Let me preface this article by saying that I am not calling for Mike Tomlin’s job. I don’t want his head on a platter, and I don’t think he’s the worst coach in football. He has issues, like every head coach, issues that need to improve and change if Pittsburgh is ever going to reach their full potential and contend for a Super Bowl title. It were these issues that buried Tomlin on Sunday, a day that could easily have seen Pittsburgh move to 7-4 if not for three miserable head coaching decisions.
The first major gaffe of the day by Tomlin was the Pittsburgh fake field goal attempt to begin the second quarter. You probably are well-aware of the situation, the Steelers up 3-0 facing a 4th-and-2 from the Seattle 27. Kicking the field goal is probably the smart decision, but Tomlin first elects to leave his offense on the field to attempt to get the defense to go offsides. Or did he?
It appears that Ben Roethlisberger and the offense are actually going to go for this fourth down per Tomlin’s orders, but the first quarter expires before they can get the play off. You can clearly see how long it takes the players to realize why the officials have stopped the game, as it appears no offensive player realized the first quarter clock was winding down. Roethlisberger even runs off the field clapping, as if the extra time during the commercial break would now give Pittsburgh the perfect opportunity to set up an optimal fourth down play. Boy, did it ever.
Out of the break, Tomlin sends out the field goal unit, but with one rather noticeable change. Landry Jones, not punter Jordan Berry, is in the game as the holder. There are so many things wrong with this decision, it is tough to know where to begin. First, if you want to go for it, fine. Tomlin had clearly decided to do so to end the first quarter by leaving his offense on the field, but now you send out the field goal unit for a fake? The defense is already thinking Tomlin is inclined to go for this based on the Steelers tendencies this season, and that fact he just had his offense out there. Given the fact that the opposing unit is alerted to a fake, how can you pull something so obvious as sending out your backup quarterback as the holder? Did Tomlin really think an NFL team would not notice that?
Second, if you’re going to send out someone other than the original holder, why not just send Roethlisberger out? Or, most importantly, why not keep one of the best offenses in football out on the field to go for it, rather than calling for a throwback pass from your backup quarterback to your starting left tackle. Shameful decision that resulted in a turnover on Jones’ terrible throw, and an ensuing Seattle touchdown. Game-changing decision that gave life to an offense held scoreless in the first quarter of the game.
The second major error of the day for Tomlin came with the Steelers facing 4th-and-goal from the Seattle three-yard line with three minutes remaining, trailing 32-27.
Before I get into why kicking it here is a terrible decision, let’s address the field goal attempt itself. Roethlisberger is tackled short of the goal line with 3:35 remaining, yet Boswell’s field goal doesn’t sail through the uprights until the clock reads 3:00. If you have decided you are going to kick it if you don’t score on third down, that field goal team needs to be ready to sprint out onto the field, line up, and nail a chip shot. It’s a 22-yard attempt, not a 50-something yard try. That unit needs to be ready to go quickly to preserve another 15 seconds or more. Instead they take forever, running the play clock all the way down to seven seconds before Chris Boswell bangs in the triple. That’s probably on special teams coach Danny Smith as well as Tomlin, but still inexcusable clock management down the stretch.
But more importantly, there are three minutes left in this game! Your defense has been shredded all day, why in the world would you want the game in their hands? One first down essentially ends the game for Seattle (Pittsburgh could theoretically get the ball back with very little time remaining), and either way Pittsburgh will have no timeouts to work with if they do get the ball back.
For a coach who preaches that he won’t live in his fears, this decision revealed the hypocrisy behind that statement. You have to practice what you preach with must-win games on the line, and trust your star-studded offense to make the play to win the game.
Even if you don’t score on fourth down, you’ve got Seattle pinned deep in their own territory and you’ve saved time in the process. Force a three-and-out, which is what you need anyway, and your offense has a short field to travel for the game-winning touchdown. There really is no downside to going for it, which is why I didn’t even consider this a decision, that’s how obvious the choice was. Despite what he preaches, Tomlin played not to lose and got burnt for it.
The third decision, one that has plagued Pittsburgh all season long, is Tomlin’s continued insistence on playing Antwon Blake while sitting Brandon Boykin. Blake, who has been the most targeted cornerback in football and given up the most yardage in coverage per PFF, missed six tackles and was consistently roasted in coverage by Seattle receivers all day. The cornerback has struggled mightily when he’s healthy, yet now is clearly playing so injured he can’t even make simple tackles.
How in the world Tomlin believes a healthy Blake is a better option than Boykin is beyond me, but watching the former running around on Sunday trying to tackle without his arms was humiliating. How a professional coaching staff can’t see Blake’s multitude of failures on tape and refuse to sit him for one of the top slot corners in the NFL for years now is truly head-scratching. Of course, we’ve been saying this for weeks, yet Tomlin has refused to make a change. Sunday it caught up with him, as Blake was torched one final time by Doug Baldwin on 3rd down, even missing the tackle as the receiver scooted 80 yards for the game-sealing score.
The definition of insanity is to continue to do the same thing and expect different results. For Tomlin, the refusal to do away with silly trick plays, the inability to trust his offense (and, in essence his defense) with the game on the line, and his stubborn insistence on starting the worst cornerback in football this season cost Pittsburgh a much-needed victory on Sunday. Tomlin’s biggest weakness as a head coach has long been his inability to accept when he’s wrong and work to correct his mistakes. We see it with clock management, we see it with needles risky play calls, we see it with bizarre personnel usage, we see it with continued losses to .500 or worse teams year-after-year. If Pittsburgh is to compete for a Super Bowl title again in a weak AFC, Tomlin needs to look in the mirror and make some serious changes to his coaching, or the Steelers will continue to be listed as an “also-ran” for years to come.