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.