy offensive line.

That offense was Super Bowl-caliber, but the ’09 Steelers’ pass defense was awful after Polamalu was sidelined due to injury, and their special teams were historically among the worst in NFL history. In other words, the national media is finally appreciating Roethlisberger and it is time for Steelers fan to finally appreciate Arians.

No, he is not as quality a coordinator as DC Dick LeBeau, who I would not trade for any others in the NFL. But I can count the number of coordinators I would trade Arians for on one hand, meaning he is pretty darn good, which was evident again today.

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  • josh

    I’m just happy the Steelers are back in the Supere Bowl. Amazing. Let’s leave the Arians debate for another day, please.


    • Cols714

      There shouldn’t be any Arians debate. The guy is a good coordinator and Ben and him seem to figure out what to do most of the time.

      He called a great game yesterday against a very good Jets defense that was covering everybody in the secondary

  • DJAnyReason

    Arians has been very good this year, and for the first time in many years I won’t be spending the offseason wishing for a new OC (and not only because I’ll be spending the offseason wishing the owners would stop shooting themselves in the foot and the league in the head). That said, contra above, Arians was awful in 2008 (bailed out by Ben’s brilliance in no-huddle and an all-time defense), and mediocre in 2009. Hopefully, the first derivative is legit and he stays as good as he’s been this year, or even improves.

  • SteelerBill

    Arians called one helluva game yesterday…hell he has the last three weeks or so…..I’m chalking the 2nd half up to an emotionally spent team and crowd for that matter……off to Dallas.

  • NohSpinZone

    That was the playcall of the year!!! BA has taken a lot of crap from Steelers fans on the messageboards and talk shows. He redeemed himself completely with that call. Steel balls!

  • countertorque

    I’ll admit that I was impressed with the play calling yesterday.

    Happy Superbowl everyone.

  • Huss

    Now, that was a great call by Arians. However, he may have been too risky in going for another first down a few plays later, when he called a rollout on a third-and-6 from the Jets 40.

    Had the Steelers instead run on third down and then punted, the Jets would have gotten the ball at least 80 yards from the end zone with 65-70 seconds remaining, no timeouts, and needing a touchdown.

    Gutsy call – yes. Even though special teams had a good day coverage wise, there was no guarantee that they would be 80 yards away from the endzone. Congrats special teams, but I was holding my breath on every Steelers kick.

    I have not been a huge Arians fan, but I love how they played to win. Of course everyone and their mother would have been calling for his head had Ben not been Ben.

    • ryan

      Ha. You know, speaking of special teams, I had absolutely no problem with Suisham accidentally putting one the first-half kickoffs out of bounds.

      • Ted

        And that sad but understandable reason you had no problem with this is why we need to keep a KO specialist on our roster next season when the new CBA increase roster and game-day active sizes by at least 3 each. I want to keep Suisham for PAT and FB, and then keep a KO guy who may develop into a complete kicker down the road like Cundiff did.

        • ryan

          Completely agree (marks calendar). I mean, if Tony Hills is going to don the Duce Staley Memorial gameday sweats, cut him and find another Billy Cundiff for kickoffs-only duty. I’d have absolutely no problem with that.

          • Bob Costas

            I wonder if other teams would use this strategy with expanded rosters? If so, then it is a question of how many kickers are floating around that can consistently kick it that far.

  • Man532

    Arians job is simple. Pittsburgh is based on running the football and stopping the run. We do that and we when the games. Why, it keeps their offense on the sidelines and makes them rush to get back in the game. Second, it keeps oru defense fresh and we get that half step need to sack the QB. Third, it tires a defense, who’s constantly being hit in the mouth by offensive linemen and TE’s.

    So AB has learned tha running the football will win you more games than having two 1,000 yard receivers.

  • Steve

    Arians is underrated and underappreciated? Really? Seriously? You believe that drivel? I’m going to have to reevaluate my thoughts on this blog. I’ve considered it one of the most informative and knowledgeable on the web…until that comment.

  • Steve

    He has done a good job of not going empty backfield on 3rd and 1 though. Thought he called an excellent game against B’more as well.