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Could the Steelers Have Taken A Few More Calculated Risks Early in Sunday's Loss to the Jets?

Look, if you have read Behind the Steel Curtain for any length of time, you know there's nobody who tries to remain as realistically optimistic with his or her analysis than me. It's, of course, not that hard to find something positive to write about when the Pittsburgh Steelers win a whole bunch of games most years. Not so sure I'd be so patient and cool-headed writing about the vast majority of the other 31 franchises in the NFL.

I also tend to not do a whole bunch of Monday Morning Quarterbacking with regards to coaching decisions, be it play-calling, game-management decisions, etc. I even refrain from bashing on Steeler Nation's most criticized family member, Bruce Arians, even though I have definitely wanted to sew my head to the carpet on more than one occasion this past few years.

But all that's really a non-sequitor, as this post has nothing to do with Arians exactly, and more to do with the head honcho, Mike Tomlin. You'd be hard pressed to find me on the record saying anything but glowing remarks about Tomlin, the job he's done since arriving in Pittsburgh in '07, and what I think he can become as the head coach of the most decorated franchise in league history as he ages and inevitably learns, grows, and evolves within his chosen profession. But I'm not at all shy about offering up my humble opinion about how he might grow professionally

The sequence(s) that I felt Tomlin and his staff could have perhaps negotiated differently actually came in the early stages of the 1st quarter with the Steelers trailing 7-0 following the 97-yard opening kickoff return for a touchdown by Brad Smith of the Jets. Before I continue, let me say that this is just one small, fairly inconsequential example. I do however think similar situations will present themselves in the coming weeks and in the playoffs where there's no playing for next series or tomorrow.

Here was the Steelers first offensive series following the TD:

Pittsburgh Steelers at 14:43

  • 1-10-PIT36 (14:43) B.Roethlisberger pass incomplete short right to M.Spaeth. COVERAGE BY #52 HARRIS
  • 2-10-PIT36 (14:38) (Shotgun) B.Roethlisberger pass short right to A.Randle El to PIT 44 for 8 yards (M.Cole).
  • 3-2-PIT44 (13:55) (Shotgun) B.Roethlisberger scrambles right end to PIT 47 for 3 yards (C.Pace).
  • 1-10-PIT47 (13:09) R.Mendenhall up the middle to 50 for 3 yards (D.Harris).
  • 2-7-50 (12:47) R.Mendenhall right tackle to NYJ 45 for 5 yards (D.Harris; C.Pace).
  • 3-2-NYJ45 (12:28) #79 ESSEX REPORTS AS ELIGIBLE RECEIVER. B.Roethlisberger pass short right to M.Moore to NYJ 45 for no gain (B.Scott).
  • 4-2-NYJ45 (12:28) J.Kapinos punts 45 yards to end zone, Center-G.Warren, Touchback.

Then after forcing a quick three-and-out on defense, the Steelers got the ball back for their second series.

Pittsburgh Steelers at 10:03


  • 1-10-PIT46 (10:03) M.Wallace left end to NYJ 46 for 8 yards (D.Revis).
  • 2-2-NYJ46 (9:19) B.Roethlisberger pass incomplete short middle to D.Johnson (B.Pool).
  • 3-2-NYJ46 (9:15) I.Redman right guard to NYJ 39 for 7 yards (B.Pool, D.Harris).
  • 1-10-NYJ39 (8:36) B.Roethlisberger pass incomplete deep right to M.Wallace.
  • 2-10-NYJ39 (8:29) R.Mendenhall left end to NYJ 34 for 5 yards (S.Pouha).
  • 3-5-NYJ34 (7:43) (Shotgun) B.Roethlisberger pass incomplete deep right to M.Wallace. COVERAGE BY #31 CROMARTIE
  • 4-5-NYJ34 (7:38) (Punt formation) J.Kapinos punts 25 yards to NYJ 9, Center-G.Warren. J.Cotchery to NYJ 22 for 13 yards (S.Sylvester, J.Worilds).

Okay, let's up front acknowledge that Tomlin did nothing out of the ordinary by opting to punt in both situations: from the NYJ 45 facing 4th and 2, and from the NYJ 34 facing 4th and 5. In the NFL in particular, head coaches are going to opt for the 'safer' decision more often than not, particuarly early on in the contest when there's less perceived pressure to make big, consequential decisions, like say, going for it on either of those situations.

A couple reasons why I believe it might have behooved the Steelers to have rolled the dice and gone for it on one or both of those 4th downs early in the fourth quarter.

