The hits keep coming. Thursday Night Football saw the New England Patriots waltz into Acrisure Stadium with a 2-10 record and leave with a 3-10 mark after beating the Pittsburgh Steelers 21-18.
- This one stings. And so it should.
The Steelers have just dropped back-to-back home games against twin 2-10 teams. Ouch. But losses leave lessons to be learned. In fact, there’s a saying in business “Fail quickly.” The 2023 Steelers looked like they might be taking that route in the season opening stinker vs San Francisco.
Instead they rallied, stitched together 7 wins, a few of which were ugly while some others resembled respectability. Now they’ve lost two games to weak teams after seemingly turning a corner in Cincinnati.
And the reason why is clear: Having lost the ability to fail quickly, Mike Tomlin’s decision-making in both games shows he’s willing to Fail Big, even though he clearly desires a different outcome.
Belichick Still the Boss
Last season, week two, brought the Patriots to Pittsburgh, and yours truly savored at the chance to see the Steelers go up against Bill Belichick sans Tom Brady. The hope was for a return to the pre-Brady days when the Steelers owed Belichick.
- It was not to be last September. It still isn’t this December.
At first glance the 6-3 Steelers should have had every advantage against the Patriots. Pittsburgh was playing at home on a short week against one of the few teams in the NFL that has a worse offense than theirs. But this overlooks a few inconvenient facts:
- The Patriots have an excellent run defense
- The ground game is the only thing that has sort of worked for the Steelers’ offense
- The Steelers were down to their 4th and 5th string linebackers
That last part is a bit of a fib. Although Elandon Roberts had left the game against the Cardinals with a groin injury, he did play 81% of the snaps against the Patriots. But the injury clearly impacted him. And the truth is that his counterpart, Mykal Walter was in between practice squad gigs just 38 days ago.
- Bill Belichick took note and mercilessly attacked the middle of the Steelers’ defense.
And for the game’s first 20 minutes or so, Bailey Zappe channeled his inner Tom Brady. Seriously. By the 7:38 mark of the second quarter, he’d thrown 3 touchdown passes on the Steelers’ defense – or half as many as Kenny Pickett has thrown all year.
The Patriots dominated just as thoroughly on the other side of the ball.
- Steelers tried to run and failed
- The Patriots’ pass rush collapsed the pocket around Mitch Trubisky
- And when it didn’t, their coverage confused him
The best plays on the Steelers first scoring drive were Tribuiky’s 15-yard scramble and the pass interference penalty that negated his first interception. But Trubisky had no such luck on his second interception, which set up an easy score (shout out to Connor Heyward for crossing the field to prevent a pick six.)
Credit Trubisky for showing a lot of mental toughness for ignoring the boos and chants for Mason Rudolph that were raining down from Acrisure Stadium throughout the first half. He closed the first half with a solid drive that saw the offense mix it up with a successful reverse to Calvin Austin, solid runs by Jaylen Warren and Najee Harris, and a 25-yard touchdown strike to Diontae Johnson.
Being down 21-10 at the half isn’t pretty, but it sure beats 21-3.
…The NFL Will Seldom Note and Quickly Forget
Professional football is a pass-fail endeavor. There are no “A’s for effort.” That’s the way it should be. But let’s also acknowledge something here which few elsewhere note:
- The Steelers’ defense performed a 180 degree adjustment against the Patriots’ offense.
It began at the tail end of the first half. New England had time to score, but sacks by Elandon Roberts and tackles for losses by Minkah Fitzpatrick stifled those hopes. Cam Heyward got into the act in the 2nd half, sacking Bailey Zappe on third down and forcing a punt.
- The Steelers opened the second half down 21-10.
The defense did its part, in the final two quarters, forcing 5 punts, securing a turnover, and not allowing the Patriots to even sniff a score. It wasn’t enough to redeem the 21 points so easily allowed it in the first half, but the effort gave the offense a chance to either succeed or fail.
Mike Tomlin signaled his intentions at the end of the first half to either go for it all and win or fail big by trying. The Patriots got the ball back with 2:50 remaining, and after two good plays by the defense, Tomlin called a time out. Ultimately the Steelers didn’t get a chance to score before half time, but Tomlin had set the tone.
Against the Cardinals, the Steelers reached the Red Zone, and on 4th and 1, after losing Kenny Pickett to injury, Mike Tomlin went for it. The Steelers didn’t make it, and the bottom fell out.
Take Tomlin at his word when he said he had no regrets because he did the same thing against the Patriots. Mykal Walker’s interception gave the Steelers the ball at the 10 yard line.
The Steelers called 3 plays, none of which worked, although Tribuisky salvaged one with a 7-yard scramble. Mike Tomlin didn’t blink. He went for it on fourth, but the pass protection broke down and an ugly dump off to Jaylen Warren netted just 1 yard. The Steelers needed 2.
Miles Killebrew blocked a punt to give the Steelers a second chance, and this time the Steelers scored. Tomlin went for 2, and Pat Freiermuth got the 2-point conversion, making it a 3-point game. The mathematicians will note that had Tomlin kicked a field goal instead of going for it on 4th, the Steelers could have tied the game.
- Tomlin wasn’t interested in a tie: He wanted a win.
The Steelers had the ball twice after narrowing the gap on the scoreboard to 3 – they managed 35 yards on 13 plays, going for it on 4th twice, succeeding once and failing the next time. Tomlin played to win but ended of failing. But at least he failed big.
Benefits of Failing Big
Mike Tomlin is in the middle of one of the toughest moments of his coaching career. But the temptation to treat this as a unique experience is a false one. Mike Tomlin is doing what he’s always done, put the game in the hands of his players at critical moments. Tomlin’s decision to go for it on fourth isn’t any different than:
- Going for 2 after a penalty in his first playoff game
- Handing to Le’Veon Bell on 4th and goal with no time left vs San Diego in ‘15
- Cal0ingl the Ben-to-Brown pass at the goal line with no time outs and 13 seconds left on Christmas in 2016 vs the Ravens
The difference in the last two weeks is that the Steelers have failed big whereas in two out of the three cases above, they succeeded. Failing big stings. But it does offer a dose of reality therapy, bringing home various painful truths:
- The offensive line is average at best, with at least two starters that need replaced.
- Ditto the wide receivers. Johnson and Pickett have talent but attitude issues.
- As for Austin and Allen Robinson? They’re placeholders.
- Firing Matt Canada was no panacea, as the answers certainly aren’t to be found in house.
The downside is that there’s really not many ways to apply that insight this late in the season. So Mike Tomlin should continue to play to win while being prepared to fail big.
If nothing else, we’ll find out who is mentally tough on this team.