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Trying to explain the Pittsburgh Steelers’ late-game clock management

Valuable experience and calculated risks: Mike Tomlin knows what he’s doing

Pittsburgh Steelers v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

There has been a great deal of consternation among Steelers fans about late-game clock management by the Pittsburgh offense. In particular, over the last two weeks, while protecting a late lead, the Steelers have thrown incomplete passes in both games, stopping the clock and gifting the opponent 40 seconds.

Against the Cleveland Browns two weeks ago, leading 20-13, the Steelers faced a 3rd and 6 on the first play after the two minute warning (the Browns were out of timeouts). Devlin Hodges passed to Tevin Jones, but the pass fell incomplete, stopping the clock and giving the Browns an extra 40 seconds after the punt.

Then this past week, leading the Arizona Cardinals 20-17, the Steelers faced a 2nd and goal from the 12, with 1:55 left, and Arizona down to one timeout. Hodges again was called on to put the ball in the air, this time on a pass to Diontae Johnson, and again the ball fell incomplete, stopping the clock before the inevitable field goal gave them only a six point lead.

Careful clock management suggests you run the ball in both circumstances, burn the 40 seconds, and then let the opponent sweat it out with no timeouts and a long field to navigate. That strategy makes sense. And the Steelers mostly adhered to it on both drives. So why deviate from the script? I think they were taking a calculated risk beyond just trying to win the game.

On Tuesday Mike Tomlin made a comment that, I think, sheds some light on those plays. After praising Devlin Hodges for his success at staying within the game plan, Tomlin added:

“He was also doing a good job of being thoughtfully aggressive at the appropriate times… Those are moments that define a young passer, those situational moments... Those plays are weighted a little differently when you’ve got a line to gain, when time is a factor. He’s done a nice job of continuing to be the guy even in the midst of those circumstances. That bodes well for him and for us.” (emphasis added)

Duck is a very experienced quarterback at the FCS level, and has played with loose poise so far in his limited NFL action. But you never know how someone will respond to pressure until the pressure is on. The final minutes of a playoff game are a bad time to discover that your skill players shrink under pressure. And a frantic fourth quarter comeback is a bad time to discover that your quarterback has a shaky hand in the end game.

I think Tomlin saw an opportunity to put Duck and company under the heat lamps, with much less at stake than they will have in the future — playing with a lead against teams that hadn’t done much on offense all day — and see what they were made of.

The logic relies on three truths:

1 – The Steelers have a superb defense

Pittsburgh Steelers v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

This defense is championship level, in fact. Here’s a sampling:

They lead the NFL in takeaways and are second in turnover differential (despite their offense recording at least one giveaway in 20 straight games).

They lead the league in sacks, and feature three of the AFC’s top eight sackers, including conference leader T.J. Watt, as well as Bud Dupree (4th) and Cameron Heyward (8th). And if Dupree is credited with his second sack against the Cardinals, he’ll vault to number 2 in the conference. (When was the last time one team had the #1 and #2 sacker in either conference?)

They have two of the NFL’s top five interceptors, including NFL leader Minkah Fitzpatrick (tied for the NFL lead with 5), and Joe Haden, tied for fourth with one fewer. (When was the last time a Steeler led the league in interceptions, and another was just one behind him?)

They’re on pace to become only the second team since the merger to lead the league in both sacks and takeaways in the same season. (The first was the 1974 Steelers. Not the ‘85 Bears; not the 2000 Ravens; not Lawrence Taylor’s Giants or the Legion of Boom.)

Overall, the Steelers defense is ranked 5th in the NFL, as well as 5th in passing, 5th in opponent passer rating, 9th in rushing, and 6th in scoring defense. Of course, since acquiring Fitzpatrick in week 3, they’ve been even more impressive. Their averages over the last eleven weeks would rank them 3rd in total defense, passing defense, and scoring defense, 2nd in opponent passer rating, and 8th in rushing defense.

This D can absorb a tiny bit more pressure if they have to.

2 – The Steelers have an untested offense full of rookies and practice squad kids

Kansas City Chiefs v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

The Steelers have three quarterbacks on the active roster. They have appeared in a combined total of 19 games. The most experienced is Mason Rudolph, with 8 starts. The oldest, Paxton Lynch (25) hasn’t played a down in Pittsburgh — not even preseason.

The Steelers have five running backs on the roster. The most experienced, James Conner, is 23, and has started 20 games. The rest of the backfield has a combined 8 starts. Their average age is 23.2; The oldest, Trey Edmunds, is 25.

