Steelers Go SPLAT in San Francisco, Squander Opportunity

As coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Mike Tomlin has steadfastly deflected credit for his player’s accomplishments. “Coaches simply put players in position to make plays” is one variation of Tomlin’s oft repeated mantra.

The Pittsburgh Steelers had a golden opportunity to leap ahead of Baltimore and New England by beating the San Francisco 49ers.

Taking advantage of that opportunity involved many factors, but none bigger than the decision to play Ben Roethlisberger or not.

  • Tomlin mishandled that decision.

“Mishandled,” is generous, Mike Tomlin perhaps made his worst decision in almost 5 years as the Steelers head coach.

Meet Ben Roethlisberger, The Mortal

Ben Roethlisberger is the toughest quarterback in the NFL. Ben’s toughness is both physical and mental. Ben’s ability to excel in the face of injury is legendary, from the Jacksonville game in 2008 all the way to his performance on Thursday night two weeks ago, is legendary.

Ben Roethlisberger is one of the great gamers in league history. And if the medical staff cleared him to play, and if the coaches thought he’d shown enough in practice, then Mike Tomlin made the right decision in start him.

  • It is one thing decide start a wounded quarterback, it is another thing to stubbornly stick to that decision.

And in Yoda speak, stubborn stick Mike Tomlin did.

Yes, the Steelers moved the ball well against the 49ers. But the Ben Roethlisberger interceptions killed the first two drives, which offered promise. That alone should have jolted Tomlin towards considering a switch.

The end of the first half should have clarified the need to switch. Down only by 6, the Steelers had a chance to get on the board.

  • But Ben Roethlisberger was too injured to run the hurry up offense.

During the second half there were numerous times when Ben attempted to evade passers in the way that only he can do, and nearly all of those times he either took a sack, threw the ball away, or couldn’t deliver it to his receivers.

The Steelers have one of the deepest quarterbacking bull pens in the NFL. (No, they do not have the Joe Montana-Steve Young tag team that the 49ers had in the late ‘80’s, but then again, who does?)

But Charlie Batch is 4-2 as a starter and Dennis Dixon is 2-1 as a starter. Why not play one?

If Charlie Batch shouldn’t have started the second half for the Steelers (and he should have) then he certainly should have gone in the game as soon as the 49ers went up 13 to 3 late in the third quarter, making the game a two-score contest.

The Steelers needed to get on the board twice. Shaun Suisham is a crap shoot, and Roethlisberger wasn’t leading any quick strike offense. Yet, Tomlin stuck with Roethlisberger.

Almost on queue, the next series played out like this:

  • Ben Roethlisberger took the Steelers from their 20 to the San Fran 30, where they ran once for no gain, threw two incompletion, and Suisham missed a 48 yarder
  • The defense, responded, forcing a 49ers 3 and out

By this point the 4th quarter had begun with Roethlisberger still under center.

  • After moving the Steelers from the 8 to the 28, Ben Roethlisberger suffered a strip-sack.

That gave the ball to San Fran at the 17 and 6 plays and, get this — a leaping penalty on Lawrence Timmons – later, they went up 20-3.

Scoring 17 points in 9 minutes in the 4th quarter on the road in the NFL is difficult but possible. But it is pure fantasy when your quarterback can’t throw beyond 15 yards and takes 30 seconds to get down field after a gain of more than 10 yards.

Yet Tomlin refused to put in Charlie Batch, which only served to subject Ben Roethlisberger to even more punishment.

A Word About the Steelers Defense

The Steelers defense has played better. Lawrence Timmons confirmed himself as 2011’s tremendous disappointment. LaMarr Woodley was inconsistent and ineffective. The Steelers needed something special from its defense, and did not get it from Troy Polamalu or any of the emerging players in the secondary.

But the defense only allowed 20 points against a San Francisco offense that benefited from 4 turnovers and started drives at its 27, 38, 47 and 47 yard lines in addition to starting two others at Pittsburgh’s 45 and 17 yard lines.

A “splash” play or two from Pittsburgh’s defense could have been a difference maker, and none was forthcoming. Considering the load they were asked to carry, coming down too hard on the defense is unfair.

Just Down or Down and Out?

The Steelers squandered a tremendous opportunity against San Francisco. Players take their cue from their leaders, and Ben’s slow, wounded and ineffective performance set the tone for the rest of the troops.

The 49ers game had a make or break feel to it.

  • The question now is this loss devastating enough to take the wind out of the Steelers sails?

The answer lies with Mike Tomlin. His stubborn refusal to switch quarterbacks cost his team a chance to dramatically alter the AFC playoff calculus in their favor.

With Pittsburgh back to facing Wild Card status, Tomlin’s challenge is to find a way to coax road wins out of a team that plays far better at home.

In meeting that challenge Mike Tomlin must prove to be more flexibile than he was Monday night vs. the 49ers.

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2 thoughts on “Steelers Go SPLAT in San Francisco, Squander Opportunity

  1. I only agree with half of your sentiment, Keith. I think Tomlin made the right decision to start Roethlisberger based on how he moved around the pocket. No, he wasn’t his usual self, but he was good enough.

    Last week, when I didn’t think so much good fortune would come the Steelers way, I was all for sitting Roethlisberger as much as possible over the last three games in-order to get him healthy and ready for the playoffs. However, once Baltimore lost, and the doctors said Ben was cleared to play, Tomlin just had to go with his guy. When you have that bye and number 1 seed dangling in front of you, there’s just no other choice to be made.

    And no other quarterback of Ben’s pedigree and accomplishments would have been lifted with a 6-0 deficit. It just wouldn’t happen.

    Once he went all in with Ben, he had to stay with him as long as the game was close, which it was until about 9 minutes remaining.

    Even after it was 13-3, the Steelers next drive looked as if it would result in a very quick score.

    Where I have a problem with Tomlin was his decision to let Roethlisberger stay in the game after the 49ers made it a three-score game with barely half a quarter to play.

    There, Tomlin should have excercised better judgement and gotten his franchise quarterback out of the game.

    While I disgree, you certainly state your case well, and as always, it’s a great read.

    Keep up the good work, brother!

  2. Tony,

    As always, thanks for your comments. It is funny to see how many different opnions there are of this issue in Steelers Nation.

    I am wondering if part of it wasn’t because of the broadcast – the commentators on ESPN America Latina kept focusing on and commenting on how Ben was limited by his injuries.

    I understand your sentiment, but when I saw him unable to hustle to the line of scrimmage after a long gain as the first half was winding down, I thought “man, he’s not well enough to play, get him out of there.”

    I guess the final point about “Going with Ben, Sticking with Ben” I understand that, but its not like any type of QB controversy is going to spring up if Batch comes in and leads them to victory.

    But I see your points, I just view the situation differently.

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