It’s going to be a long offseason in Pittsburgh.
There was plenty of blame to go around after the Pittsburgh Steelers were upset 45-42 by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs. A team that was considered one of the favorites to win a Super Bowl couldn’t even win one home playoff game.
Steelers fans have a long time to relive this one, and they’ll probably settle on a few easy-to-blame plays, decisions and moments from a stunning loss:
Todd Haley and those fourth-and-1 calls
When you lose by three points, two failures on fourth-and-1 loom large. And both were fairly ridiculous play calls. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley was criticized plenty for both.
The Steelers list Ben Roethlisberger at 240 pounds, and that might be on the light side. Either way, it would make sense to have him push the pile forward for a few feet on fourth-and-1. That’s not what happened. The first fourth-and-1, the Steelers pitched wide to Le’Veon Bell. That’s not a smart call against a lightning-fast Jaguars defense. Bell was dropped for a loss. The second one came in the fourth quarter. The Steelers passed downfield on fourth and a yard, and it was broken up.
The fourth downs will get a lot of run in Pittsburgh. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin didn’t have a problem with either call.
“I’m comfortable with what we called,” Tomlin said, according to Aditi Kinkhabwala of NFL Network.
The fourth-down misses won’t turn down the heat on Haley, who might have already been on the hot seat. Tomlin will also face his share of blame, for the various breakdowns Sunday. And Roethlisberger, as he does sometimes, put Haley right in the middle of the storm with his postgame comments.
Is Ben Roethlisberger willing to run a QB sneak? "I'm for it."
And the reason that one wasn't called on either of the #Steelers' fourth-and-a-foots? "That's over my head."
Reminder: Roethlisberger is 18-of-19 when running on fourth down in his career.
— Aditi Kinkhabwala (@AKinkhabwala) January 14, 2018
Keith Butler and the defense
The Steelers played well defensively early in the season, and struggled at the end. Some of that was due to the horrible injury to linebacker Ryan Shazier. You can’t blame Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler for that. But still, 45 points to the Jaguars?
Even considering that one touchdown came off a defensive fumble recovery and another was on a short field after Myles Jack’s interception, it was a rough day for Pittsburgh’s defense. The Jaguars could barely move the ball last week, and were lucky to score 10 points against the Buffalo Bills. They had no trouble scoring against the Steelers. Blake Bortles had 214 passing yards and hit some big throws. Leonard Fournette had 109 yards rushing and three touchdowns. The 45 points allowed was tied for the most the Steelers have surrendered in the playoffs. Once they allowed 45 to Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins, and now they have also allowed 45 to Bortles and the Jaguars.
Butler was in a tough spot when the Steelers and Dick LeBeau, a legendary defensive coordinator, parted ways after the 2014 season. Those were big shoes to fill, and he had to produce immediate success. Allowing the Jaguars and their suspect offense to come in and make play after play in an upset playoff loss won’t help.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin made a point during the season to reference the regular-season meeting against the New England Patriots long before the Steelers played that game. Those comments set a tone that might have carried through the playoffs. Check out Le’Veon Bell’s tweet on Saturday:
I love round 2’s…we’ll have two round 2’s in back to back weeks…
— Le'Veon Bell (@L_Bell26) January 14, 2018
Bell was clearly assuming a Round 2 against the Patriots before they, you know, beat a good Jaguars team. There was also a quote from Steelers safety Mike Mitchell, in a story by Greg Bishop at The MMQB. It seems to have been said last month, but it still shows where the Steelers’ minds were at (and the Jaguars kindly reminded Pittsburgh of it).
Mike Mitchell on a potential rematch with the Patriots in the AFC Championship. pic.twitter.com/M4Pf8qWknU
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 10, 2018
— z-#Sacksonville (@Jaguars) January 14, 2018
Clearly, the Patriots were on the Steelers’ mind all season. It’s fair to wonder if they overlooked the Jaguars, even after the Jaguars had already blasted them once in the regular season.
Ben’s two mistakes
Ben Roethslisberger made some tremendous plays against a very good defense. He also made two mistakes that led directly to 14 Jaguars points.
With the Steelers trailing 7-0, Roethlisberger threw late to tight end Vance McDonald and it was picked off by linebacker Myles Jack. It was a nice play by Jack, but a huge mistake. The Jaguars took over on the Steelers’ 18-yard line, and Leonard Fournette scored a touchdown right afterward.
Later in the half, with the Steelers down 21-7, another Roethlisberger turnover really set Pittsburgh back. Roethlisberger held the ball in the pocket too long, and was eventually hit and fumbled. Telvin Smith scooped it and scored. The offensive line gave him some time, and Roethlisberger had to get the ball out.
Quarterbacks, even great ones, throw interceptions. Roethlisberger has held the ball in the pocket for a long time his entire career. And without Roethlisberger, the Steelers would haven’t made it as far as they did and they would have had zero chance on Sunday. Still, you can’t have a discussion about a three-point playoff loss without mentioning two enormous mistakes by Roethlisberger.
The onside kick
It wasn’t crazy for the Steelers to kick an onside with a little more than two minutes left. But it looked really bad after what happened next.
The Steelers didn’t recover. They got a stop without giving up a first down. But because they had kicked an onside, the Jaguars lined up on fourth-and-1 and kicked a 45-yard field goal. That particularly stung when the Steelers scored with one second left to cut the Jaguars’ lead to three points.
Maybe the Steelers wouldn’t have been able to drive as easily trailing by a touchdown instead of 10 points, but the decision to kick the onside (and some time management issues after that) will certainly be questioned.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin clearly didn’t have his best day.
“We wanted to get the ball back. We hadn’t stopped them convincingly enough to take any other approach,” Tomlin said after the game, according to NFL Network’s Aditi Kinkhabwala.
That comment goes back to the way the defense collapsed, which starts the vicious cycle of complaining in Pittsburgh again.
Yes, again, the Jesse James catch rule play
It turns out the biggest part of Jesse James’ touchdown being reversed on the controversial catch rule against the Patriots in Week 15 wasn’t that it decided home-field advantage in the AFC championship game. It was that the Patriots got to avoid the Jaguars for another week.
Had the Steelers won that Week 15 game over the Patriots, they would have been the No. 1 seed. And they would have played a mediocre Tennessee Titans team in the divisional round. Instead, the Patriots rolled the Titans and the Steelers got knocked out by the Jaguars. The events at the end of that game changed the entire AFC playoff picture, and not in the way we all figured it would.
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