The Steelers coaches made some uncharacteristically bad choices.
With the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals losing this week, the Pittsburgh Steelers had a golden opportunity to gain ground in the division and improve their 2012 playoff prospects. Instead, the team blew a winnable game against a struggling opponent and upped the pressure to beat the surging Bengals in two weeks.
In dropping a game to the lowly San Diego Chargers, whose coaching staff and general manager already have their bags packed, the Steelers continued a disturbing trend of easing off against inferior opponents. The Chargers joined the Raiders, Titans and Browns on the list of terrible teams that have beaten Pittsburgh this year. In hindsight, it is a wonder the Steelers managed to beat the Jets and the Chiefs.
Blowing a game this badly is beyond the ability of just one player. There is plenty of blame to go around for Sunday’s inexplicable loss.
The running backs earned some for failing to gain yards, especially in key short-yardage situations.
The dismal rushing output was also the fault of the offensive line, which consistently failed to drive the Chargers off the ball. The poorly-timed holding penalties that have become the line’s signature move didn’t help either.
Pittsburgh’s wide receivers and defensive backs secured their spots in the doghouse for continuing to drop catchable balls. By bobbling away potential long gains, 2013 free agent Mike Wallace did his part to save some team money next year.
Though all of these certainly contributed to the loss, it is Pittsburgh’s coaching staff that deserves the lion’s share of the opprobrium. Even with all their other problems, the Steelers still could have taken the game if Mike Tomlin and his assistants had brought their A game.
Unfortunately, the Steelers coaches committed two key errors. First, they devised a game plan that did not capitalize on Pittsburgh’s strengths or exploit the Chargers’ vulnerabilities. Second, they played timidly, trying not to lose instead of going for the win. Overly conservative in-game decisions ceded momentum to and emboldened a much weaker team.
Here are five coaching mistakes that cost Pittsburgh a very winnable game.
Jonathan Dwyer struggled to get across the line of scrimmage all day.
Pittsburgh’s pedestrian ground game was clearly not working against the Chargers. But that didn’t stop the coaching staff from sticking with it anyway. And when a team stumbles to 25 yards on 11 carries in the first half, which coaching staff wouldn’t keep pounding the rock?
With coaches committed to a game plan that wasn’t working, it was little wonder the Steelers failed to cross midfield until the closing drive of the half. Not coincidentally, that was one of the few drives on which the offense finally started throwing the ball.
Sadly, Tomlin and his staff should have known better. The Steelers’ rushing “attack” hasn’t exactly been setting the world on fire. Moving the ball on the ground has been difficult all year for a team that ranks 23rd in the NFL in yards per carry.
But it doesn’t take advanced statistics to see how ineffective the Steelers running game is. Everyone who has watched the team play knows it. Everyone except the coaches, apparently, who seemed content to pound Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman into the line for one and two-yard gains against the Chargers.
Even if the Steelers ground game wasn’t such a consistent disappointment, it is unclear why the coaching staff thought the team could run effectively on San Diego. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, the Chargers defense ranks sixth in the league against the run this year. Against the pass, by contrast, San Diego is below average in most statistical categories.
Pitting your team’s weaknesses against the opponent’s strengths isn’t a recipe for success. Unfortunately for the Steelers, their coaches somehow thought this was the best option.
Maybe they were going for the element of surprise?
On Sunday, Big Ben proved he can still play sandlot football.
Even when Pittsburgh did throw the ball, the coaching staff went and played it safe, frequently opting for short passes that failed to stretch San Diego’s defense. This plan proved easy to shut down.
Pittsburgh’s offense is at its best when it takes the restrictor plates off and attacks down the field. Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to extend plays gives the team’s stable of speedy receivers time to get open on intermediate and deep routes.
Unsurprisingly, the Steelers' best drives of the day were the ones in which the coaching staff let Big Ben move around the pocket and find open men down the field. Unfortunately, the majority of those came in the second half after the game had effectively been decided.
To be fair, the short passes can be effective. The team’s speed at wideout can turn short routes into decent gains. But not if every throw is a wide receiver screen or a quick slant. Eventually, the opponent’s defensive backs will play up on the line in anticipation. The coaching staff needed to mix things up to keep the defense guessing. On Sunday, that just didn’t happen.
Were the coaches worried about Big Ben’s mobility or ability to take a hit? Those certainly would have been valid concerns coming into the game.
However, once it became clear that Roethlisberger could slip and dance out of trouble, there was no reason not to attack down the field. Given how effectively Pittsburgh moved the ball in the two-minute drill, switching to a no-huddle offense early in the game might have been a good way to jump-start the moribund offense.
