It’s probably fair to say that things could have gone better for the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers. While the officials unfortunately played a much bigger role in that than they ever should, there is certainly blame to spread around elsewhere.
Some of that blame goes to the coaching staff, and there is one moment in particular many highlight as the final turning point in the game, a late third down on which Philip Rivers was able to complete a pass to Keenan Allen for a first down with inside linebacker Jon Bostic in coverage.
Though a starter—and amazingly the AFC’s leading vote-getter at his position, thanks to overzealous Steelers fans—Bostic had only sparsely played throughout the game, the coaches preferring the more coverage-savvy L.J. Fort in the absence of their top two dimebackers in Morgan Burnett and Cameron Sutton.
Fort was in on the play before, but was subbed out for the third and four in favor of Bostic. Nobody asked Mike Tomlin to address this after the game or during Tuesday’s pre-game press conference, but somebody finally asked defensive coordinator Keith Butler about it yesterday.
“At the time”, he said, they were expecting the Chargers to run on that play. “We guess wrong sometimes, that’s what happens”.
The game was tied at 30-30 at the time after the defense allowed Los Angels to run the ball down their throat on the previous drive, and the Steelers’ offense was able to respond and match the score. With 1:12 to play, at Pittsburgh’s 34-yard line, is when we got to the Bostic play.
Rivers came out throwing on the first two plays of the drive, but handed the ball off on three of the four subsequent snaps. He completed a three-yard pass to running back Austin Ekeler on second and seven to set up the play.
With the clock stopped, Tomlin, Butler, or whoever was responsible for the call made the decision to sub out Fort for Bostic because they expected the Chargers, just on the cusp of field goal range, to run the ball.
They didn’t, Rivers instead finding Allen for a 12-yard completion to the 22-yard line. What followed was a series of offside penalties that forced the game-winning field goal to come on the third attempt, and all the way up to the Steelers’ 11-yard line. The Chargers have not called a designed run on any play on third and four all season.
Given the circumstances, however, it wasn’t unreasonable to assume a run in that situation. As a reminder, they were on the 34-yard line with 1:12 to play. The Steelers had one timeout remaining, so keeping the clock going would force them to use it. The Chargers’ kicker is 4-for-4 between 40 and 49 yards this season, and in fact his only miss out of 11 kicks was from beyond 50.
So personally, I don’t fault them for assuming run. I do fault them for swapping personnel, because Fort is a capable run-defender, and putting in Bostic may have been the deciding factor to throw it in that situation instead.