Mike Tomlin

Steelers admission of scrambled thinking confirms what led to late-game mess


Steelers admission of scrambled thinking confirms what led to late-game mess

Say this for the Steelers: It sounds like they're doing their best to be honest. But in the process they're only confirming just how ill-prepared they were in the final moments of Sunday's loss to the Patriots. 

Mike Tomlin met with reporters on Tuesday. Ben Roethlisberger called into his Pittsburgh radio show just before. Both spoke about what transpired in the final seconds of the game, and given their explanations it's no surprise they looked as discombobulated as they did on the field. 

Indecision reigned, and the result was chaos.

Let's start with the Steelers timeout call following JuJu Smith-Schuster's 69-yard catch-and-run. It looked like Roethlisberger was calling a timeout as soon as the play finished, but he claims he was asking his coaches on the sidelines if they wanted one called. 

"It's one of those situations," Roethlisberger said, "where you've got one timeout. You went 60-something -- I don't even know how far he went, but that's a long way for guys to run. I'm looking to the sidelines to coach, like, 'Are we taking this timeout? What are we doing?' Which is very typical. Obviously the only person that can communicate to me is [offensive coordinator] Todd [Haley]. He's asking Coach Tomlin and everybody. 

"I'm putting my hands up, like, 'Are we taking this timeout? Are we taking this timeout?' And Tony, the head official, thought I was calling timeout so he blew it. I'm not sure if Mike wanted to use it or not. I know that he was talking about trying to run up and spike it. But I guess Tony thought I was calling timeout . . . Unfortunately or fortunately, however you want to say it, we used our last timeout. But it gave us time to regroup, and it gave JuJu time to catch his breath, I'll tell you that."

Tomlin did not, in fact, want his team to call a timeout in that spot -- even though it appeared as though Roethlisberger and his linemen hadn't yet made it to midfield by the time Smith-Schuster was tackled at the Patriots 10-yard line. 

Then there was what happened after Roethlisberger hit Jesse James for what they thought was the go-ahead score. 

"I was on the sideline, on a knee," Roethlisberger said. "Getting a breath. Taking it all in. Praying. I had turned around and asked one of the TV people if it was good, and they nodded that yes it was good. I just was really ecstatic about that and happy. Obviously they don't know. They're not the officials. They're [looking] at the TV copy. They felt like it was good. 

"My helmet was on the whole time. Then, out of nowhere, coach Todd is like, 'Hey, Ben, this might not be good, let's get a play ready to go' . . . I started walking back down to where they were congregating, and that's when the official came out and said it wasn't good, and coach was communicating with me what play he wanted to run."

Roethlisberger said there was no second play drawn up on the sideline for that situation. They came to the line with what they had, and they were going to run it. The result was a short completion to Darius Heyward-Bey, who was tackled in bounds by Malcolm Butler. 

The clock ran.

"Obviously, I wish I would have maybe mentioned that to coach," Roethlisberger said when asked about the possibility of coming to the line with two plays ready. "Nothing got drawn up. Hindsight on a lot of situations at the end I wish we would've . . . I wish we would've called two plays. I wish we would've had two ready to go just in case. 

"I did communicate with the guys, 'Listen, we have no timeouts. If it's caught in bounds, we need to get up, and get ready to clock it. We gotta go. No penalties.' All these things. I tried to communicate that in the huddle with everybody. And that's kinda what happened. The ball was in bounds. It almost got out. So guys lined up for the clock like we'd talked about."

Then more confusion.  

"After that play," Roethlisberger said, "after I see the [official] signal in bounds, I'm yelling 'Clock! Clock! The second the offense hears 'Clock! Clock!' the only rule is the two outside receivers are on the ball, everybody else is off the ball . . . They're expecting me to spike the ball right away so there's no protection, no play, no nothing. 

"I was yelling 'Clock! Clock! and guys were getting set. Then it comes through my headset, 'Ben, don't clock it. Run a play. Run a play.' Well, at that time, guys are all over the place, no one's lined up in their proper spot. In order for me to get guys lined up to call a play, you're talking 15-20 seconds potentially. Then there's lots of what-if factors. At that moment, the only thing I can do is give a receiver a quick hand signal to run a quick route and try and hold the ball long enough -- because, like I said, the line is not blocking in protection. They're basically lining up. 

