By David Todd
The Steelers made a minimum of three mistakes in the last 2:44 of their 21-18 loss to the Raiders Sunday. One was a bonehead play by the quarterback, the others were made by the coaching staff. Clock management was the primary concern and rightly so. I wrote about it here and my co-host on The Terrible Podcast Dave Bryan wrote about it here and here.
Most of the attention was focused on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s use of a timeout with 1:43 remaining, the clock stopped and the Steelers down 11 points. Clearly Ben made a mistake. He should have taken the five yard delay-of-game penalty and kept the timeout. After the game Ben said, “You either take 5 yards or take the timeout and I know timeouts are valuable but we thought 5 yards were too, so I had to burn it.” That answer is a bit disconcerting because one would think a QB with Ben’s experience would know that, down two scores, the timeout was much more valuable than 5 yards.
On Tuesday, Ben discussed the issue again and admitted he got it wrong. He said he spoke to Mike Tomlin and Tomlin said he would have preferred to keep all three timeouts. Ben said it was his mistake and he won’t make it again. That’s a perfectly acceptable answer in my book. Players make mistakes. I was surprised Ben did, but he took responsibility, learned from it and now hopefully won’t make it again. End of story.
But it’s not really the end of the story. The Steelers under Mike Tomlin have been poor at managing the clock and making good decisions in endgame situations. Many times the mistakes don’t end up impacting the outcome so they get overlooked. But the process has consistently been poor and it was again Sunday.
And it wasn’t just Ben’s use of the timeout that was poor. There was much more.
Late in the game the Steelers had the ball on the Raiders 31 with a 3rd-and-1 and 2:44 showing on the clock when they snapped the ball. They were in a three wide receiver, tight end and single back package. This is obviously a situation where two plays should be called in the huddle. There is no need to change personnel if they get the first down. The key is to move quickly. If they make the first down, immediately line up and run the second play. The Steelers didn’t. Bell gained the needed yard, but the Steelers were incredibly slow getting the next play off. They did not snap the ball until the clock ran down to 2:10. Snap-to-snap it took 34 seconds!
The lack of urgency was a killer. Getting off one play in 43 seconds is horrendous in that situation. Two plays have to be called in the huddle and Ben cannot take a sack.
I asked MIke Tomlin about it in his press conference Tuesday, specifically questioning the lack of urgency in the situation described above. This was Tomlin’s response:
“For us more than anything it was about getting quality plays and putting ourself in position to score a touchdown that wasn’t a given at that point. We had been down the field a few times in the game and come away with no points. We had missed a couple field goals and obviously in one instance we had settled for a field goal. So I don’t want to be presumptuous and make it seem like getting a touchdown in that circumstance was easy because it hadn’t been to that point in the football game.”
I think Tomlin is missing the most important aspect of the situation. The team has to score twice. Yes, one of them has to be a touchdown and they have to convert the two-point conversion otherwise they both have to be touchdowns. But there are three variables confronting the Steelers 1.) points 2.) time 3.) yardage needed. Tomlin can’t focus solely on the need for a touchdown without taking into account the other two variables which is exactly what he did. At any point, kicking a field goal on the next play is a possible option, but it appears the Steelers never considered it. (And with Suisham missing his first two FGs of the year, there was some justification for that.)
When Ben eventually does burn the timeout with 1:43 remaining at the 19, the Steelers are really in trouble. It almost rules out the option to kick-off deep if they score any points, meaning an onsides kick is the likely strategy. Now it is even more imperative to score quickly.
On the next play the Steelers complete a pass short of the goal line and then quickly get another play off with 1:36 remaining. (Had they operated that quickly with 2:44 left they may have gotten off three more plays, saving a huge chunk of time.) On the next play they benefitted from a penalty and the clock stopped with 1:27 left, the ball on the Raiders 2-yard line. Still down 21-10 the benefit of the field goal is negated by the high probability of scoring a TD. It makes sense to use all four opportunities.
This is where process comes into play. Obviously the Steelers have to throw the ball to ensure they keep as much time available as possible. Instead, they run a handoff to Le’Veon Bell who scored a touchdown to make it 21-16.
It was a terrible play call.
Sure it worked. But it wasn’t guaranteed to work. And if it didn’t the Steelers would have had either another 10-15 second run off the clock, been forced to use their second timeout or clock the football. None of these are attractive options given the three variables the Steelers faced.
The Steelers converted the two-point try, but after not recovering the onsides kick they only got the ball back with 0:18 seconds left on their 2-yard line. Game over.
The Steelers made a minimum of three mistakes in the last 2:44. One was a bonehead play by the quarterback, but I feel comfortable that he now understands the situation and it won’t happen again. The other two were made by the coaching staff. I have zero comfort that they understand them, so we are very likely to see them happen again.