The Verdict: Steelers Coaches Failing in Critical Situations

Joseph SirimarcoContributor IDecember 2, 2009

Well, concerning our beloved Pittsburgh Steelers I think that we can honestly say (with apologies to Oliver Hardy), "That's another fine mess you've gotten yourselves into."

But don't blame Dennis Dixon for the loss to the Ravens.  He played as well as could be expected given the circumstances, maybe even better.  Yes, he made one big mistake, and some would-have-been-disastrous near misses.  But admit it, he played far better than any of us expected.

Nor should we blame the players exclusively.  Yes, execution is important (obviously), but so are strategy and tactics. The perfect execution of a bad play-call will still result in failure.

On Monday, the coaches, on offense, defense, and special teams, failed the team in critical situations.  And this is not a problem that was confined to the Ravens game.

The coaches have been failing the team in critical situations all season.


Situation:  Late in the fourth quarter against the Ravens, about 1:35 remaining in regulation, 3rd-and-13 to go, two timeouts remaining.  The offense lines up in shotgun formation and runs an inside handoff to Mewelde Moore on a sweep wide to the left, gaining two, maybe three yards.

Why run this play?  There was little or no chance that this play was going to work well enough to get the first down.  It appears that Arians conceded a tie game at the end of regulation. 

On that "drive,” the offense went three plays and out, using only 22 seconds and leaving the Ravens with 1:29 to try to win the game (which they almost did). Arians didn't even try to get the offense into position for a field goal attempt.

Why?  Why would you not give your offense every chance to win the game?

(And, by the way, the same thing could be said about the end of the first half, when Arians chose not to try to get the team into field goal range.)

Situation:  Overtime, 2nd-and-10 to go. Dixon throws 25+ yards downfield, even though Heath Miller is open five or six yards to the right, with at least 15 yards of open field ahead of him (because all other receivers and their defenders were far downfield).

Why didn't Dixon throw to Heath?  He could have, but he’s an inexperienced quarterback so this isn't surprising. An inexperienced quarterback is more likely to try to execute the primary play rather than to check down to a secondary option. 

This makes me think that the primary play was to Mike Wallace or another receiver 20-40 yards downfield.

Then, on 3rd-and-10, another pass 25+ yards downfield is called.

Why?  Why would anyone in their right mind call for two shots that far downfield when what is really needed is ball control and a sustained drive to achieve the best field position possible while at the same time keeping the opponent's offense off of the field?

In the same situation in the second Cincinnati game, Arians used the exact same strategy and it failed. Arians even admitted later that it was probably a mistake. 

What possible reason could he have to believe that such a strategy would have any better chance of succeeding when it failed previously with the first string quarterback going against a worse defense? Arians apparently does not learn from his mistakes.

I thought that, for the most part, Arians called a decent game against the Ravens, considering the situation the team faced.  However, in critical situations where astute thinking was needed, Arians failed again.  This failure was not limited to only this game, it has occurred time and again all season.

Last season, in critical situations when Ben took command of the offense, the team succeeded more than it failed and against a much tougher schedule.  When Arians retained command, the team faltered in critical situations more often than it succeeded.

I can only conclude, once again, that Arians fails the team when he is needed the most.


Lest anyone accuse me of bias against Arians and the offense (although, truth be told, I probably am), Dick Lebeau and the defense are not immune to blame, either.

In four of the five Steelers' losses, the Steelers were leading in the fourth quarter, but the defense could not hold the lead. Often the defense used soft pass coverage or minimal pressure on the quarterback in an attempt to prevent the big play, only to have the opposing offense beat them with a gaggle of little plays.

And, of course, sometimes they gave up the big play anyway.

In the recent Monday night game between New Orleans and New England, the New Orleans defense blitzed all-out very often, bringing as much pressure on Tom Brady as possible.  This usually required single man-to-man coverage by the secondary, but it worked rather well. 

New England had receivers open much of the time, but Brady didn't have the time to get the ball to them.

