“I’ve had it with this dump.”
As you no doubt already know the Pittsburgh Steelers are 2-3 and have lost what should have been very winnable road games against two of the worst teams in the NFL this season — a 34-31 loss to the Raiders in Week 2 and then Thursday’s 26-23 loss in Tennessee. They haven’t won a game away from Heinz Field since Week 17 of last season against the Cleveland Browns, a road losing streak that has now been extended to four games. All of them frustrating in their own way.
A lot of things went wrong on Thursday night. Injuries (a problem that started the week before against Philadelphia), a bad turnover near the end of the first half, dropped passes, a blocked punt, a defense that can’t get off the field on third down or keep a team from scoring more than 10 points in the fourth quarter, and some questionable decision making by the coaching staff on the final offensive drive of the game.
So let’s begin with that last one.
With about five minutes left in the game, just as the Steelers were starting that final offensive drive of the night, I told everyone sitting in the room with me and texted my brother that if the Steelers defense has to step on the field again they will not win the game.
They needed another series like the end of the Eagles game four days earlier: a methodical, clock-eating drive that ate up the remainder of the game and concluded with a chip shot field goal attempt as time expired. This is where we are with the Steelers defense, especially when it’s as banged up (and ineffective) as it currently is. Even if you give whatever is left of Matt Hasselbeck’s career a minute of clock time you’re playing with fire and risking defeat.
Everything was going as planned until the Steelers made it down to the Tennessee 35 and were faced with a second-and-six.
To this point in the drive the Steelers put the game on the shoulders of their $100 million franchise quarterback with five of the first six plays being designed passes (on one of those plays Roethlisberger scrambled for 14 yards). Given that the Steelers were without running backs Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman at that point this was a smart decision (hell, even if those guys were available it would have been a smart decision). For reasons that only coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Todd Haley know the Steelers decided on second-and-seven from the 35 that they would hand the ball off to fifth-string running back Baron Batch to run between the tackles. Not allow Roethlisberger to throw and look for Mike Wallace, or Antonio Brown, or Emmanuel Sanders, or Heath Miller, their best and highest paid players. They were going to run it to their fifth-string back. He was stuffed in the backfield setting up a third-and-long.
UPDATE: Apparently that run call was a “check with me” by Ben Roethlisberger at the line, which might be the first time in recorded history Roethlisberger checked to a run. So I guess if I have a criticism there it’s more on Ben than Tomlin/Haley.
If the Steelers were already in comfortable field goal range this play call would have been easier for me to accept. But at this point you’re looking at a 50-plus yard field goal with a less-than-reliable kicker. Nothing was guaranteed at that point. On third-and-long Roethlisberger had to scramble around to avoid the rush and missed his mark setting up a fourth-and-long, which brings us to questionable decision No. 2 — the decision to run Shaun Suisham out there to kick a 54-yard field goal.
In Week 2 Tomlin made one of the most aggressive (and controversial) play calls of his career in Pittsburgh when he went for it on fourth-and-one inside his own 30 in a tie game late in the fourth quarter. It was also the right call. The Steelers didn’t score on the drive and ended up losing the game anyway, but the thought process was sound. It was aggressive and it was bold, and it was correct. Most coaches would have punted and said, “OK, we’ll stop them and get the ball back.”
On Thursday he did the exact opposite and went conservative. And conventional. Even though Suisham had already hit one 50-plus yard field goal earlier in the game (I wanted the Steelers to go for it on that drive as well, so I’m reacting to the decision itself, not the result) there isn’t a kicker in the NFL that should be trusted to consistently hit 50-plus yard field goals.
You got lucky once. Don’t press your luck in that situation. The Steelers did, and they got whammy’d.
Some facts to consider:
- Teams that go for it on fourth-and-seven from outside of the 20-yard line convert, on average, 43 percent of the attempts.
- Shaun Suisham entering Thursday night was 3-for-9 (33 percent) in his career on kicks of 50-yards or more, and only 66 percent on kicks of more than 40 yards.
- The simple percentages give a slight edge to going for it (though it is very close). Add in the fact that Ben Roethlisberger is better than the average quarterback, the Titans defense is worse than the average defense, and Shaun Suisham is worse than the average kicker, and it’s even easier for me to scream “GO FOR IT.”
If the options right now are trust Ben Roethlisberger, Shaun Suisham, or the Steelers defense I’m going with the first one every single time.
Even if Suisham makes the kick (he had the accuracy but lacked the distance, having it fall about one yard short of the goal post) Tennessee still had a minute and all three timeouts to generate a scoring drive against the Steelers defense. Do you have faith they would have stopped them? If they would have it would have been the first time they stopped a team in that situation all season.
Punting shouldn’t have been an option in that situation either because you’re still asking the defense to make a stop it shouldn’t have been trusted to make given their performance to date. Hell, all Tennessee needed to do was take a couple of shots deep at Ike Taylor’s side of the field and wait for him to grab hold of Kenny Britt. That was Tennessee’s best offensive play of the night, really. Britt couldn’t catch anything that went his direction, and even when he did he still made it look difficult (like the game-tying touchdown catch he nearly dropped in the end zone). Despite this, the Titans STILL threw in his direction all night which seems to be a testament to how awful Taylor was on Thursday night. When the Titans weren’t catching it, they were still advancing the ball on penalties.
Taylor is simply playing like what he is: one of the oldest starting cornerbacks in the NFL. And it gets worse on Sunday night when he gets to try and cover A.J. Green.
Injuries no doubt played some role in Thursday’s loss as it’s almost impossible to replace LaMarr Woodley and Troy Polamalu (though, as I’ve already argued on this site you shouldn’t be waiting for a healthy Polamalu to walk through that door at any point in the near future — or ever again). But that still doesn’t excuse guys like Matt Hasselbeck and Carson Palmer having their way with the defense, and it’s hard to pinpoint any one problem.
Because it’s a lot of things.
The defensive line is clearly not what it used to be. Brett Keisel is at the end of his career and Casey Hampton is well past the end of his. Ziggy Hood hasn’t really turned into the player we expected and Steve McClendon and Cameron Heyward can’t seem to get on the field, which is either a bad sign in their development or the coaching staff not being willing to trust young unknowns over proven veterans. The pass rush isn’t there and they’re still not creating turnovers because the cornerbacks still aren’t great.
Do you know who the last Steelers cornerback was to record an interception?
It was William Gay in Week 13 of last season against the Browns when he picked off a concussed Colt McCoy in the end zone. That’s nine games (including playoffs).
There’s also that little third down problem that was an issue on Thursday as the Titans converted nine of their 16 attempts. After Thursday the Steelers are allowing opponents to convert nearly 50 percent of their third down attempts, 31st in the NFL.
The good news for the Steelers is that even though they’re 2-3 the AFC, as a group, is pretty mediocre and it’s possible that nine wins could earn a playoff spot.
They still have a franchise quarterback and playmakers all over their offense. And they’re going to have to lean on them if they have any hope of making the playoffs.