It’s always nice when a shocking playoff loss comes with a handful of moments that can be picked out as the definitive causes of the collapse. Following their 45-42 loss to the Jaguars, the Steelers are left with these: two failed fourth-down conversions, a botched onside kick, and Mike Tomlin’s poor clock management.
Chalk up the terrible onside kick and the clock management to the likelihood that Tomlin never expected to be in a close game with just a few minutes left on the clock. That leaves the two fourth-down calls, which are absolutely confounding.
The first came at the end of the first quarter, with the Steelers down 14-0 and needing to convert a short fourth-and-1 to keep the drive going. It was a situation that was begging for a quarterback sneak or a run up the middle, but the Steelers called a toss play to Le’Veon Bell, who got blown up a good five yards in the backfield. Pittsburgh was in an almost identical situation in the fourth quarter, down 28-21, and called a play-action pass that fell incomplete.
You’ve probably seen this stat since the end of the game: Ben Roethlisberger has run the ball on fourth-and-1 19 times in his career and converted the first down 18 times. So what gives? Why didn’t the Steelers trust their big slab of a quarterback to do what he is uniquely suited to do and lean forward for a yard?
In his postgame press conference, Tomlin wouldn’t say much other than that he was comfortable with the fourth-down calls and believed that the Jaguars had the A and B gaps properly plugged to defend a sneak. Roethlisberger seemed a little more confused, telling reporters that he is all for sneaking the ball and wasn’t sure why he wasn’t allowed to:
I don’t know. It’s been awhile since we’ve run a quarterback sneak. I’m for it. That’s kind of over my head when it comes to why we don’t do it. I’m not gonna sit here and second-guess why we don’t quarterback sneak. I don’t know how many years it’s been since we ran a quarterback sneak, it’s not like it’s just this year. I don’t know.
There does seem to be an actual explanation here, and it’s that the Steelers don’t want Roethlisberger getting crunched. Early last season, the Pittsburgh Tribune reported that Big Ben had been campaigning to get more sneaks put into the playbook, but was denied by offensive coordinator Todd Haley, who explained his thinking to reporters:
“Those are kind of general staff decisions,” Haley said. “Some staffs choose not to let people earhole their quarterback in the side of the head. Other staffs take that risk at times. There is risk-reward with everything you do.”
It’s honorable, I suppose, for the Steelers to go out of their way to protect their quarterback, though fear of him getting earholed seems a little off in this situation, given that we’re talking about one-yard sneaks and not naked bootlegs. But honor doesn’t win playoff games, and there’s no getting around the fact that Haley and Tomlin squandered one of their quarterback’s greatest strengths twice in the same game, and lost because of it.