The Steelers' 22-17 loss to the Jets at Heinz field came down to the very last play and could have gone either way. Like most Steelers games the past few years, you can point to a few plays that were the difference.
As usual, Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians is getting a boatload of the blame. I find this baffling because I thought this was the best the offense looked since the Oakland game. Roethlisberger had plenty of time in the pocket against New Yorks' fierce pass rush. Big Ben passed for 260 and a touchdown with no interceptions.
And Rashard Mendenhall looked great. He rushed for exactly 100 yards on 17 carries. If I had one criticism of the play-calling, it would be that maybe Mendenhall should have gotten a few more carries. But that was a minor flaw.
The officials are also getting a share of the blame for not only the questionable helmet-to-helmet penalty on Ryan Clark that led to New York's only offensive touchdown, but for the many holding penalties that the Jets' secondary seemed to commit but weren't flagged for. Specifically, the pretty obvious one on the defender who grabbed Emmanuel Sanders on a play that looked like it could go for a score in the final minutes of the game. No flag.
And that brings me to the absurdity of the fans sometimes. How can you criticize Bruce Arians for his play calling when it was pretty apparent that the Jets' secondary was getting away with murder the entire game? If Sanders isn't held on that play, he probably scores and the Steelers would have won the game.
The gnashing of the teeth over Arians after every single game is getting downright ridiculous.
It all comes down to execution. Like the pseudo-spike at the end of the first half when the Steelers were trying to trick New York into thinking they were going to "clock it," but instead Roethlisberger attempted a pass to Wallace who was open but the pass was off the mark. If that pass is on the money, Wallace would have scored a touchdown on the play and the game would have been totally different. Was that a bad call on Arian's part? No. It was just poor execution.
The play that BA seems to be getting the most flack for is the draw play late in the game that resulted in a safety. The Steelers were backed up near their own goalline trailing, 20-17, with less than 3 minutes left, and tried a draw with Mewelde Moore who was dropped in the endzone by Jason Taylor.
The 2-points proved to be critical as Pittsburgh needed to go for a touchdown instead of a field goal on that last-gasp drive that came up short. It might not have been the greatest call, but again, it all comes down to execution, and the Steelers offensive linemen missed assignments on that play. The Steelers were trying to trick the Jets into thinking they were in passing-mode. For those of you out there who criticize Arians for being too predticable? Well, you can't have it both ways.
Is Arians ever going to make it to the hall of fame as a coordinator? Probably not. But I do not think he called a bad game at all yesterday.
There were many other reasons why they lost that game. Like the defense giving up two scores after Pittsburgh had seized momentum. After the Steelers scored to tie the game at 7 in the second quarter, New York immediately marched down field and kicked a field goal to make it 10-7. And then in the 3rd quarter, the Steelers took the opening kickoff of the second half and methodically drove down and took a 17-10 lead on Mendenhall's two-yard touchdown run. It looked like they had taken control of the game. What happened? New York took the ball and, again, marched right down the field and tied the game. Sure, New York was aided by that call on Clark, but Sanchez was able to convert a couple of key 3rd down plays, and was able to avoid the Steelers' pass rush most of the night.
I know Pittsburgh only gave up 13 points on defense, and in all fairness, played a really good game without Troy in the lineup, but if you're going to criticize the offense, you have to place some of the blame on the defense, as well.
But, personally, I don't put the blame on the offense or the defense. I put it squarely on the shoulders of the special teams.
The Jets were a desperate football team heading into yesterday's game. They had just lost two games in a row, and people were starting to question whether they were a legitimate playoff team. The offense hadn't scored a touchdown since Thanksgiving. A quick start by Pittsburgh could have crushed New York's spirit.
But New York's Brad Smith returned the opening kick-off 97 yards and just like that, we knew it would be a game. The Steelers dominated the stats, but just like in the Kansas City game last season when the Chiefs returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, those 7-points proved to be the difference.
And that kickoff return effected the field position the entire game. Why? Because every time Pittsburgh kicked off the rest of the day, they kicked it high and short and I don't remember New York having bad field position at all.
With an offense that was struggling and a quarterback in Sanchez who was starting to doubt his own abilities, poor field position could have made the difference. Instead, New York always seemed to start their drives around the 30 or 35 yard line.
But enough finger-pointing. I think yesterday's game was very well-played and in all-honesty, the Steelers didn't suffer much from the loss.
In-fact, they actually clinched a playoff spot based on some strength of victory tiebreaker that they have over San Diego and Jacksonville. I don't understand it, but it's weird that Pittsburgh clinched a playoff spot and the Jets, who won the game, still need to win another one to clinch a spot. I don't think Baltimore is officially in either despite defeating the Saints. Just a strange day.
And that brings me to my weird feeling. After that close loss to the Jets, I was a little down, but not totally bummed. I wasn't too worried about them making the playoffs. Not with Carolina and Cleveland left on the schedule.
But when I found out that they had actually clinched a spot, I was happy. I don't ever remember being happy after a Steelers loss. You spend years watching sports and you think you've experienced it all until you actually feel "happy" after a tough loss.
After missing out on the playoffs in 2009, I'm just relieved that Pittsburgh is in. I didn't want to sit and watch another postseason without the Steelers, not after such a good start to the season.
So, losing to the Jets might have hurt the pride of Steeler Nation, but it didn't really damage Pittsburgh's chances of accomplishing what they want. They still control their own destiny and need only to defeat the 2-12 Carolina Panthers and the 5-9 Cleveland Browns in-order to clinch the AFC North and earn the 2nd seed and a bye in the first round of the playoffs. Forget about what the Ravens do, it's all about the Steelers going out and getting the job done.