Back on September 16, when the Steelers were still struggling to find an identity as a football team, they trailed the Chiefs, 42-30, late in a Week 2 match-up at Heinz Field.
One play after Anthony Chickillo recovered a fumble that was forced by Cameron Heyward at the 5:03 mark of the fourth quarter, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger connected with tight end Jesse James on a 46-yard pass down to the Kansas City 20-yard line. Pittsburgh still had its full allotment of time outs, but a quick touchdown was vital in giving the home team a real chance to win the football game.
Unfortunately, the offense needed eight plays and 3:04 of game clock to score on a three-yard touchdown run by Roethlisberger on fourth and goal. The Steelers still had all three of their time-outs, but with the two-minute warning—an official time-out—already extinguished, the defense had to force a super-quick three-and-out in-order to give the offense any chance at all. If you remember that game, three-and-outs weren’t on the menu for Pittsburgh’s defense that day, as Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes carved it up like a Thanksgiving Day turkey. The Chiefs eventually had to punt, but with mere seconds left in the game, all Pittsburgh could hope for was a miraculous Tyler Matakevich block that was returned for a touchdown.
Instead, he was called for roughing the kicker.
That brings me to this past Sunday’s game against the Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field.
With the Steelers trailing, 16-6, and driving late in the fourth quarter, Roethlisberger connected with receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster on a beautiful 21-yard back-shoulder pass down to the Jacksonville 26-yard line. By the time Pittsburgh took its next snap, there was 3:18 remaining on the clock. Despite having three time-outs at its disposal, it was paramount that the offense score a touchdown as fast as possible.
But against a suffocating Jacksonville pass defense that had spent the majority of the afternoon frustrating the Steelers future Hall of Fame quarterback, you just had a feeling whatever score the offense was able to obtain—whether it be a touchdown or a field goal—would come way too late to give the visiting team any realistic chance to win or even tie the football game.
But just four plays later, on first and 10 from the 11, Roethlisberger lofted a deliberately high pass in the direction of tight end Vance McDonald, who high-pointed the ball and somehow managed to hold onto it and get maybe one butt-cheek down in the end zone as he was being defended quite physically by linebacker Telvin Smith.
McDonald maintained possession all the way through until the end of the play, and there was no question it was a touchdown.
And with 2:28 still left on the clock, there was also now no question that Pittsburgh had a legit chance at getting the football back with a realistic amount of time remaining to mount one more scoring drive, if the defense could force a three-and-out.
Head coach Mike Tomlin not only had all three time-outs to work with, he had the two-minute warning as well--and he elected to roll the dice a bit and use it as his first one.
The strategy worked perfectly, as the defense shut down running back Leonard Fournette on three-straight running plays, and Roethlisberger would take his first snap of Pittsburgh’s final possession with 1:42 remaining.
You know the rest of the story, but I’ll give you the ending anyway: instead of getting called for roughing the kicker with five seconds remaining like on September 16, the Steelers scored the game-winning touchdown when Roethlisberger dived over the goal line from one yard away.
And the best part? Tomlin still had one time-out left in his back pocket, just in case the big guy was stopped short.
Point is, efficiency is key when trying to come back from two scores down late in a game.
Had the Steelers needed another eight plays, and a time-out or two, to score a touchdown—or even kick a field goal—following Smith-Schuster’s pretty combat catch, they likely wouldn’t have had enough time to do much on their final possession (if there even was one). And even if they managed to make it down to the one-yard line, they likely wouldn’t have had one time out in their pocket and the ability to use their entire playbook—Roethlisberger, who already had three interceptions on the day, may have been forced to throw into the teeth of the Jaguars’ pass defense.
So, yes, McDonald’s touchdown was very athletic, and it further demonstrated what a Vanimal he’s turning into for the Steelers offense.
But, man, it was also so very timely, because had he not showed so much athleticism on that play, the Steelers might be sitting at 6-3-1 today.