The Steelers have six receivers on the roster. The most experienced, JuJu Smith-Schuster, is 23, and has started 30 games. The rest of the roster has started a total of 31 (6.2 per person). Their average age is 24.5.

Of those three most experienced Steelers — Rudolph, Conner, and Smith-Schuster — none were on the field in the late-game against Cleveland or Arizona.

3 – The games are about to get even bigger and more intense

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Bills game this weekend will have the flavor of a playoff game. Buffalo has a better defense than anyone the Steelers have played since week 3, and the 9-4 Bills are playing with some pressure on them as well.

Moreover, the last time the Steelers took on the Ravens, the defense took care of Lamar Jackson reasonably well, and the game went into overtime. There’s no reason to think a similar pressure won’t build in two and a half weeks, when the team travels to Baltimore with (potentially) a playoff berth on the line.

If the team comes through that stretch, they will actually be in the playoffs, where everyone raises their game a notch, but where any underdog 6th seed has a shot to win the Super Bowl by rising to the moment.

Pull These Together

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Arizona Cardinals Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

I think Tomlin was making a calculated risk to get his young offense some experience under pressure in a situation where the defense could reasonably bail them out if it failed.

Look at the Cleveland game. The Steelers started their most important end-game drive at their own one inch line with 5:35 left in the game. They led 20-13. The play by play ran like this:

1st & 10 at PIT 1 – (5:35 - 4th) Snell up the middle for 11 yards
1st & 10 at PIT 12 – (4:53 - 4th) Snell left tackle for 4 yards
2nd & 6 at PIT 16 – (4:11 - 4th) Samuels left tackle for 1 yard
3rd & 5 at PIT 17 – (3:41 - 4th) Hodges pass short left to D.Johnson for 14 yards (pushed ob)
1st & 10 at PIT 31 – (3:33 - 4th) Snell left guard for 4 yards
2nd & 6 at PIT 35 – (2:51 - 4th) PENALTY on PIT-V.McDonald, False Start
2nd & 11 at PIT 30 – (2:50 - 4th) Snell right guard for 5 yards
* (2:44 - 4th) Timeout #1 by CLV at 02:44.
3rd & 6 at PIT 35 – (2:44 - 4th) Hodges pass short right to McDonald for 8 yards
* (2:27 - 4th) Timeout #2 by CLV at 02:32
1st & 10 at PIT 43 – (2:32 - 4th) Snell up the middle for 3 yards
* (2:28 - 4th) Timeout #3 by CLV at 02:28.
2nd & 7 at PIT 46 – (2:28 - 4th) Direct snap to Samuels up the middle for 1 yard
* (2:00 - 4th) Two-Minute Warning
3rd & 6 at PIT 47 – (2:00 - 4th) Hodges pass incomplete short right to T.Jones
4th & 6 at PIT 47 – (1:45 - 4th) Berry punts 53 yards to end zone

With mostly Benny Snell Jr. runs, they chewed up almost four minutes and 46 yards of field position, forcing the Browns to burn all three timeouts and swallowing up the two minute warning itself. The clock was played beautifully.

But on the three third down pass plays, the Steelers weren’t just working to convert the first down and keep possession. They were putting Hodges, Johnson, Snell, and company, in a late-game situation where the team needed to convert on command. It wasn’t reckless — they were playing with a lead, and fielding a defense that had flummoxed the Browns most of the day (including forcing a punt on Cleveland’s most recent possession, even though that possession had started at the Pittsburgh 30). But it was a meaningful moment with meaningful consequences.

And notice: Hodges went 2 for 3 on third downs on that drive. He came through. So in the end the Steelers got useful intel about their young starting quarterback, got that young QB some valuable high-pressure experience, and got to show some (warranted) confidence in him in front of the rest of the team. And they did it all by gambling (reasonably) that their defense would be able to weather the extra 40 seconds if it all failed.

Remember these moments if the team needs to pick up one more first down to get into field goal range late in a playoff game, especially if they’re trailing and driving for the win. The Steelers are in better, more confident hands today because they opened the playbook when conventional wisdom told them not to. That’s true whether the clock management was perfect or not.

There’s been a lot of argument lately about what makes a good coach — whether it’s all scheming and playcalling, inspiration and cheerleading, teaching of fundamentals, instilling a culture of belief, or knowing how to skirt the rules. Let’s add that sometimes it’s about knowing when to take a calculated risk that will pay off in the long run. I think this was one of those times.

There isn’t an algorithm that can dictate when to push a team’s psychological buttons — that takes a first rate coach. Good thing the Steelers have one.