During six of the Steelers seven loses during the 2009 season, Steelers Nation watched in agony as the men in Black and Gold let fourth quarter lead after fourth quarter lead slip away in spite of themselves.
- Today against the Green Bay Packers the Pittsburgh Steelers reversed the course of events finding a way to a last minute victory in spite of some, perhaps, questionable coaching.
The Steelers and Packers are the NFL’s two most storied franchises, and so it is fitting that the two teams would play one for the ages on the first occasion that Pittsburgh-native Mike McCarthy brought the Packers to Heinz Field.
Please, spare me any analysis of how this game affects any playoff results, not because the Steelers still have a long, long way to go before that can become relevant, but rather because this game revealed something far more important.
The phrase “The Steelers and the Packers played one for the ages” conjures images of hard hitting, smash mouth football, of tyrannical coaches like Vince Lombardi, of mean and nasty players like Ray Nietzsche and Jack Lambert.
These images only intensify when you factor in that the Packers entered the game with the number two defense, and the Steelers entered the game with the number four defense.
- Instead, the two teams put on an air exhibition worthy of the legacies of Don Coryell and Joe Gibbs.
The word from the pundits all season long has been that today’s NFL is all about offense and passing and that defense and running have gone by the wayside.
Purists like yours truly has hopped that something would come along and disprove this thesis. Ironically, on Sunday Post Gazette ran a feature highlighting the success of the defense that Dom Capers, Dick LeBeau, and Marv Lewis installed in Pittsburgh back in 1992; the same defense Green Bay fielded.
- If any two teams could show that this 2009 obsession with passing was just a fad, it would be Green Bay and Pittsburgh. Alas, their play gave the pundits ample ammunition.
Be that as it may, things change quickly in the NFL, and what is in vogue one year can be old hat the next, and so it may be with the demise of defense and rushing.
But one thing that cannot be disputed is that:
- the Steelers defense, without Troy Polamlu at least, has no hope of defending the pass.
Was Mike Tomlin Crazy, or Calculating?
Which brings us to Mike Tomlin.
Steel Curtain Rising had prepared to condemn Mike Tomlin with moral indignation for on-sides kick, irrespective of the final out come.
Tomlin seemed to ignore the very lesson that the Packers most recent trip to Pittsburgh so clearly demonstrated: Trick plays can give an effective team an edge, but can be equally fatal for a struggling unit (click here for a full recount of the lesson Ray Sherman’s offense left us.)
It seemed like raw emotion, rather than reason, had gotten the better of Tomlin, and that the team was going to lose another one in the fourth not because of poor plays, but because of poor coaching decisions.
But then I read Tomlin’s explanation.
I’ll be very bluntly honest with you, based on the way the game was going in the second half, first of all I thought with the element of surprise we had a chance to get it, but if we didn’t get it and they were to score, then we would have necessary time on the clock to score or match their score.
Plan A didn’t work, we got the ball but we were illegal, that was the correct call, but it kind of unfolded the way you envisioned it. We had 30 minutes of evidence that we could drive the ball on them, we also conversely had 30 minutes of evidence to show they could also drive the ball on us. That’s why we took the risk when we did. [Emphasis added]
There you have it folks. In so many words, Mike Tomlin knew his defense had no chance of stopping the Packer’s passing offense – the Packers made little or no pretense of running the ball in the second half.
So his logic was cold and calculating. Either get the ball back and hope to add to the lead, or give them a short field to work with so that they can score quickly.
It is not pleasing to think that the defense has fallen so far that coaches need to take those game gambles, but they did, and it worked. Barley. But as Tomlin says, “they don’t add style points.”
Why They Call Him BIG Ben
Tomlin’s gamble worked because his players pulled it off. Losing is never pleasant, but during the Steelers five-game streak it was difficult to gauge whether each loss was more ignominious or more demoralizing. Bob Labriola, the editor of Steelers Digest, himself all but said the Steelers had quit against the Browns.
Credit Mike Tomlin for rallying his players. There was fight in this Steelers team, even among the units that failed to acquit themselves well (namely the entire defense, the coverage teams, and the offensive line.)
As Tomlin stated during his pre-game press conference, if you fail to play dominating football, then you’ve got to make plays.
- And Mike Tomlin’s players made plays, starting with Ben Roethlisberger.
Less than ten days ago authorities of no less stature than Bob Smizik and Jim Wexell were calling out Ben, claiming that generous love handles he had put on were impeding his both mobility and ability to improvise.
Well, Ben showed he can still improvise, and then some.
Games like this make you want to track down ESPN’s Thomas Neumann and Scott Symmes who wrote prior to the 2007 season, explaining why Ben would never make it to the Hall of Fame:
Roethlisberger proved to be an effective game manager in his first two pro seasons, and he has a Super Bowl ring to show for it…. Now the Steelers are losing personnel from their championship team, and nothing to this point suggests that Roethlisberger can carry an undermanned team on his shoulders…. [Emphasis added.]
On a day when Ben got no help from his offensive line, no help from the defense, and had little running game to lean on, he put up 503 yards passing – without throwing an interception, putting him in the exclusive company of Warren Moon and Y.A. Tittle.
Ben did more than carry his team. He had the commanding presence of a general on the battlefield. He adjusted protections, called audibles, and chewed out teammates, goading them to fight on.
As Santonio Holmes put it, “Only one guy was talking in huddle, and that was Ben. No other voice was spoken. No one had an opportunity to talk. We were dead tired.”
- Ben must have been tired too, but he did not let them stand in his way.
As Roethlisberger himself declared, “We didn’t quit, everybody believed that we could do it…. That is kind of a Pittsburgh mentality, we don’t quit no matter what.”
At 7-7 this Steelers team has some issues to resolve, but fortunately, attitude is not one of them.
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