Monday, 30 November 2015

From bad to worse

Do not try to figure out any tendencies as to how coach Mike Tomlin will play the percentages. Sometimes he does, sometimes he does not. Sometimes he is a riverboat gambler, sometimes as conservative as Chuck Noll.

Sometimes he is successful.

In a 39-30 loss Sunday at Seattle that cost the Steelers their spot as the wild-card playoff leader in the AFC, Tomlin took one big gamble and decided against another. It did not work out for the coach or his team either time.

The first came after the Steelers drove to the Seattle 27, leading, 3-0. They had a fourth-and-2. As luck would have it, the first quarter ended. Tomlin sent out the field-goal team with one exception -- instead of punter Jordan Berry, who normally holds for kicks, he sent out backup quarterback Landry Jones.

Because everyone had time to stand around a bit, the Seahawks might have noticed. The Steelers lined up in field-goal formation, but then Jones popped up from his holding position to take a shotgun snap. He tried to loft a pass to 6-foot-9 offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva on the left, but he did not get it over backup cornerback Jeremy Lane, who intercepted it and returned it 54 yards.

Seattle would go on to score to take a 7-3 lead.

As Tomlin pointed out several reasons for his team's loss -- four turnovers to none and way too many big plays against his defense -- he added that "I thought the fake field goal that was unsuccessful, I own that. That was part of it."

The break in the quarter gave the Seahawks enough time to see Jones on the field.

"They checked to a defensive play," guard Ramon Foster said. "If the ball was a little bit higher, we score on that. They checked personnel, they saw there was another guy in. They're smart guys and that's how they played us."

Said Seattle coach Pete Carroll, "We were prepared and anticipated that they would do something in the kicking game. It was played just perfectly. It was a great play by Jeremy."

The next major choice for Tomlin came much later, with 3:02 left in the game and the Steelers trailing, 32-27. They had fourth-and-goal at the Seattle 3. A touchdown would put them ahead. A failure to score would turn the ball over to the Seahawks deep in their territory. Instead, Tomlin had Chris Boswell kick a 22-yard field goal to cut the lead to 32-30.

He believed his defense would stop the Seahawks and the offense would get one more chance to win it.

"We just need to get a stop," Tomlin explained. "I felt confident in our ability to do it."

Instead, his defense gave the Seahawks a green light on third-and-10 from the Seattle 20 three plays later. It became 39-30 when Russell Wilson threw his fifth touchdown pass, a short one that Doug Baldwin turned into an 80-yarder after breaking two tackles by Mike Mitchell and Antwon Blake.

That was the ballgame.

Tomlin's players stood behind those decisions.

"I figured we had a good plan on that," Foster said. "Our defense was coming on pretty good, man. We have to be pretty good when those decisions are made. That falls on the players."

Added Blake, "That's our coach and we're behind whatever decision he makes. That's how I feel about it."

There was not much Tomlin could do about the rest of it. While Ben Roethlisberger threw for 456 yards -- third most in his career -- he also threw two interceptions that Seattle turned into touchdowns on its next series. Jones' interception off the fake field goal also became a touchdown. Those 21 points were more than enough.

There also was the matter that the Steelers defense could not stop the Seahawks on third-and-long -- from Seattle's first touchdown right up to that 80-yard touchdown to Baldwin.

The first came when Seattle had third-and-goal at the Steelers 16. Wilson zipped a pass to Tyler Lockett over the middle for a score.

"There's no reason why we can't win that down," defensive end Cam Heyward said. "That's in our favor and there is no way we should be letting them score on those plays or convert on those plays."

Seattle converted two third-and-10 situations and a third-and-16 on its next touchdown drive to go in front, 14-10.

Seattle was 7 of 13 on third downs. They had no turnovers. Wilson, who threw for 345 yards, was sacked just twice for 9 yards in losses. The Seahawks rushed for 100 yards with rookie sensation Thomas Rawls accounting for 81.

"I have a lot of confidence in this team and our defense," Heyward said. "But five touchdowns and 100 yards rushing is unacceptable.

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