"In that moment in my head I'm thinking, 'Do I spike it? Do I not? I went with . . . I probably wish I went with my gut obviously now in hindsight. I should've listened to that instead of listening to running a play. I tried to make a play to Eli [Rogers]. I don't regret it. I just wish I made a better throw. I'll take the blame for the interception at the end of the game. My thought was clock it and then we either kick a field goal to tie, or run our best fourth-down play to win it."

Tomlin explained Tuesday that Roethlisberger could've spiked it if he wanted. 

The question then is, what next? Go for the win on fourth down? Or kick the field goal for overtime? 

"I would've loved it," Roethlisberger said when asked about the possibility of going for it on fourth down. "I think Coach Tomlin is almost crazy enough to go for it and win it. I don't know . . . But I know that was my thought in clocking it was giving ourselves at least the time to consider those options."

Turns out maybe Tomlin isn't as nuts as Roethlisberger thought. 

Crazy or not, the fact that the Steelers had very little ready to go following the "survive the ground" ruling, the fact that no one knew how to proceed following the Heyward-Bey catch, the fact that there was no agreed-upon fourth-down plan in mind and that they still don't know what they would've done had it come to that, speaks volumes of their mental state in those moments. Scrambled.

Mix of fear, hubris and disorganization led to Steelers' downfall

Mix of fear, hubris and disorganization led to Steelers' downfall

PITTSBURGH -- A weird mix of fear, respect and hubris led the Steelers meltdown Sunday evening.

All day and into the night, they did all the right things. Minimal mental stupidity. Great resilience. Mostly outstanding execution. Unforced physical errors at a minimum. 

For 59 minutes and 26 seconds they were on it. They had the Patriots where they wanted them. The elephant in the room? The Steelers had embraced it. There were fireworks. The kitchen was lit. Every other metaphor Mike Tomlin had used to whip up his team and fanbase worked. 

Then they short-circuited and kicked it away in the final 34 seconds.  

First, they burned a timeout at the end of the Juju Smith-Schuster catch-and-run that put the ball at the 10. That left them no way of stopping the clock aside from spiking the ball or throwing incomplete, which -- as we would see -- the Steelers opted not to. That bad time management was Mental Gaffe No. 1. 


We’d seen that before. Coming out of the two-minute warning in Super Bowl 49, the Seahawks burned their final timeout ON AN INCOMPLETION and that set the stage for their unprecedented (until Sunday) mental disintegration. To adeptly work clock management and manage down, distance and score while understanding how the game is playing out demands a little bit of zen. Bill Belichick praised Pittsburgh's outstanding game management earlier in the week. And those weren't empty words. The Steelers had been brilliant in executing comeback after comeback and recording four buzzer-beating wins. Now, though, they were on a slippery, sloppy slope. 

Next came the touchdown throw to Jesse James and Mental Gaffe No. 2. 

The reality of the reversal that hasn't been highlighted is simple. Either James didn't know the rule, chose to ignore it or, he too got swept away. His first job was to make the catch. He’s not a rookie. He's not a scrub. Presumably he watches games. It’s December. They coach this stuff every day. Or should. 

You can’t stick the ball out and put the fortunes of your team at the mercy of your grip strength. James did.  Forget the chest-puffing “trying to make a play . . . ” crap that’s pouring forth. One job. Catch it. Don’t bring the officials into it. Monkey roll into the end zone if you have to. 

From there, the Steelers threw in-bounds to Darrius Heyward-Bey and he wasn’t able to get out of bounds. Tick, tick, tick. Mental gaffe No. 3. And now the Steelers were on the precipice, clock running. 

In the 2015 season opener, the Steelers came undone in a loss at Foxboro. They didn't cover Rob Gronkowski on multiple plays. They looked unprepared. They got croaked. After the game, Tomlin complaining about headset interference. Ben Roethlisberger complained about the Patriots synchronized shifting on the defensive line. The loss was anybody’s fault but theirs. 

