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The play that doomed the Steelers should have never even happened

A discussion of the decision to go for it.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

“The Play” has been dissected and discussed at great length. If you don’t know what “The Play” is, good for you as that means you didn’t watch the Steelers lose 30-6 to the Texans.

“The Play” refers to the fourth-and-1 call late in the third quarter when Kenny Pickett got sacked, virtually ending the chances of a comeback for the Steelers.

This isn’t a discussion of “The Play,” however. This is a discussion of the decision that was made that led us to “The Play.”

To set the stage, the Steelers were trailing 16-6 when Kenny Pickett hit George Pickens for a 16-yard gain on third-and-17, leaving the Steelers with a fourth-and-1 at the Texan 33-yard line with 1:47 left in the third quarter. Decision time.

Go for it or kick the FG?

The decision to be made was whether to bring out Chris Boswell for a 50-yard field goal attempt or to try and gain the yard and keep the drive moving. For reference, Boswell is 7-for-7 on FGs this year including 3-for-3 over 50 yards. The game was played in a dome, removing any wind factor that could affect Boswell’s accuracy. A field goal here would have cut the lead to seven, the closest the Steelers would have been since early in the first quarter.

Many will say that based on the feel of the game at the time, and based on the final score and stat sheet, the Steelers had to go for that first down and try and get seven points out of that drive—that they just couldn’t “settle” for 3 points. If you’re of that opinion, ask yourself this question honestly: if the Steelers had made that first down at the 30-yard line, would that drive likely end up in seven points or just a shorter Boswell field goal attempt? Or possibly some negative plays that result in a punt?

A touchdown might be the least likely outcome as there’s nothing that the Steelers’ offense has done in 2023 that would lead you to believe they could string together 30 yards of successful football. Had this been a fourth-and-1 situation much closer to the end zone, going for it would have been a no-brainer. Less execution of the offense would have been needed from close in. But 30 yards away for this Steelers offense might as well be 30 miles away. This may sound like “living in your fears,” but you also have to live in reality. You can’t just wish the offense was effective. You have to acknowledge that they are not.

Inept offense? Let the defense and special teams try to win the game.

A decision for a Boswell field goal followed by a kickoff gets the Steelers’ best unit, the defense, back on the field. That defense has playmakers including two All-Pros while the offense is still struggling to become Average Joes. For as bad as the overall stat sheet looked, this defense for the first time in hours would also be playing with hope—hope that they could make one single play to substantially change the game. They have done so a couple of times already in this young season.

We’ve all seen enough football games where one team gets out to an early lead and then takes their foot off the gas allowing their opponent to crawl back into the game and sometimes win it. This could have been one of those games. While watching the game it seemed the Steelers defense was hopeless in its efforts to stop the Texans after the Texans raced out to a quick early lead. The final game statistics would also tell that story. However, after the Texans got to 13-0, their next five possessions ended with a punt, a turnover on downs, a field goal, a punt, and another punt. Those were also the five most recent Texan possessions that led us to this point in the game where the Steelers could have cut it to a seven-point deficit.

It was a chance to apply pressure to a young Texan offense that had failed in four of their previous five drives. In what was overall a very low-pressure game for the Texans, that young offense would commit three false starts, one ineligible man downfield, one intentional grounding, and one holding penalty. Had pressure been applied by kicking the field goal to make it a one-score game, it’s not hard to envision even more Texan mistakes, aiding a Steeler comeback bid.

The decision was not made in haste as the Steelers used a timeout to discuss their options. They actually burned 30 seconds of game time before even calling that timeout. It appears they had no solid plan. There must not have been any foresight before the third-down play that had included a 4th-and-short scenario as the outcome. With that much doubt, trot the kicker out.

As Dirty Harry said in Magnum Force, “A man’s got to know his limitations”. That man for the Steelers is Mike Tomlin. It was entirely his decision to make. Those limitations are an inept offense. A timeout and wishful thinking weren’t going to fix it.