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Steelers third-and-short pass a perfect example of playing to win

Ben Roethlisberger's critical third-down conversion to Heath Miller late in the Steelers 27-20 win in Atlanta on Sunday was the perfect example of a team playing to win and not leaving the outcome of an important game in the hands of a struggling defense.

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

After the Steelers' Week 7 victory over Houston at Heinz Field on Monday Night Football, yours truly wondered out loud about the decision to have Ben Roethlisberger try and hit rookie receiver Martavis Bryant for a touchdown pass with mere minutes remaining and the home team already up by a 27-16 score.

In case you don't remember, the pass to Bryant fell incomplete, the Steelers ultimately settled for a Shaun Suisham field goal, and valuable time still remained on the game clock. And after the Texans crawled back to within a touchdown on the ensuing drive, Pittsburgh needed a heart-stopping recovery of an onside kick to preserve a 30-23 victory.

As is normally the case with any such decision that seems questionable, there were two camps: The "play conservative and wind clock" faction and the "go for the jugular and play to win" crowd.

I was in the former camp, because, in my opinion, there was no need to go for the jugular at that point. With an 11-point lead, less than four minutes remaining and the Texans already out of timeouts, why give them even a hint of hope they could get back in the game?

If it was only a one-score lead, going for the jugular would have made a lot more sense at that point, regardless of whether or not Roethlisberger made the connection to his young rookie receiver.

On Sunday, late in the Steelers very important contest in Atlanta's Georgia Dome, they had yet another chance to either play conservative or play to win, and, again, they chose the latter. This time, however, it was for the best .

After Pittsburgh took over at its own 30-yard line following a Falcons punt with 4:34 remaining, the offense picked up two crucial first downs (one thanks to a defensive penalty) and forced Atlanta to exhaust all three of its time outs, which it did by the 2:42 mark.

Clinging to a 27-20 advantage, one more first down would end the game.

Soon, the Steelers would face a major decision. There were two minutes remaining, and the offense had a 3rd-and-one at the Atlanta 39-yard line. Obviously, with Le'Veon Bell at their disposal, had head coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Todd Haley decided to hand the ball off to their stud back at that point, it may not have been considered conservative. After all, when you enjoy the services of a running back who's having the kind of season Bell is in 2014 (he now has 1,278 rushing yards after Sunday's workmanlike 47 yard/two touchdown performance), it may have been a smart and aggressive way to go for that jugular and end the Falcons' hopes, once and for all.

However, with the Falcons' defense surely expecting that, Roethlisberger instead faked a hand-off to Bell, rolled to his right and found tight end Heath Miller for a 25-yard, game-clinching first down.

Had the pass been incomplete, it would have left the Falcons nearly two-minutes to try and tie the game with a touchdown. And with Pittsburgh's defense being what it is in 2014, that certainly would have left the coaching staff open to criticism had things gone sour and had the Steelers lost.

But as great a season as Bell has been having (don't forget about his 795 receiving yards on a whopping 76 catches), it's always a wise choice to put the game on No. 7's arm.

With a one-touchdown lead and the services of a record-setting quarterback at their disposal, Tomlin and Haley went for the jugular with a long pass, and it would have been a sound decision even if it didn't work.

That's how you play to win.

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