The Pittsburgh Steelers, for all intents and purposes, were embarrassed by the Cleveland Browns in the Wildcard Round. A 28-0 deficit in the first quarter was too much for the team to overcome, ultimately falling 48-37. While there is plenty of blame to go around following such a poor performance, the bulk of the blame needs to fall on the Steelers coaches. It has been a trend in the Mike Tomlin era for the Steelers to lose playoffs games to teams they should beat. This year was no different, and there were specific moments where the Steelers coaches clearly mismanaged the game.
Steelers Coaches Let the Team Down
Mike Tomlin Lives in His Fears
The biggest example of bad decisions by the Steelers coaches came at the start of the fourth quarter. With all the momentum on their side, Pittsburgh was 4th and 1 from their own 46-yard line. At that point in the game, they trailed by 12 points and were looking to make it a one-score game. There was still plenty of time to complete the comeback if they could cut the deficit to five. It seemed like an obvious situation where Mike Tomlin would decide to go for it. Instead, the Steelers punted. What’s worse was how they punted.
Pittsburgh came out in their punt formation on 4th and 1. Instead of punting, they looked to draw the Browns offsides. It didn’t work, so they took the delay of game, then punted the ball into the end zone for a touchback. Why in the world would Tomlin send out the punt team to try and draw Cleveland offsides? If the plan was to look for a penalty and free first down, it would have made much more sense for the offense to give it a try. There’s no logical reason that Cleveland would have jumped offsides against the punt team. It was such a bizarre decision. Not going for it was bad enough. But attempting to draw a defense offsides using the punt team is absolutely asinine.
Ben Baldwin of The Athletic has a bot that he programmed to analyze fourth down decision making by coaches. When it was 4th and 1 from the 46, his bot gave a “VERY STRONG” recommendation to go for it. Pittsburgh’s win percentage, according to the model, was 18% if they went for it versus 11% with a punt. A successful conversion would have resulted in a 23% chance of winning. Here’s where it gets crazy. Even after the delay of game, on 4th and 6 from their own 41, the bot still gave Pittsburgh a “STRONG” recommendation to go for it. If the Steelers analytics department couldn’t figure that one out, there are some deeper issues with the team.
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Steelers Coaches Make Bad Offensive Choices
The Steelers coaches kicked off their night with a very bad decision. They decided to start Matt Feiler at left guard over Kevin Dotson, who had been the team’s best offensive lineman over the past few weeks by far. Seeing how the game played out, it probably wouldn’t have mattered. But it seemed pretty clear to pretty much all fans and analysts that Dotson was the better option to start at left guard. The decision was very perplexing.
There was some bad playcalling in the game too. Of course, the aforementioned punt in the fourth quarter takes the cake. But there were plenty more. How about Randy Fichtner calling a fullback dive on 3rd and 1 early in the game? Derek Watt hadn’t had a touch all season, but he got one in the playoffs. It worked, so there was no harm done, until Fichtner called the same exact play on the very next 3rd and 1. Of course, it was blown up for a loss. Randy Fichtner should thank Ben Roethlisberger everyday for keeping him employed so long. If Roethlisberger wasn’t the Steelers quarterback, it’s hard to imagine his good buddy Fichtner still having a job.
In general, the early offensive game plan was poor. Pittsburgh hadn’t been able to run the ball all year. They were statistically the worst rushing offense in the league this year. But when Pittsburgh went down 14-0 early in the game, Fichtner thought it was a good idea to come out and run the ball three straight times. They went three-and-out, punted, and went down 21-0 six plays later. The Steelers aren’t the Titans or Ravens. They don’t have the personnel to erase a multiple score deficit by running the ball. Of all people, their own offensive coordinator should recognize that.
Keith Butler’s Share of Blame
Defensive coordinator Keith Butler doesn’t get off the hook for his defense’s performance. Now, there are some disclaimers here. First, the defensive players played horribly. Butler can’t go out and play for them. And the offense didn’t exactly put the defense in a good spot. Defensively, Pittsburgh had to play almost-perfect football if they had any chance of erasing the 28-0 deficit. Nonetheless, Keith Butler made his fair share of mistakes in the game, just like the rest of the Steelers coaches.
One error that has driven Steelers fans crazy all year was trying to cover receivers with linebackers. Not just any receivers and any linebackers, though. We’re talking Robert Spillane covering Jarvis Landry, one of the league’s best route runners in the slot. Further, we’re talking T.J. Watt, one of the league’s best pass rushers and potential Defensive Player of the Year, covering receivers and tight ends 20 yards downfield. Former defensive back Darius Butler pointed out a very perplexing call by Butler late in the game.
This was a real HEAD-SCRATCHER!
3rd and 2. I have 4 DBs on the field and not one of them guarding @God_Son80 🤦🏿♂️ #NFLTwitter #Browns #SteelersNation #EverythingDB @Everything_DB @TheManToManPod pic.twitter.com/pC9GltVYBK
— Darius Butler (@DariusJButler) January 11, 2021
Another head-scratcher was Cassius Marsh playing 46 defensive snaps to Ola Adeniyi’s nine. When Alex Highsmith went down, it was almost exclusively Marsh who replaced him. Marsh has only been with the Steelers for a few weeks, while this is Adeniyi’s third year with the team. It’s minor, but it’s yet another questionable decision. Overall, it was a bad showing for Keith Butler. It was very obvious that he is not capable of putting together a good game plan when his out-of-this-world defensive talent has a bad game.
The Steelers coaching staff could look very different next year. We have all off-season to speculate on that, though. But in a disappointing playoff loss, it was the coaches who really stood out and deserve blame. Remember, the Browns were missing their head coach and only had one real practice all week. Watching the game, especially the first quarter, you would have thought the opposite. Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, and Randy Fichtner were outcoached by a replacement head coach and a staff that was missing a handful of assistants. There’s no way around it, as disappointing as it is.
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