Now, with homefield and a chance to exorcise the Patriots demon in this game Tomlin walked the verbal plank for, confusion reigned. 

Roethlisberger said he got to the line with the intention of clocking it. The Steelers would kick the field goal and take their chances in overtime against a reeling defense.

 “I felt like that was the thing to do,” Roethlisberger said. “But it came from the sideline, ‘Don’t clock it! Run a play!’ At that point, everyone thinks I’m going to clock it and we didn’t have time to get everyone lined up.”

Terrific. Play of the year and you’re disorganized. And you’re trying to get the most well-prepared and anal team in NFL history for fall for the banana in the tailpipe.Like the Seahawks figuring the Patriots would never expect a pass and opting to throw into the teeth of coverage rather than taking a calculated risk with a fade. 

And here’s where the hubris comes in. Asked about the end-zone slant to Eli Rogers that was ricochet-picked, Tomlin said, “We play and play to win. That’s what we do.”

The words are “we play to win.” What he meant was, “we played to win on our terms..” With Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley lobbying to clock it and send the game to overtime, Tomlin -- who built this game up for a month -- injected himself and led with his chin. Mental gaffe No. 4.

This isn’t the NHL. You don’t get downgraded for the win if it comes in extra time. The Steelers are most likely traveling to Foxboro in January because Jesse James wasn’t tight on the rules -- blame him or the coaches for that -- and because Tomlin didn’t want to win the game, he wanted to win the game a certain way.

If that’s luck, the Patriots are lucky.

Back in 2009, Bill Belichick, iin a game at Indianapolis, went for it on fourth-and-2. That, obviously, was a diceroll that -- like Tomlin's on Sunday -- didn't work out. But here's the difference. The Patriots gambled because they didn't like their odds playing straight up. Take the chance to end the game, but don't give it back to Peyton Manning. It was understanding game situation and defensive shortcomings. Appreciating your weakness.

That's not why the Steelers gambled Sunday. They didn't fear overtime. And even though Tom Brady just went through them like poop through a goose, they didn't need to. The Patriots had forced one three-and-out all day. The Steelers were 10-for-16 on third down. They went for the win because winning right there would FEEL a certain way. It would make a certain statement about the Steelers and Tomlin. It would satiate their fans and their egos to see the Patriots on the canvas rather than seeing both teams standing after overtime with one having its hand raised on a decision. 

It took the Steelers an hour of football to push the Patriots to the ledge. But in the final 34 seconds, they were the ones that lost their footing. 


Tomlin won't complain about overturned score, but Steelers players heated

Tomlin won't complain about overturned score, but Steelers players heated

It's right there in Section 2, Article 7

"A player who goes to the ground," the NFL rulebook states, "in the process of attempting to secure possession . . . must maintain control of the ball until after his contact with the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone."

And so when the replays showed that Steelers tight end Jesse James lost possession of the football as he hit the ground reaching for the goal line in the final seconds of Sunday's loss to the Patriots, what the officials would conclude was relatively apparent: It was an incompletion, not a go-ahead score.


The reaction from the Steelers in the aftermath of the game was, um, mixed.

"I don't have HD and all of that stuff," said coach Mike Tomlin. "It's really irrelevant how I feel about it to be honest with you . . . I'm not gonna cry over spilled milk and all that crap about replay. I'm not doing it."

Tomlin's players took a different approach. 

"It sucks, honestly," said Steelers wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster, per to ESPN. "That was a b------- a-- call by the refs. I feel like he had ball control, he was in. In a game like that, when you go down, and you finish the game like that, and then boom, momentum, and the next thing you know (the referee) said he didn't have control of the ball. Nobody touched him."

Smith-Schuster wasn't alone. Outside the Steelers locker room, per Patriots Insider Tom E. Curran, players wondered how the James catch was overturned. 

Referee Tony Corrente was definitive after the game. He told a pool reporter that the terminology in Section 2, Article 7 applied in this instance.

"In order to have a completed pass, a receiver must survive going to the ground," game official Tony Corrente said afterward. "In this case, he had control of the football, but he was going to the ground. As he hit the ground, the ball began to roll and rotate and the ball hit the ground and that's the end of it at that point."