Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley would have been hard-pressed to script a better opening to the team’s first game of the season, matriculating the ball down the field effortlessly to begin the game with five straight positive plays.
It began with an 18-yard run on a smooth cutback by DeAngelo Williams, followed by a nine-yard reception on a screen pass to Antonio Brown. After a four-yard carry by Williams to convert for a first down, Ben Roethlisberger found his tight end on a run-pass option for 14 yards.
Alternating between the ground and the air, it was Williams to get the call again, ripping off, this time, an 11-yard carry around right guard. Five plays, four first downs, set up on New England’s 24-yard line. Haley was just where he wanted to be.
But then he defied his own logic by deviating from what was working with very positive results, resorting to gadgetry and introducing an unnecessary level of risk in the process.
On first and 10 from just outside the cusp of the red zone, the Steelers ran a gadget play that put the ball in the hands of Brown on a backward pass, who then looked in the direction of Williams before ultimately eating the ball and taking an eight-yard sack.
After five straight positive plays from their own 20-yard line to the Patriots’ 24, 56 yards later, the Steelers were hit with a negative splash play that pushed them back to the 32 and in a second down and 18 scenario.
Predictably, the Steelers ended up not scoring. After a holding call on second down, a run of six yards and a reception of 10 gave Josh Scobee an opportunity for a 44-yard field goal, which he missed, poorly, wide right.
There is plenty of blame to go around for the Steelers not scoring on this drive. Most immediately, Scobee deserves blame because he failed to convert what should have been a reasonably makeable field goal. Brown deserves blame for taking the sack.
But Haley should be blaming himself more than anybody based on his previous comments earlier this offseason, in which he stressed his belief that the Steelers should come away with at least three points every time that they reach that deep into opponents’ territory.
A key component of that, which Haley talked about, was in not taking negative plays, and minimizing the risk of negative plays, and for that, the fourth-year Steelers offensive coordinator is most certainly culpable, not just from deviating from what was already working flawlessly, but from introducing unnecessary risk when the situation begged for the exact opposite.
Make no mistake, of course: there will always be room for gadgetry in the game of football, and in the Steelers’ offense. But this was surely not the time to introduce that element into the game, an assumption that can be safely made regardless of the ultimate outcome of the play.
Haley himself talked about not beating yourself in that part of the field, and how decision to call that play resulted in just that. Perhaps it didn’t decide the outcome of the game, but is certainly changed the tone in a hurry.