2008 Steelers Loss to Colts Brings Mike Tomlin’s Dilemma into Focus

Steel Curtain Rising spent the better part of last week lavishing praise on the Steelers defense, zeroing in on Bruce Arians for his inability to adapt and, to some extent, defending Ben Roethlisberger from his critics.

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

As if on cue, the defense had its worst day of the season, Bruce Arians showed some flexibility, and Ben Roethlisberger continued to disappoint. Steel Curtain Rising took a respite from criticizing the pass protection, but had we not, one can safely assume that the Colts would have been held sackless.

  • If it was that kind day for the one lonely writer in the blogesphere, the loss to the Colts was far worse for the Steelers.

The Steelers hosted the Colts at Heinz Field for the first time since 2002 and despite leading for much of the game, they are left with a bunch of could haves, should haves, and would haves that all add up to the fact that, for the first time since opening day, Pittsburgh now shares the lead in the AFC North with someone else.

Its hard to interpret exactly what the loss to the Colts means. While the Colts entered with a 4-4 record, they showed that they are still a talented team with playmakers who can rise to the occasion. The Steelers of course showed progress in some areas, only to regress more in others.

Steelers Defense Against the Colts

The same defense that so thoroughly dominated the Washington Redskins Monday night followed up by giving up season highs in yardage against the Colts, and it gave up not one, but two big plays, something which it had not done much of this season.

  • Yet it is hard to criticize them too harshly.

The ball was simply not bouncing their way on Sunday.

Ike Taylor got “beaten” twice on big plays. One for a touchdown in the 1st quarter, and the other was a key third down conversion in the second half. In both cases Taylor’s coverage could not have been better. In the first case he got a hand on the ball, which he unwittingly deflected right into Reggie Wayne’s hands. In the second instance Taylor was in perfect position, Manning simply threw a perfect ball and the receiver made a phenomenal play.

  • That’s the difference between defending Peyton Manning to Marvin Harrison/Reggie Wayne as opposed to defending Eli Manning to Plaxico Burress.

And while the defense did not torment Manning the way they have other quarterbacks, they did keep Manning’s completion percentage below 50, and forced the Colts off the field late in the fourth quarter, for what could have been Pittsburgh’s kill the clock possession.

Arians Adjusts — The Steelers Offense Against the Colts

Accentuate the positive.

Ben was only sacked twice. Bruce Arians seemed determined to mitigate the pass rush by calling more three step drops. Ben got rid of the ball quickly, and was quite accurate (accept for when he wasn’t.) And if receivers weren’t able to get open downfield, they did a better job of holding on to the balls that were thrown to them. Arians even stayed faithful to the run.

Staying faithful to the run…. Ah, the offensive line does seem to be able to put together a complete day. The Colts came in with the league’s 25th rated run defense, yet the Steelers managed a measly 55 yards. Credit Mewelde Moore for giving all he had. He did, but in many cases there was just not room to run.

The Steelers fourth quarter redzone gambit provides a perfect example. Faced with a first and goal at the five the Steelers strategy was Punch It In. Such displays were once a staple of Steelers football. Their first run got them four yard. Just what you like to see. But on the next to Moore was stuff for no gain, and then got pancaked backwards for a loss.

The Steelers had punched it in in two similar situations prior to the game, but in both cases Moore had room to run. In the fourth quarter drive, when the Steelers were in a position to put the game away, he got none, and was unable to overpower the Colt’s defensive linemen.

Big Ben Roethlisberger Playing Hurt

Ben Roethlisberger is hurt. He separated his shoulder in the first week of the season, and has been nursing it since. Ben isn’t just a franchise quarterback, he’s a tough franchise quarterback.

But the injury is taking its toll.

As the Post-Gazette’s Bob Smizk pointed out:

  • In the first six games Ben threw 9 touchdown passes and three interceptions.
  • In the last three he has thrown one touchdown and eight interceptions.

Ben did an excellent job of finding receivers underneath. Its quite probably because the Colt’s coverage downfield was excellent. But it’s also possible his ability to throw the deep ball was limited.

Roethlisberger reinjured his shoulder on Monday night against the Redskins. He did not play the second half and missed a few days of practice. There was lots of talk that Mike Tomlin might sit Ben for a game….

Tomlin’s Dilemma

….Tomlin insisted if the Doctor’s gave Ben the greenlight, and that if Ben said he felt ok, Ben would play.

Ben played.

  • That was most probably a mistake.

Ben Roethlisberger is a gamer. If you ask him if he wants to play, he is going to say “yes.” He was in situations like this back in 2006, and Bill Cowher and company got him back into the lineup ASAP. It was a mistake the team should have learned from.

The first interception represented a very poor decision on Ben’s part, (as well as perhaps a poor play call on 3-2, but that debate is academic) and the second one was a miscommunication between Ben and Santonio Holmes.

  • Given that Ben played so well there rest of the game, were these attributable to the injury?

They quite possibly were.

The fact that Ben can play this well without practice speaks to his natural talent. But talent cannot entirely substitute for practice. Miscommunications can happen like this under any circumstance, but their probability is reduced through practice.

Beyond that, there lies the simple fact that Ben, when he’s in these types of situations, tries to do too much by himself. He tries to force things when he shouldn’t. He has as much admitted that this was the root of his poor play in 2006.

  • Steel Curtain Rising will wager here that this, as much as anything else, is the root of Ben’s current slump.

The Steelers face San Diego next Sunday, another team that, like the Colts, has underachieved but certainly has the talent to make a playoff run.

Tomlin constantly preaches that “injuries are not an excuse” and “we will win and lose with the eleven men who represent us on the field.”

When Charlie Batch broke his collarbone Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert did not hesitate to bring in the best available back up. They did it because they wanted to give themselves a shot at a championship in the event that Ben got hurt.

  • The logic was sound then and is even more sound now.

There is no shame, nor is there any reason to believe the Steelers will want to offer excuses, if Byron Leftwich ends up being one of those 11 men in the event that Ben is less than 100% come kickoff against the Chargers.

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