Whether right or wrong, one of the most widely-discussed plays of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Sunday victory over the Tennessee Titans was their final meaningful offensive play of the day. It came on third and 12 from the Titans’ 19-yard line, and Ben Roethlisberger saw JuJu Smith-Schuster in coverage against a linebacker, taking a shot into the end zone.
In spite of the theoretical mismatch, that linebacker, Jayon Brown, had good coverage on the fourth-year receiver, and Tennessee had two safeties lurking. Brown was able to pop the ball free of Smith-Schuster’s grasp, and it was intercepted by Amani Hooker.
That play removed for the Steelers the opportunity to attempt a field goal on fourth down, which, if successful, would have given them a six-point lead and taken a game-tying field goal off the table. As it was, the Titans did get in position from 45 yards out to attempt that field goa, but it just so happened to skate wide right.
Head coach Mike Tomlin was asked about the decision to go for that aggressive play that was more low-percentage and higher-risk than other alternatives (Diontae Johnson, for example, was open underneath and possibly could have gotten a first down).
“It’s NFL football. We play to win”, he said after the game. “We don’t live in our fears. Is it a combat play? Is it tight? Yes, we have a quarterback that’s been doing that for 17 years. Sometimes you’ve just got to acknowledge that they made the play in the moment and we desire to and that’s why we’re not going to live in our fears. We’re going to go in those instances to secure victory”.
Of course it’s always easy to second-guess the plays that don’t work. It’s not as though it was a no-percentage play. If Roethlisberger had put the ball in a better place, Smith-Schuster would have been more likely to be able to snag the ball without Brown’s interference. They could have gone up 10 points, two possessions, as they did against the Philadelphia Eagles on third down, though that wasn’t a shot into the end zone.
I still don’t particularly like the call, though I do recognize that we are working from hindsight, It’s easy to look at the all-22 and shout about Johnson having two potential blockers and space over the middle with a high probability of being able to at least pick up the first.
I also look at the all-22 and see that the position of the ball reduced the chance of success of making the play. The idea was there, and it was a good one, but the execution could have been better. Still, given the context of the game, I would have opted with the safer alternative.