Why didn't the Steelers do this more often against the Ravens?  Flacco had an injured ankle that reduced his maneuverability, and he is not an exceptionally mobile quarterback anyway.  Yet the Steelers didn't bring the pressure in critical situations, even after it proved to be successful when it was used. 

Situation:  Fourth quarter, about 3:40 remaining, Ravens with possession, 3rd-and-22 to go.  All the defense needs to do is keep the Ravens from getting enough yards to consider going for it on fourth down. Stop the Ravens here and the game is probably over.

The defense had been blitzing Flacco in the second half, sacking him several times and causing him to throw the ball hastily several more times that resulted in incomplete passes.

Did the defense blitz? No. Three players rushed the quarterback, generating absolutely no pressure.

Did the defensive backs play tight on the receivers, or even anywhere near the receivers?  No. The linebackers and cornerbacks were 10 to 12 yards away from the line of scrimmage, and the safeties were far downfield.

Why? Why not blitz a linebacker or two to pressure Flacco? That tactic was working, why not continue it?  Why give the receivers room to run wherever they want to run?  Why not play close to them and hit them at the line of scrimmage to delay or alter their pass routes?

Situation:  On the very next play, 4th-and-5 to go, 3:31 remaining.  Stop the Ravens here and the game is definitely over.

We all know what happened next.  Ravens running back Ray Rice goes in motion to James Farrior's side of the field, turns upfield at the snap, cuts inside and catches a quick pass directly in front of Farrior, then causes Farrior to lose his jock strap and everything else on the way to 44-yard gain that gave the Ravens the opportunity to kick the game-tying field goal.

Cincinnati used the exact same play in the first game against the Steelers in nearly the same situation.  Farrior got beat, Cincinnati continued their possession and scored the winning touchdown shortly thereafter.

Farrior has been beaten time and time again in similar passing situations all season.  He never was a great pass defender and with pass-catching machine Ray Rice on the field, could anybody even think that Farrior could cover him or anybody else?

Why was Farrior even on the field in that situation?  Why is James Farrior EVER on the field in such passing situations?

At the most critical times, when the defense needed to be tough and aggressive, they were soft and passive.  This has happened before.  The first game against Cincinnati, the defensive screw-ups in late in the fourth quarter and in overtime against Kansas City, and probably other times as well.

Lebeau failed the team when he was needed most. And how it hurts me to say that, because I'm a huge Dick Lebeau fan.

Special teams

There is no need to say much about this.  The failures are self-evident and well documented.  Mike Tomlin has changed personnel (a panic move, in my opinion), but the performance still has not been all that good.  The performance against the Ravens was not disastrous as in other games, but it was still below par, even after taking Baltimore penalties into account.

Something has changed since last season.  The Steelers' special teams were the best in the league last year.  They started this season with the same personnel as last season, except for Anthony Madison, yet the performance has been absolutely atrocious.

Tomlin could hire an entire team's worth of Steve Taskers for his special teams, and they would still be bad.  (For those of you who don't know who Steve Tasker is, he happens to be one of this year's finalists for the NFL Hall of Fame, in the special teams category).

As I noted in a previous article, in three of the past four seasons Bob Ligashesky-coached special teams have been near the bottom of the NFL for performance.  This is not a personnel problem.  This is a coaching problem.

Ligashesky has failed the team when he was needed most.


All too often the coaches have made ill-advised decisions in critical situations this season. They have taken unnecessary risks when unwarranted, and haven't taken risks when reasonable to do so. 

They have failed to take full advantage of their players' abilities or to use strategy or tactics that are normal but would be unexpected by opponents.  They have failed to exploit weaknesses in opponents that other teams have successfully exploited.

With teams such as Detroit or St. Louis that don't have all that much talent, you can blame the players. With teams such as the New York Jets that have talent but are inexperienced, you can blame the players.

But not with the Pittsburgh Steelers.  They have a lot of talent and a lot of experience. It is up to the coaches to use it properly, and they are failing to do so when needed most.


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