The Steelers went into Sunday’s game against the Jaguars favored by a touchdown. And they were confident, maybe a little too confident, trash talking the Jaguars before the game and fixated on an assumed rematch with the Patriots in the AFC Championship.
Instead, the Steelers were wholly unprepared for a Jaguars team that already beat them once this season. They lost again, 45-42, but the toughest part of this for the Steelers and their fans has to be how they lost.
Despite spotting the Jaguars a 21-0 lead, Pittsburgh STILL had chances to win. Over and over again, right down to the game’s final two minutes, the Steelers failed at situational football.
Mike Tomlin called one of the worst playoff games in recent history (apologies to Andy Reid). Nevertheless, he said after the game that he “stands by the calls we made.” He probably shouldn’t.
Here’s how the Steelers coached their way out of a win.
The Steelers booted their chance at a comeback with an ill-advised onside kick.
The Steelers had a chance to beat the Jaguars with the clock ticking toward zero in the fourth quarter. With less than three minutes to play, Pittsburgh closed the gap to trail by a touchdown, 42-35, with maybe the most important play of the game to that point — a heads-up lateral from Ben Roethlisberger to Le’Veon Bell for a touchdown.
A series of bad coaching decisions, highlighted by a poorly timed and badly executed onside kick, undid their work and squandered whatever chance they had left to win it.
With two timeouts and 2:19 left to play, the Steelers opted to go for an onside kick. It didn’t work:
The ball barely traveled 4 yards, and the Jaguars recovered on the Steelers’ 41-yard line. An illegal touching penalty on the Steelers added insult to injury and put the Jags on Pittsburgh’s 36. The Jags turned it into a field goal and a 10-point lead.
Pittsburgh really couldn’t afford to risk giving the Jags the ball back nearly in field goal range. They could have pinned the Jaguars deep instead and had a better chance at a stop with two timeouts left and the two-minute warning to stop the clock.
Tomlin defended the kick after the game by saying he didn’t trust his defense to do its job.
“We wanted to get the ball back,” Tomlin said. “We hadn’t stopped them convincingly enough to take any other approach in my opinion. And it was my decision.”
Game management did not get better from here on out. On the Jaguars’ ensuing drive, the Steelers defense actually held them to a three-and-out, but they were able to kick the field goal on fourth down because of the field position Pittsburgh surrendered via the onside kick attempt.
The Steelers got the ball back with 1:45 remaining and no timeouts.
They started at their own 25 and trailing by two scores, but Pittsburgh drove all the way down to the Jaguars’ 5-yard line and were poised to punch it in with 47 seconds left. Then Roethlisberger got flagged for intentional grounding. The resulting 10-second runoff took the clock down to 32 seconds.
On second-and-goal from the Jags’ 15, Roethlisberger connected with Antonio Brown for 11 yards. But Brown stayed in bounds. The clock kept ticking, down to six seconds left, and there was nothing the Steelers could do to stop it.
Roethlisberger got the Steelers a score on a 4-yard pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster, but with just one second left on the clock, it was too late.
They could have just kicked a field goal on first down from the 5-yard line, then gone for an onside kick — which would have made more sense trailing by seven points with about 45 seconds left to play. They would have actually had a shot to win, albeit a slim one.
That was how the Steelers ended the game, flushed by a series of bad coaching decisions. Fitting. Questionable play calls plagued the Steelers all day.
Yes, the Steelers really did call for a toss sweep on fourth-and-inches.
Facing a fourth-and-inches on the Jaguars’ 22-yard line with just over a minute left in the first quarter, the Steelers dialed up a dubious play.
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley called a toss sweep to the right for Le’Veon Bell. Roethlisberger pitched it to Bell in the backfield, and Bell tried to find a seam, but the Jaguars defense saw this one coming a mile away and left him no room. He lost 4 yards.
Turning it over on downs with that field position isn’t the end of the world, especially in the first quarter. But the Steelers were trailing 14-0 and couldn’t afford to leave those points on the field:
You’d think Haley would have learned his lesson about trying this play on fourth-and-short in the playoffs after the 2010 season. The Chiefs ran an identical play in a 30-7 wild card loss to the Ravens when Haley was the head coach in Kansas City:
Todd Haley: calling toss sweeps on fourth and short in the playoffs for nearly a decade now. pic.twitter.com/d8OTFHF0Cd— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) January 14, 2018
That wasn’t the only WTF moment from the Steelers on fourth-and-short.
Ben Roethlisberger is massive, at 6’5 and 241 pounds. That’s plenty big enough to get some momentum to convert fourth-and-inches. For his career, he’s converted 18 of 19 QB sneaks on fourth-and-1, according to ESPN Stats and Info.
But when the Steelers found themselves in that situation with 12:50 left to play, that’s not at all what they did.
Roethlisberger faked the handoff to Le’Veon Bell, then went deep to JuJu Smith-Schuster. A.J. Bouye broke it up, and the Steelers turned it over on downs for the second time in the game:
It’s possible that this wasn’t Haley’s call:
Yea Fouts, that was on Big Ben. He changed the play. I'm not sure he's wrong either. They were outnumbered in the box.— Geoff Schwartz (@geoffschwartz) January 14, 2018
But maybe it was:
Steelers changed personnel right before the 4th down play. During chain measurement, FB Nix ran on the field and Antonio Brown off. Then after the measurement, Brown went back in and Nix out. Makes me think it wasn't a Ben audible.— Dan Graziano (@DanGrazianoESPN) January 14, 2018
Roethlisberger didn’t seem thrilled with it either way:
Guess we know what Ben thought of that 4th down call pic.twitter.com/YtOGj6gvQu— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) January 14, 2018
Screen passes are a bad idea against the Jaguars.
The Jaguars defense consistently sniffed out the screens Pittsburgh tried to run. The Jags have too much speed on that side of the ball to fall prey to the screen.
The Steelers had a second-and-10 on their own 25-yard line with 10:36 left in the first quarter. The call was a screen to JuJu Smith-Schuster, who gained 2 yards on the play:
That gave Pittsburgh a third-and-8 while trailing 7-0. Roethlisberger threw short of the sticks on the next play, and the Steelers had to punt.
That didn’t keep them from going back to the screen with 1:31 left in the second quarter with similar results. It was first-and-10, and the Steelers were down 28-7. The call was a screen to Smith-Schuster again, and he had nowhere to go:
Smith-Schuster lost a yard. Roethlisberger was sacked on the next down for a loss of 4 yards. On yet another questionable play call, Roethlisberger threw it well short of the sticks on third-and-15 on the next play. Antonio Brown caught that for a 4-yard gain. Luckily for the Steelers, Haley tried something different on fourth down.
They should have just gone deep on every fourth down.
Big Ben bailed out the Steelers with a deep touchdown pass on fourth down to Martavis Bryant. It closed the gap a little, and the Steelers went into the half trailing 28-14:
The Steelers went deep on fourth down again in the fourth quarter. They were facing a fourth-and-5 down 35-21 with 9:05 left in the game. If you’re going to risk going deep here, it helps to have the best receiver in the game on your side:
Brown hauled in the 43-yard catch to shrink the Jaguars’ lead to 35-28. The deep pass isn’t always a solid option on fourth down, but it’s about the only thing that worked for Pittsburgh on Sunday.
It’s going to be a long offseason in Pittsburgh. Maybe Tomlin and his coaching staff will use those months to reflect on situational football.