  1. Firstly, both situations provided an opportunity to seize back considerable momentum early on in the game after the Jets got an immediate jolt of 'we can do this' from the opening kickoff return. Granted, Steelers football is 60 minutes, so no need to dig a hole early with miscalculated risk-taking. And when you have one of the league's very best defenses that has carried you to victory all season, it makes even more sense to punt it away, play the field position game, and wait for the defense to gift-wrap a manageable scoring opportunity.

  2. However, one small but important difference in Week 15. The Steelers were without their ultimate difference maker on defense, Troy Polamalu. Again, I don't fault Tomlin for trusting his defense, with or without Polamalu, to get stops and dictate the flow of the game. However, I'm not sure it's as wise to rely on the defense to bail the team out time and time again without No. 43 in the lineup.

  3. And even if Polamalu is playing, I still think Tomlin should consider being more aggressive with his decision making when the Steelers offense is in certain areas of the field. If you trust your defense so much, then really, you should never punt when facing a 4th and short from inside the opponents' 40 yard line. Well, maybe not never, but very rarely. At best, you're going to pin your opponent inside the 5. From there, typically teams punt it away after a three and out or maybe a first down or two. So, yes, the field has been switched. That's great and all, but your inconsistent offense has to then get back in rhythm and execute on several plays just to get back to the previous position you were in before stalling. If you trust your defense so much, take a few more risks on offense in certain areas of the field. The risk-reward seems skewed significantly in favor of more aggressive decision making. You're close to 3 or 7 points if you convert, and if you don't, well then your defense still can allow 25+ yards before the opposition is in field goal range of their own. And when you don't have your irreplaceable splash player available, all the more reason to take calculated gambles in other facets of the game rather than simply relying on your defense to continually set you up for success.

I'll reiterate that I don't think Tomlin displayed poor judgment whatsoever. He did what NFL coaches would do 90 percent of the time. And there's ample evidence that he and other coaches could easily site when defending such decisions.But not all situations are created equal. The defense has been what's carried this team so far in '10, but if the Steelers are going to make any noise in the playoffs, more than likely they'll have to elevate their play offensively, as well as take a few more calculated risks that they might not otherwise during the course of a long regular season.

What it comes down to in my mind is that I think Tomlin should recognize the unique situation he's in as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and not succumb to scared, job-protecting group-think more often than is necessary for a man who's job is infinitely more secure than most of his colleagues around the league. The Rooneys would never fire a coach for a strategic blunder, even if it were one that defied conventional wisdom. Tomlin's job is safe for the foreseeable future because he has proven himself to be a competent game-coach, and a world-class communicator, motivator, manager of personalities, and overall leader of men. 

The 'uncoachable' traits Tomlin has implanted in him are what makes make him successful, but if he is to fulfill his destiny of being legendary rather than just a very good head coach,  I believe he'll need to harness those god-given instincts more creatively and less hesitantly at times. Be it in business, science, or sports, the cream of the crop find opportunity where others don't, while avoiding the temptation to follow the masses at all costs.

Tomlin, while still being the consumate company-man when appropriate, already possesses this mindset in certain aspects of his profession. For example, unlike most of his colleagues in either the professional or collegiate ranks, Tomlin doesn't piss away his personal and family life by sleeping at the office in a shallow, thinly veiled attempt at working harder than the rest. Instead, at least from what I've read, he's all business when it's time to work, then shuts it down when there's not much more to be done, and the law of diminishing returns has made itself clear and present. May sound trite or inconsequential, but in my estimation, it's a huge testament to his character. To me, it reinforces that he's the type of guy you want leading your organization over the long haul.

It's a topic for another day, but here's one more example -  there's a reason that the Steelers surprisingly managed to re-sign so many key, high-profile veterans the past two offseasons. I truly believe it's because Tomlin created an environment that veterans wanted to remain a part of in the twilight of their careers, rather than chasing a few more dollars elsewhere knowing damn well that they were downgrading their situation in every other respect.. If you weren't content with just about every last aspect of playing for Tomlin and the Steelers, why the hell wouldn't you go chase a bigger paycheck if you're a guy like Casey Hampton, Heath Miller, Hines Ward, or Brett Keisel, to name but a few? Hell, most 30-plus year old veterans will put up with learning a new system, making a new life for their family, etc. in order to get paid handsomely one last time. but not one of the Steelers' key veterans really tested the open market. All re-signed for fair, but undeniably less-than-market deals to remain in Pittsburgh.

Anyway, congratulations to Tomlin and the Steelers for qualifying for the playoffs for the third time in four years since his arrival, and kudos to him for the outstanding job he's done keeping the standard of expectation sky high despite the myriad unfortunate setbacks this team's faced already in 2010.

Go Steelers!