The best part—if you can call it that—of watching your favorite team’s season come to a close is the reckoning. The worst part is setting aside some of the acrimony and figuring out where to start.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, two weeks after concluding the most successful regular season campaign of Mike Tomlin’s tenure, lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars 45-42 in the Divisional Playoffs, which was a result driven by poor coaching, even poorer defense, and, depending on how spicy you like your takes, lack of focus by the players. Before we get around to deconstructing this whole thing, though, it should be noted that it doesn’t make, like, a ton of sense do to a stock report or whatever. Instead, we’re gonna try like an exit interview kind of thing:
Failure and bad coaching are inextricably linked, so it isn’t particularly surprising to see that the coaching staff is catching the requisite Hell for Sunday’s outcome. Among the most confounding hallmarks of Pittsburgh coaching strategy is the team’s (most notably, Todd Haley’s) steadfast refusal to utilize Ben Roethlisberger’s thick, meaty body in short-yardage situations. The Steelers faced a pair off 4th-and-1s in Sunday’s contest, both of which they failed to convert, and both because the team instead relied on byzantine, poorly-designed, doomed-from-the-start plays. Feast on this madness:
Film Analysts: Don't run outside on this Jacksonville defense. They're fast— Jimmy Norkewicz (@dorkewicz) January 15, 2018
Todd Haley: 4th and a foot? I've got this.
Now, you’ll note that Roethlisberger is doing a good bit of conversing pre-snap, indicating that it is possible, if not probable, that he modified the original play on the fly. If he did, you’re right to wonder why he didn’t just audible to a sneak. Then again, perhaps he feared admonishment from the guys who get paid to make those kinds of decisions.
There is an apparent disconnect between Roethlisberger and Haley that goes well beyond the sneak or not to sneak debate. This account by Ed Bouchette provides a damning indictment of the fractured—or, more accurately, the non-existent—professional relationship between Roethlisberger and Haley, and it seems as if 2017 may have been Haley’s last season on Pittsburgh’s sideline. This should, if nothing else, exacerbate some of the longstanding concerns about the offense failing to reach its full potential.
Yikes. All of the fun accolades and superlatives afforded to Pittsburgh’s defense throughout the regular season were rendered worthless Sunday, as this unit had debatably its worst performance of the year, allowing the Jaguars to amass 164 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns on 35 carries and empowering Blake Bortles to have one of his best performances of the season (ESPN’s QBR metric is, in my opinion, a decent quantitative measure of a quarterback’s overall performance, and Bortles graded at 90 in Sunday’s game—he played well).
Keith Butler’s defenses during his first two seasons as Pittsburgh’s defensive coordinator, almost famously, adhered to a strict “bend, don’t break” policy; the rationale here being that allowing 500 yards per game is fine so long as you keep the opponent out of the end-zone. But while the defense generally tightened up and allowed fewer yards in 2017, it started to give up larger numbers of points. Discouragingly, the Steelers ranked 31st (ahead of only Cleveland, MY GOD) in red-zone defense in 2017, allowing opponents to score touchdowns on 65 percent of their red-zone trips. Jacksonville, perhaps cognizant of this trend, parlayed all five of its red-zone trips into touchdowns.
Honestly, Butler was just out-coached by Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett. The Jaguars feasted omnivorously on a steady diet of play-action passes, screens, dives, and stretches, and Butler’s squad could do nothing to stop it.
Let’s imbue this with some positivity. Ben is coming back in 2018; maybe even longer, according to Bouchette’s account I mentioned earlier (but not according to Ben, who on his weekly radio show declined to comment on the prospects of his career beyond 2018). While Ben did commit a pair of back-breaking turnovers—an interception that put the Steelers in a 14-0 hole before my wife and I even found our seats and a fumble that Telvin Smith scooped-and-scored to push Jacksonville’s lead to 28-7—he was also the primary catalyst to Pittsburgh’s almost-comeback, throwing for 469 yards and five touchdowns. He essentially conjured a sixth score out of thin air when he, keenly aware of the multitude of Jaguars prepared to send him to an early retirement, tossed a well-placed lateral to Le’Veon Bell, who craftily evaded a handful of tacklers and waltzed into the end-zone. Antonio Brown, meanwhile, generated 132 yards through the air and made a pair of absolutely goofy touchdown catches despite the fact that he may or may not have been playing on one leg.
And don’t sleep on the offensive line! The Jaguars boast one of the league’s most fearsome front sevens, and Pittsburgh, undeterred, allowed only two sacks. Pretty much every major contributor on the offense (Bell notwithstanding) is expected to be back next season, so that’s a silver lining. Speaking of Bell...
Bell, who played 2017 on the franchise tag, could be tagged yet again in 2018, and he is not having any of that. He threatened to retire! That’s some serious business.
Unfortunately for Bell, the franchise tag seems like it’ll be in play, if only because it makes financial sense for the Steelers to apply it. Had Bell signed the reported offer the Steelers had on the table last offseason, he would’ve made somewhere in the ballpark of $30 million in 2017 and 2018. By tagging Bell last offseason and following suit in 2018, the Steelers actually stand to save a bit of money. Is this fair to Bell (or any other star player deserving of a payday commensurate of their skillset, for that matter)? No, it is not. But business proceedings are business proceedings.
I guess the takeaway is that Bell probably will play for the Steelers next season, but whether he actually plays or not has yet to be determined. Honestly, the Steelers should probably just do what they can to ensure Bell is in the lineup next season. But that’s an article for another day.
This sentiment is ill-timed, being that T.J. Watt’s impact in the Divisional game was minimal and that JuJu Smith-Schuster did little beyond catching a meaningless touchdown pass in garbage time, but these dudes are going to be major, major contributors in the years ahead.
The Ben Roethlisberger Retirement Index
After everything, he ended the season at a 0. I’ll be a son of a gun.