After an emotional win last week by the Steelers over the division leading Baltimore Ravens, the Steelers coaches had to know that the following game against an inferior opponent defined the classic "trap" game.
The easiest cure against succumbing to a trap game is to ignore the deficiencies of the opponent and instead focus on striving for perfection in the execution of each fundamental aspect of your own game. For the players, that means focusing on their individual assignments; for coaches that is ensuring that each assignment is woven together into an effective play, and each play into an executable game plan. And for everyone involved, it means paying attention to the fundamentals. There's a saying in business: "watch the pennies, and the dollars take care of themselves". If Haley, Tomlin and Brown had paid attention to the fundamentals, a victory would have taken care of itself.
The Steelers coaches obviously didn't take this approach. Instead, the offense came out ill prepared to deal with the San Diego Chargers' defensive scheme. Right from the start, play after play the Chargers' linebackers crowded the line of scrimmage; play after play they gained penetration through the A gap, forcing Ben out of the pocket, rushing his throws, clogging the running lanes.
By the very same metric that the Steelers defense leads the league, the Chargers defense is ranked 10th. Yes the Chargers only had four wins coming into Heinz Field, but their defense ranks also 13th in points allowed. The ills affecting the Chargers this season are primarily with its offense, not its defense.
Not that it appears Haley or Tomlin cared to notice, the way the Steelers' offensive line stumbled and bumbled its way through the entire first half.
As anyone who participates in an activity that entails highly complex movements, coordination and split-second timing will tell you, practice makes perfect. Anyone who participates in a sport will tell you that repeating over and over again the fundamentals of the sport, no matter how basic the action or how high level the athlete, drills into the athlete's subconscious what needs to be done; the muscles involved retain the memory of the act, and when the mind perceives the need to perform, the muscles react instantaneously. Such unconscious split second timing in the performance of a fundamental is so critical for success in football because there is so much else the football player must focus on, whether it be looking for keys to react to, executing the many layers of acts each play requires, or taking advantage of a mistake by the opponent.
Yet apparently the most basic fundamental in football, securing the ball, still hasn't been drilled into the head of Antonio Brown. His failure to execute this most basic fundamental speaks directly to the issues that led to the Steelers ignominious defeat, and helped insure the team's failure to capitalize on the losses of both the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals.
And that shows that there is something wrong fundamentally with the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers.
Yes, the defense suffered its major lapses earlier in the season, losing games to the Tennessee Titans and Oakland Raiders and struggling for a half against the Cincinnati Bengals, but it has regained its focus and its position as one of the league's premier defenses.
Yes there are the incessant injuries on the offense requiring constant reshuffling of the offensive line; yes RG Willie Colon was coming back from an knee injury and may have been rusty; yes rookie RT Kelvin Beachum was playing in place of rookie Mike Adams. And yes franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was playing in his first game after missing three due to injury.
But all this is known; all this can and should be incorporated into the game day plan of attack and practiced during the week. These issues existed the week before, but the Steelers prevailed over the (then) 9-2 Ravens. But this week the execution by the offensive line was pathetic. Ben felt pressure and acted skittish the entire first half; in the first two offensive series alone the Steelers gained only 10 yards on seven plays, having to punt twice.
Football players apparently have very fragile psyches; the Steelers committed seven fumbles against the Browns apparently under the duress of playing on a committee; Wide receiver Mike Wallace apparently "loses focus" if he isn't targeted enough times.
Was it the breaking news that Steelers offensive line coach Sean Kugler had accepted the head coach position at his alma mater, UTEP that caused the inept line play? That news broke two days before the game; does the Steelers' offense have such a fragile self-identity that the linemen can have their focus and attention shattered by the news its coach is leaving after the season?
Or was it Mike Wallace's disclosure on Friday that he "loses focus" if he isn't targeted enough?
To address the fumbles, the Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin did away with his running back by committee policy and named Jonathan Dwyer the starter. Apparently Haley tried to channel his "inner Tomlin" by designing the Steelers first half offense around Wallace to assuage his fragile ego and keep this future free agent's head in the game for more than a few minutes. Wallace had six (one third) of the 19 pass attempts in the first half thrown his way, but managed only two receptions for 27 yards.
What is apparently lacking with the Steelers is a focus on the basics. It is a lack of focus by Haley in anticipating that a defense was going to test the Steelers' quarterback by stopping the run first, as happened against the Kansas City Chiefs; a lack of focus on the fundamentals by Tomlin's special teams, again committing penalty after penalty negating returns and forcing the offense to start deep in its own territory.
And it was this lack of focus on Tomlin's special teams that gave up four yards on a fake punt near the end of the third quarter that gave the Chargers the ball for another four minutes and into the fourth quarter.
The most egregious current example of this apparent disregard for the fundamental basics of winning football was performed by WR Antonio Brown.
After the Steelers' defense had one bad series, allowing the Chargers to open the second half with a 17 play drive going 78 yards and a touchdown and eating 9:32 off the clock, the Steelers offense started on its own 16 yard line after a holding call on Steelers DE Cameron Heyward erased RB Chris Rainey's 29 yard return.
The very next play, Roethlisberger threw a lateral towards Brown which hit TE David Paulson in the rear, the ball bouncing into the end zone.
Brown was the first player to reach the ball deep in the end zone, but instead of falling on it, he tried to pick it up and run with it. Problem is, as he rose to run he failed to pick up the ball. Chargers LCB Quentin Jammers instead fell on it scoring a Chargers defensive touchdown and making the score 27-3.
A receiver of Brown's caliber should be well aware of the need to secure a ball before attempting to run. A football player of Brown's tenure should be well aware that a loose ball in the end zone must be secured immediately; fall on it, "accidently" kick it out of bounds trying to retrieve it, do something with it other than leave it behind.
What was Brown thinking? What did he think he could possibly do with the ball once he had it, save the two points a safety would cost by running it out of the end zone?
Whatever he was thinking, that is the problem; he was thinking. He wasn't allowing his body and subconscious mind to react to a situation by executing a basic fundamental action that should require no thought whatsoever; secure the ball.
Thus, the Chargers scored 14 points in a matter of seconds. Instead of a manageable three score game with sufficient time on the clock, the Steelers now faced a 24 point deficit; a deficit that came on the heels of a demoralizingly long offensive drive by the previously believed to be inept San Diego Chargers offense. Granted, this drive was not a typical example of the Steelers' defense, but given the fact that the Chargers were playing on a short field the entire game up to that point, the defense can't be blamed for this loss.
No, the blame must fall once again on the coaches; they failed again to ensure the players were mentally ready for this game. Tomlin told everyone on Wednesday that Ben would be the quarterback; Haley and the offensive line had plenty of time to view game tapes to see that the Chargers' defense was not as inept as its offense appeared. And most importantly, the offense had an entire week to prepare strategies that would emphasize the protection of Roethlisberger, whether it was through the running game, or switching to quick underneath passing routes when running stalled. Neither thing happened.
No, instead the Steelers did what they often do when preparing to face a supposed "inferior" opponent; they did everything but focus on the fundamentals of winning football.