The Pittsburgh Steelers at 6-5 are far from their prime as they head into a prime time showdown on Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts.
At stake is nothing short of their playoff aspirations for the 2015 season. As it is, following their 39-30 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, the team is most likely relegated to couch watching in the post season along with their increasingly frustrated fan base.
This is the time of the year when Mike Tomlin traditionally does his best coaching and he’ll need to pull quite a few rabbits out of his hat once again in order to quay the unrest of those who feel the Steelers have been mostly underperforming for several years.
So will it be another miserable Monday…or will there be joy again in the Burgh? For this discussion and more, here are your Rapid Fire Conclusions:
After reaffirming to a sideline reporter he “doesn’t live in his fears” Tomlin went on to make one of the most fearful decisions in his coaching history against the Seattle Seahawks. Trailing by five points with just over three minutes left in the game he sent out his field goal unit out rather than giving his prolific offense a chance to win the game. This is one of many decisions this season in terms of play calls and personnel decisions that leaves fans scratching their heads. When asked what logic goes into his decision making Tomlin often replies that he “relies on his gut”.
What we’ve discovered after closely examining the game tape is the word “gut” is actually code for Tomlin’s Magic 8-Ball which he stores right next to his challenge flag. Through the use of a frame by frame analysis and based on corroborated eyewitness reports we were able to piece together exactly what happened during Tomlin’s fateful decision last Sunday:
Tomlin asks Magic 8-Ball: “Should I go for the touchdown?”
Shakes Magic 8-Ball
Answer: Reply hazy, try again.
Tomlin: “Come on.” Glances nervously up at play clock. Shakes Magic 8-Ball.
Answer: Ask again later.
Special Teams Coach Danny Smith between chews of gum: “Mike?”
Tomlin shakes and pounds Magic 8-Ball furiously.
Answer: Concentrate and ask again.
Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley: “Coach. Am I calling a play?”
Tomlin throws Magic 8-Ball on turf: “Noooo!”
Danny Smith exchanges glance with Haley. “Okay Boswell…you’re on.”
But Seriously Folks
All kidding aside…this has not been Mike Tomlin’s greatest year to date. Sure you can talk about injuries and suspensions to the team, but these are similar challenges faced by all 32 squads. There are at least 25 head coaches in the league who would be willing to swap talent with Tomlin in a heartbeat. And this would probably include Coach Bill Belichick who despite his love for Rob Gronkowski and Tom Brady would jump at the chance to swap offenses lead by a franchise quarterback who is five years younger than his current superstar. But what about that defense? The Steelers front seven is solid if not spectacular and Belichick once repaired his secondary by having one of his receivers play cornerback. Still…Mike Tomlin remains potentially a top ten coaching talent in this league. Is he just in a slump? Or is the magic slipping away? Here’s to hoping he rediscovers his game and starts putting some good coaching decisions on tape.
Coach of the Year
But not all Steelers coaches are missing the mark. You lose your former All-Pro center. Then your left tackle, many who considered a top five talent. So what do you do? You coach ‘em up. Offensive line coach Mike Munchak? The offensive line? Definitely above the line. He’s shaped once-disappointing Marcus Gilbert into a pro-bowl caliber player. He’s made back-up Cody Wallace more than serviceable and constantly improving. And he had virtual rookie Alejandro Villanueva prepared so well the big man has stepped into the starting role without the line missing much of a beat. What about Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley? Injuries hit his squad much harder than the defense. Still he’s cranked out the yards in impressive fashion. Questionable calls at time? Sure. Wish he’d be able to score more points? Yes. But Haley’s performance ranks as one of the best in the league in his role.
First and Goal
So why aren’t the Steelers blowing out their opposition? It’s because of Ben Roethlisberger’s career long struggles with punching the ball into the end zone when he gets the chance. Everyone points to Tomlin’s strange call when he chose going for a field goal over a touchdown. But what is forgotten is what happened on the prior three plays. With first and goal, Roethlisberger had three plays to go ten yards in order to put his team ahead. For a team that racked up over 500 yards that day, it should have been a breeze. Instead, Big Ben threw two incompletions before falling short on a run for the goal line on third down. For this team to carry its indefensible defense, its offense, and Roethlisberger in particular, are going to need to convert opportunities into points at a much higher level.
With Ben Rothlisberger in concussion protocol and having suffered two major injuries this season already, the hopes for a playoff run are on shaky ground. Especially since Landry Jones has been playing more like…the Landry Jones we expected. After his initial strong performance in relieving Roethlisberger earlier this season, Jones has been hurtling downward. His interception in the ill-fated fake field goal against the Seahawks was as poor as it gets in both decision making and execution. He now has 3 touchdowns and 4 interceptions on the season with his quarterback rating sinking to 77.3 after initially being in the mid-100’s. One more injury to Big Ben and the players can start polishing up their golf clubs.
Just a few weeks ago, the Steelers defense seemed to be turning a corner with Robert Golden getting the start at safety and with Steve McLendon and Daniel McCullers getting healthy rotations in the front line. Since that time, Golden went to the bench and McCullers is now getting less snaps than Cam Thomas. The mystery of mysteries is why with one of the worst secondaries in the league the Steelers don’t provide playing opportunities for Brandon Boykin, Doran Grant…and yes…even the whoops-was-that-a-punt-returner Shamarko Thomas. Why not? How could it get worse? This secondary has earned the nickname of “College Open” with every opposing offensive coordinator relying on the “Where’s Blake?” play as their core strategy. It’s true the defense has been confusing to opposing quarterbacks. But that’s only because they’re not used to seeing all four of their reads open. If a proven flop of a secondary featuring Will Allen and Antwon Blake is not given a serious shake-up against the Colts then you can write it down as Tomlin’s worst coaching decision of the year. And that’s with several other strong nominees already in the running.
The Truth? You Can’t Handle The Truth
The upcoming game against the Indianapolis Colts is not technically a “must win” but it will essentially decide whether or not the Steelers make it into the playoffs. With the team at 6-5 following a dismal preseason start it is decidedly unicorns and rainbows to believe that they can finish off the year on at 4-1 roll. Even with getting on that type of impressive run, they would barely squeeze in at 10-6. Can they make it in at 9-7? Forget about that option. It will mean they will have two more AFC losses…which means game over even on Fantasy Island. With difficult games coming up against the Cincinnati Bengals and the Denver Broncos the Steelers need to not only beat the Colts…but decidedly so in order to gain momentum and confidence. So…it’s Steelers by two touchdowns…or turn off the lights, the party is over.