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Mike Tomlin's doomed fake punt reflected his and Steelers' flaws that have damaged playoff hopes

·Senior NFL writer
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There was a time, not that long ago, when the Pittsburgh Steelers were sitting pretty in the AFC North.

Their offensive skill players were rolling, as James Conner went from doing a respectable Le’Veon Bell impression to making people wonder whether he was actually the better running back. And for an extra flourish, the Steelers’ somewhat-maligned defense (in a city where “Blitzburgh” was once coined) was leading the league in sacks.

On Nov. 18, they even rallied back from a 16-point deficit against Jacksonville to improve to 7-2-1 and become a Super Bowl pick among some.

“The bottom line in our business is winning, and we took care of business,” coach Mike Tomlin told reporters after the stunning 20-16 Jacksonville win against the team that knocked them out of the playoffs the previous season.

Mike Tomlin and the Steelers are in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since the 2013 season. (AP)
Mike Tomlin and the Steelers are in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since the 2013 season. (AP)

Slowly though, leaks began to spring in Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl boat, all of it self-inflicted. The Broncos used four turnovers to snap the Steelers’ six-game winning streak in Week 12, and the next week Pittsburgh choked away a 16-point lead at home vs. the Chargers. They followed those setbacks with an embarrassing loss to Oakland in Week 14 without Conner, who has been out with a high ankle sprain since Dec. 2.

After a faith-renewing home win over the New England Patriots last Sunday, the Steelers looked like the rest of the AFC contenders. They’re a flawed group whose strengths — a Super Bowl-winning quarterback with a really nice cast of skill-position players — could carry them to the Super Bowl if they got hot in January, and their Super Bowl-winning head coach’s game management was on point.

The latter point is something folks in Pittsburgh have been stressing on for years, despite the 46-year-old Tomlin’s 132-73-1 career record and Super Bowl title in the 2008 season. His actions in the Steelers’ brutally disappointing 31-28 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday night will only continue to fuel the ire of fans who want to see him go.

Let me be clear — I don’t think Tomlin should be fired. If he were, he’d have three job offers before sundown. He’s a good coach, and sometimes good coaches have tough days. But Tomlin didn’t make it easy on himself with his performance Sunday, and since Tomlin believes football is the ultimate team game, he has to take his share of responsibility for this debilitating loss that currently puts the Steelers outside the playoffs.

Start with his failure to challenge a potential Michael Thomas fumble on a second-quarter drive, one that ended in a Saints touchdown. For those who like to point out that Tomlin has not won a challenge since January 2017, that was easy fodder; as was the decision by his offensive coordinator, Randy Fichtner, to hand the ball to fumble-prone running back Stevan Ridley on a critical third-and-2 in the fourth quarter. Ridley’s lost fumble negated a chance to kick a field goal that would have given the Steelers a seven-point lead.

“It was third down and 2 — we felt like we were in two-down territory,” Tomlin said. “We probably would have gone for it on fourth down had we been unsuccessful and remained in possession of the ball. Calculated risk you take.”

But while giving the ball to Ridley, who had rushed for all of 76 yards this season, should have been a non-starter, the Steelers’ special teams bailed the offense out by blocking the Saints’ ensuing field goal, giving Pittsburgh the ball at its own 37 with a little over six minutes left.

Pittsburgh’s momentum was quickly dashed when Tomlin green-lit an ill-advised fake punt on fourth-and-5 from his own 42-yard line a few plays later.

“Obviously, I chose to go for the fake punt and we were unsuccessful there,” Tomlin said. “I take responsibility for that.”

It wasn’t the worst decision of the NFL season — that honor still belongs to Indianapolis’ Frank Reich, whose decision to go for it on fourth-and-4 from his own 43-yard line with 27 seconds left in overtime in Week 4 against Houston was Marty Mornhinweg-ish (and may yet end up costing the Colts a playoff berth) — but it was bad.

Like, really bad.