Unfortunately, the coaching staff remained committed to hobbling the Steelers offense until it was too late and the game was out of reach.
Against the Steelers' blitzes, Alexander's touchdown was a matter of time.
Though timid on offense, the Steelers took plenty of chances on defense. Unfortunately, those chances were ill-advised.
Unlike the Steelers’ plan to run the ball on offense, their blitz-happy defensive strategy had some merit coming into the game. Pittsburgh is above-average at generating sacks, and San Diego’s battered offensive line brought back only two starters from the previous week’s game. Exploiting this vulnerability seemed like a good idea.
Like the inept ground game, however, repeatedly rushing Philip Rivers proved ineffective and dangerous. And Pittsburgh’s coaching staff proved equally committed to following another tenet of the game plan that wasn’t working.
After some early struggles, San Diego’s offensive line held up surprisingly well. With Pittsburgh’s front seven unable to put consistent pressure on Rivers, the team’s secondary came under fire from a quarterback who can sling the ball around when given time.
This might not have been a problem in other weeks, given the ability of the Steelers defensive backs to lock down receivers this year. However, with top cornerback Ike Taylor out with an ankle injury, the weakened secondary was not able to stop the Chargers' passing attack.
Rivers repeatedly diagnosed the Steelers’ blitzes and hit receivers on short and intermediate routes outside the numbers. Once Pittsburgh’s cornerbacks started biting on the out patterns, Rivers hit Danario Alexander for a touchdown on a stop-and-go route that left Steelers replacement cornerback Curtis Brown futilely trying to commit pass interference.
Great coaching staffs win games not only by developing effective plans coming into the game, but also by adjusting on the fly when things aren’t working. Unfortunately for the Steelers, Tomlin and his assistants stubbornly stuck with strategies that proved ineffective.
Even Big Ben probably thought Redman on 4th down was a bad idea.
Even when the Steelers did take chances on offense, their coaches somehow managed to do it as timidly as possible.
Tomlin finally made an aggressive call when he decided to go for it on 4th-and-1 near the close of the first half. This was a bold but sensible play.
Various statistical analyses show that going for it on 4th-and-short makes a lot of sense, especially when the risk-reward calculation is favorable. In this case, the risks were low. The ball was in the middle of the field, and the likelihood of gaining one yard on any given play is high.
By contrast, the reward for success was substantial. Had the Steelers converted, they probably would have at least narrowed the Chargers’ lead to seven with a field goal.
More subjectively, the time just seemed right for taking a chance. The team was down 10 and in need of the boost a successful fourth-down conversion would have given.
If only the coaching staff had shown similar boldness in its play selection. Isaac Redman plowed uncreatively into the line for no gain, and the Steelers turned the ball over on downs.
Mike Lombardi of the NFL Network frequently talks about every team having a “two-point conversion” play that it uses when it needs a short-yardage gain in a big spot. Something with a little misdirection. Something that was clicking in practice the week leading up to the game. Something the coaches know will pick up three yards every time.
The end of the first half may have been too early to turn to one of these plays, but was a straight-ahead running play really the best option Pittsburgh’s brain trust could come up with? Especially when those runs had proven particularly ineffective to that point.
If the Steelers coaches were looking to shift momentum, why didn’t they gamble a little? What did they have to lose at that point?
Why not take a shot to Brown down the field on 4th-and-long?
Speaking of gambling when they had nothing to lose, why didn’t the Steelers coaches go for it on 4th-and-17 with about four minutes left?
Punting on 4th-and-long from deep in the Steelers’ own territory with about four minutes remaining probably doesn’t qualify as dumb. It may, however, be unforgivably conservative. In the words of Football Outsiders’ Aaron Schatz, it showed the Pittsburgh coaching staff was “obviously giving up” on the game.
Yes, failing to convert a long attempt from the Steelers’ own 20 would have effectively ended the game. But down 17 points that late in the game, Pittsburgh had already pretty much lost. If the team had any prayer of coming back, the coaching staff needed to gamble big. Making up a deficit that large in four minutes is nearly impossible without taking some risks and having a few lucky breaks.
Unfortunately, the coaching staff opted for a conservative approach designed to lose the game safely. Pittsburgh punted away and ceded the game to San Diego without a fight.
With three games left in the regular season and Cincinnati breathing down their necks, the Steelers need to play boldly and confidently. They need to remember what their strengths and weaknesses are and plan accordingly. They need to take chances and not just play not to lose.
The playoffs are for the strong and aggressive, not the weak and mild. If Tomlin and company keep coaching as timidly as they did against the Chargers, Pittsburgh will be in real danger of spending January at home.