It’s ironic that, in a year where many claimed the Steelers had gotten away from their Smash Mouth identity on offense, an attempt to stay true to our roots may have well cost us the fist playoff victory of Mike Tomlin Era.
- Jacksonville was on the ropes after we forced a punt with 3 minutes or so remaining.
- We were getting to Garrard, their receivers were dropping balls.
- We were in control with the lead.
The last thing we needed was three and out. Conventional strategy dictates that you keep the clock running, forcing an opponent burn time outs. In the past, with Jerome Bettis and an Pro Bowl offensive line, embracing the conventional wisdom would have been a no brainer.
The Bus has retired. And suffice to say, our only Pro Bowl lineman was playing his last game. Against Jacksonville, a “riskier” strategy would have been the wiser course. Ben owned the Jaguars in the second half. We’d moved the ball decisively on Ben’s throws to Heath Miller and Hines Ward. When the game is on the line, you stick with your prime time players.
Even saying that, I can see running on first and second, to keep the clock running. And I credit Davenport for getting five yards on his first carry. He got nothing on second, which should be no surprise, as EVERYONE knew it was coming. But I take serious exception to the third down call.
Ben executed the run poorly. Nobody was fooled. It came across as a half-hearted effort to keep the clock running. You have to throw the ball in that situation, in fact, the situation screamed for a play action pass. The risk of stopping the clock with an incompletion is minuscule against the benefit of moving the chains.
Alas, we didn’t do that. Jacksonville got the ball back. Our defense did a decent job of stopping them, until Garrard burned us with his run on fourth down.
While it probably wouldn’t have changed the outcome, I fault Tyrone Carter on that play. When Garrard broke through for the first down, he was going for more and Carter was the only person standing in his way.
- Safety vs. quarterback. The safety should relish that battle. He should win it.
Instead of pursuing, Carter hesitated and Garrard ended up taking an extra 10 or 15 more yards. That play was huge, and it sealed Jacksonville’s victory.
As a whole, the game was representative of the entire season. The Steelers showed flashes of a championship caliber football.
- They also gave clinic on how to lose a playoff game.
If Rothlesberger’s failed third down run was the (non) play of the game, Jacksonville’s 96 yard kickoff return was a very, very close second. We opened the game by taking control, throwing our way downfield and then pounding in a score. That was EXACTLY what we needed to do…..
Then we invited them back into it the game. Pundits wax ad nausea about “momentum changing plays,” but this was one of them. It energized Jacksonville and threw us off balance for the rest of the half. Add that play Jacksonville’s points off of Ben’s interceptions and we spotted them 21 points.
You can’t do that. The Jaguars only went the length of the field once, twice if you count the last field goal. That’s 10 points to our 29.
I credit our players and coaches for making crucial second half adjustments, including playing Harrison on kickoff coverage. In the first half, when Ben wasn’t getting planted on the turf, he was trying to do too much to win the game himself.
In the second half, we improved pass protection and Ben calmed down and led us to a lead. Those are all positives. In spite of a long drive in the third quarter, overall the defense played well. They created turnovers, they attacked Garrard, they stuffed the run.
- In the end, it wasn’t enough. It should have been.
The middle 50 minutes was classic NFL playoff football. Two teams slugging it out. Control of the line of scrimmage changing hands. Capitalizing on turnovers. But the game’s bookends killed the Steelers. First, our chronic inability to execute on special teams cost us, again. Then we abandoned what had erased an 18 point deficit.
Self-inflicted wounds are the most painful, particularly in the playoffs. Now instead of New England, the Steelers face an off season of difficult decisions. I guess that’s what makes this loss sting even worse….