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s fumble on the Steelers’ last drive sealed Pittsburgh’s defeat in New Orleans on Sunday. (AP)
JuJu Smith-Schuster’s fumble on the Steelers’ last drive sealed Pittsburgh’s defeat in New Orleans on Sunday. (AP)

“I just wanted to be aggressive,” Tomlin said. “I just wanted to ensure that we had an opportunity to win the game. First of all, I liked the play, the concept. I thought we had a chance to get it. But I thought where the game was, with the time left in the game, if we did not stop them we’d have an opportunity to have the ball last. And we did. But obviously we were unsuccessful, nonetheless.”

I get what Tomlin was trying to do. I even appreciate the aggression, since that often pays off in the NFL. While he was right about the timing of the call — the Steelers indeed got another chance to score afterward — the execution of the play left plenty to be desired, and upon further review, that shouldn’t have been a terrible surprise. Even though the Steelers had a 4-to-3 numbers advantage on the interior (leaving a gap to run through), the place where the play was designed to go depended on 235-pound Tyler Matakevich blocking 300-pound defensive tackle David Onyemata.

Now, you’re never going to believe this, but Onyemata blew up the play. And when combined with the impressive awareness of 234-pound linebacker Craig Robertson — who squeezed the gap by bulling back 255-pound blocker Anthony Chickillo — that’s all the Saints needed to hold Steelers fullback Roosevelt Nix to a modest 4-yard gain instead of the game-changing chunk play Tomlin envisioned.

Coaches are supposed to know the personnel on the field. Onyemata is strong and Robertson is a smart player; this is no secret. On fourth-and-2, yeah, you can eke out a fake in their gap with the numbers advantage. Fourth-and-3? Maybe. Asking for 5 yards in that situation from Nix — a blocking specialist (albeit a really good one) who has zero career NFL rushing yards in four seasons — against a front that featured a defender with a 65-pound weight advantage sure seems like it would be doomed on the surface.

If the Steelers were going to be bold and go for it there, then they should’ve WENT for it. Like with Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster on the field. They should’ve have been cute with the uncertain fake on fourth-and-5.

But even still, like Tomlin said, the Steelers had a chance to win. After Drew Brees predictably led the Saints on the go-ahead scoring drive — which was extended by a soul-sucking (and controversial) pass-interference call on Joe Haden after a fourth-and-2 incompletion to Thomas — Roethlisberger got the ball back down three with a minute and 25 seconds left, which is more than enough time to score in today’s NFL.

The error-prone Steelers couldn’t force overtime, as Schuster, the typically outstanding receiver, fumbled at the Saints’ 35-yard line with 32 seconds left to play. It was a brutal finish for Smith-Schuster, who has had a hell of a season, but a fitting end for a team whose flaws (turnovers, lack of focus, injuries and yes, game management) have been lethal over the past month. Pittsburgh has lost four of its past five games and are on the verge of choking away the AFC North title.

Yet, the Steelers still have life. Pittsburgh can still make the playoffs with a win over Cincinnati and a Baltimore loss to Cleveland, and it’s not impossible to see that happening next week.

After the game, Tomlin did his typical Tomlin thing — he’s always been good at leading the men in the room, and it’s hard to believe his message to the media was disingenuous afterward — of not feeling sorry for himself and the Steelers, of focusing on the task at hand despite the disappointment.

“We made the bed, we’ll lay in it,” Tomlin said, when asked about the Steelers no longer being in control of their playoff hopes. “I’ll expect us to lay in it very well and perform. We’ll control what it is we can control, and that’s our preparation and play next week. All other things out of our control, we won’t worry very much about.”

That’s a good philosophy, one a winner should have. Things change fast in the NFL, and I have zero doubt Tomlin’s statement also applies to how he would handle any of the “hot seat” talk that’s bound to be thrown around after his latest loss, especially if the Steelers end up missing the playoffs. And provided he returns in 2019, it would be wise for he and many other Steelers to take it to heart next year, too.

For Tomlin, that probably starts with managing games better — or at the very least, winning some challenges so there’s tangible proof of such. For general manager Kevin Colbert, that means upgrading the roster at key spots. For the players, that means staying focused against subpar teams like Oakland and Denver.

Otherwise, the proud Pittsburgh Steelers, the franchise that leads the NFL in Super Bowl titles with six, could end next season in the very same spot they’ll possibly end this year: out of the playoffs, with an increasingly vocal portion of fans calling for their head coach’s job.

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