I’m not generally inclined to reflexively blame a coach when things go wrong. My sister-in-law can turn on Urban Meyer in the span of one set of downs, reacting with so much angst to bad plays, even momentary setbacks during wins, that I sometimes wonder if she would enjoy herself more if she devoted her Saturdays to something less stressful, like maybe an IRS audit.
So when I say that Mike Tomlin owns the Steelers’ loss on Sunday, it is not sour grapes but rather the reality that the outcome of the game turned on a series of choices he made, any one of which would have turned the game in Pittsburgh’s favor if he had chosen otherwise. You can perhaps say such a thing any time a team loses by a mere three points, but in this case there were at least half a dozen plays where the tempo of the game turned precipitously in Jacksonville’s favor due solely to decisions made by Tomlin.
I didn’t object to going for it on 4th-and-1 at the Jacksonville 21 in the first quarter, although the three points would have come in handy. The math was on Pittsburgh’s side, and the running game had gashed the Jaguars on multiple plays on that drive. But the big plays had come on interior runs, which are the best way to take advantage of Le’Veon Bell’s patient running style. By contrast, the pursuit of the Jags’ defense had shown itself to be capable of overwhelming running plays to the edge, which is what happened on this play; Bell was thrown for a four-yard loss.
Tomlin had success on a fourth down play at the end of the half, when Ben Roethlisberger threw a deep ball to Martavis Bryant for a touchdown on a 4th and 11. This was more or less a no-brainer, down three touchdowns and beyond what Chris Boswell could safely attempt given the conditions. Still, it worked, so we have to credit Tomlin for trying it. This score, and the one at the start of the second half cut the lead to one score, where it remained through the end of the third quarter.
Early in the fourth quarter came perhaps the most serious misjudgment of the day. The Steelers, still down seven, faced a 4th-and-1 on the Jacksonville 39, having been stuffed on a 3rd-and-1 on the previous play. While the math still favored going for it, the flow of the game did not. The momentum favored Pittsburgh overwhelmingly at this point, with the offense able to move at will, Leonard Fournette still gimpy, and Blake Bortles struggling mightily. Pinning the Jags deep in their territory with a punt would have constrained the options available to the erratic Bortles and probably resulted Pittsburgh getting the ball back with great field position. Am I sure of this? No, but it felt that way before they decided to go for it; I even texted my daughter that they should punt before the decision was made.
The error was compounded by choosing to throw the ball. JuJu Smith-Shuster was blanketed by A.J. Bouye (held, in fact) and was unable to come up with Roethlisberger’s pass. Perhaps the throw to Bryant on fourth down at the end of the first half gave the Steelers confidence, but on a play of such importance you go with the best running back in the NFL.
You might be thinking, if the Steelers had so much momentum, shouldn’t they have been confident they could get one yard? That may have been what Tomlin was thinking, but even when a team is imposing its will on both sides of the ball, that dominance is much more likely to manifest itself over a drive than on one play when randomness can intrude on that dominance. It’s why the NHL doesn’t decide playoff games with shootouts. Whereas a punt would have forced Jacksonville to sustain a long drive, which they seemed incapable of doing at that point, giving Jacksonville the ball on their own 39 meant that one good play could put them in field goal range. Indeed, they had a 1st and goal within four plays.
At that point the dominance that Pittsburgh had asserted throughout the second half was gone. The Steelers drove for another touchdown, again converting on a fourth down when Roethlisberger threw a touchdown pass to Brown on 4th-and-5. But now Good Bortles was back on the premises, and Jacksonville answered with another touchdown of their own, seemingly sealing the game with 4:19 to go. But Roethlisberger, who may be the best two-minute quarterback in the NFL at this point, drove the Steelers to another touchdown, and did it quickly enough to leave his team with two timeouts and the two-minute warning in their pocket.
Here are the relevant facts impacting the decision Tomlin faced at this point: 2:14 to go, two time outs. Roethlisberger basically unstoppable, and Chris Boswell has never successfully executed an onside kick in his career. Maybe he does it in practice all the time and we just don’t know it, but the times he has tried it in games have looked like American League pitchers trying to hit. The other relevant fact is that that Josh Lambo, the Jacksonville kicker, has enough leg that a botched onside kick would instantly put him in field goal range. Plus the wind is at his back. The right move here was to kick deep, hope for a three-and-out, and give the ball to Big Ben around midfield with at least a minute to go.
Sure enough, Boswell failed to even kick it the necessary 10 yards, which gave Jacksonville five additional yards. After three running plays they were at Pittsburgh’s 27, which was a chip shot for Lambo. But the game still wasn’t over.
Pittsburgh got the ball back on its own 25. Roethlisberger missed on three straight passes, but on fourth down he found Vance McDonald for 12 yards, then for 16 more on the next play. From there he hit Bryant for 42 yards to the Jaguar five. Now the Steelers found themselves down 10 points, with still 47 seconds left. If they had kicked a field goal right then, they would have had time to try another onside kick (yes, it still would have been Boswell, but this late in the game they would have done an onside kick in any scenario) and still had 40 seconds to drive for a tying touchdown. They could even have gone for two and won the game.
The temptation to believe you’ll score on the next play in this situation is understandable, so I get why the Steelers ran another play. However, Roethlisberger was called for intentional grounding, backing the ball to the 15 and causing a 10-second runoff. This took the clock down to 23 seconds. From the 15, you can’t assume you’ll score on the next play, so the field goal became much more obvious now. But Tomlin kept going for the touchdown. On the next play Brown caught the pass at the four but couldn’t get out of bounds, which basically ran the clock out. Smith-Shuster scored two plays later, but there was only one second left.
None of this would have mattered if the defense would have held Jacksonville to, let’s say, just 38 points. But you play the hand you are dealt, and Tomlin misread the situation on multiple occasions. At the end of the day, the fact that the Steelers will be watching the AFC Championship Game on television next week rests on his shoulders.