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Asked and Answered: Dec. 31

Posted Dec 31, 2015

Another installment of Bob Labriola answering your questions about the Steelers and the NFL.

Let’s get to it:

NATHAN SMITH FROM WASHINGTON, D.C.:
Following up on the conversation in the Dec. 29 Asked and Answered, I actually did take the time to look up Mike Tomlin's record vs. teams that ended the season with a winning and losing record, through his first eight full seasons as the Steelers’ coach. I also broke out his record against the very good (10-6 or better) and the very bad (6-10 or worse). For kicks, I also did this for Bill Cowher's first eight full seasons.

Using the wonderful Profootballreference.com, and not promising I didn't make at least a couple of small mistakes, this is what I found: Tomlin is 46-16 against teams ending the season with a losing record, and 34-10 against the really bad teams. He is 25-23 against teams ending the season with a winning record, and 19-21 against the really good teams.

Cowher was 43-18 against losing teams and 31-15 against the really bad teams (both slightly worse than Tomlin). Against winning teams, he was 22-24 and 15-17, both slightly worse than Tomlin.

And a couple of things those romanticizing the past may not remember: the very good 1997 Steelers team (11-5 AFC Central Division champions and the host of the AFC Championship Game) lost at home to a 6-10 Cowboys team – 37-7 in the home opener – and another game to a 6-9-1 Eagles team – 23-20. The following year, which was 1998, the Bengals won three games, and two of those were against the Steelers.

Take all of the above for what it's worth.

Thanks for the effort. I use Profootballreference.com a lot, as well. Excellent source of information.

GRANT FRANJIONE FROM BRIDGEVILLE, PA:
Not a question, but just a note to say thanks for pushing back on those trying to make an issue of the Steelers losing to "bad teams" or "teams with losing records.” Looking at the final odds going into each game in 2015, the loss to the Ravens last Sunday was the first time all season that the Steelers lost a game in which they were favored. And by the way, they won four times when the other team was favored: at St. Louis, at San Diego, vs. Arizona, and at Cincinnati. People may forget that even though Baltimore came to Heinz Field with an 0-3 record for the game on Oct. 1, the Ravens were favored. The Ravens were healthy, coming off a strong 2014 season, and their losses were in close games. And the Steelers just lost Ben Roethlisberger to a knee injury in St. Louis the previous Sunday and had a very short week to prepare Mike Vick. And Kansas City was favored in that Oct. 25 game in Arrowhead Stadium, even with a 1-5 record, because the Chiefs were at home, many still saw them as a contender despite their poor start, and Landry Jones was making his first NFL start at quarterback. Also, almost all the top teams this season have lost at least once when favored: Seattle lost twice to the Rams, the Patriots lost to the Eagles, etc. There is simply not an issue here with the Steelers. All of the injury factors considered, they have done well to hopefully finish 10-6, which normally gets you into the playoffs, but quite unfortunately they are contending for Wild Card spots with teams on freakish win streaks: five in a row for the Jets and nine in a row for the Chiefs.

An interesting take, because even though the NFL makes every attempt to distance itself from gambling, there is no question that the popularity of the sport with bettors contributes to the consistently high television ratings the games deliver for the league’s broadcast partners.

Some questions that have been floating around in my head for the past few days with regard to this general topic: Would some fans feel better about this Steelers team if it had defeated the Ravens in Baltimore but lost the previous week to the 10-3 Broncos? And with the exception of the possible ramifications to tiebreakers, would those same fans have felt better about a sweep of the Ravens but losses to Arizona and Denver? In 2011, the Steelers finished 12-4, but they couldn’t beat anybody who was any good. They lost twice to the 12-4 Ravens, they lost to the 13-3 49ers, and they lost to the 10-6 Houston Texans.

SCOTT SOKOLOWSKI FROM CLARKSVILLE, MD:
There was a pass play in the game against the Ravens where Martavis Bryant caught the ball behind the coverage, but the play apparently was blown dead due to a penalty, and it was blown dead before he clearly was going to be able to score a touchdown. I'm unable to find the details in the NFL play-by-play to confirm, but why was that not a "free play" for the offense as I've seen numerous times when the defense is drawn offside? Why isn't that play listed on the NFL website?

The play is listed, but you kind of have to know what you’re looking for in order to find it. The play you reference was a third-and-5 from the Pittsburgh 25-yard line, and the Steelers were trailing, 10-3, with 9:17 left in the second quarter. The play-by-play reads: “(No Huddle, Shotgun) PENALTY on BLT-E.Dumervil, Neutral Zone Infraction, 5 yards, enforced at PIT 25 - No Play.” The reason why the play was whistled dead, instead of being one of those “free play” situations that normally come from a defensive offside penalty, was because referee Craig Wrolstad determined that Elvis Dumervil, in jumping offside, was “unabated to the quarterback.” That means in those situations where a defensive player jumps offside and has a free shot at a quarterback the play is blown dead immediately to prevent any free shots at players the league supposedly is trying to protect. From my vantage point, I didn’t see Dumervil as being “unabated to the quarterback,” but Wrolstad did and so the play was whistled dead immediately.

RICK MARKETTE FROM MCKEESPORT, PA:
What are your thoughts on Mike Tomlin’s decision to go for a first down (on a fourth-and-1 from the Baltimore 25-yard line) instead of taking a field goal (from 43 yards out) in the first quarter, which clearly would have given us a tie and a chance to win in overtime?

I’m not much of a gambler. Not in real life, nor in how I watch sporting events, especially football. I would have had Chris Boswell attempt the field goal, but that’s my personality, and with that personality would have come a similar decision in San Diego on the final play of the game, you remember, the one where Mike Tomlin decided to go all-in on winning the game right then and Le’Veon Bell delivered the victory on a nice run from the Wildcat.

I believe coaches have to be themselves, and the guy the Steelers hired is one who has said thousands of times that he doesn’t live in his fears and that he is going to play to win, as opposed to playing not to lose. That’s who Mike Tomlin is, and he displayed that in his decision in San Diego, in his decisions in the 2010 Divisional Round win over the Ravens and in the 2010 AFC Championship Game win over the Jets. In my opinion, it’s foolish to ask someone to make decisions against his personality, or against his personal philosophies. What I could not accept would be waffling, and by that I mean being aggressive in some situations and then playing conservatively in others, all within the context of a single game. Decide which way you want to proceed and then do so with conviction.

Finally, that decision in Baltimore last Sunday to eschew the field goal was made on the first possession of a 60-minute game, and so I think it’s a bit of a reach to assume those three points would have held up over the course of the rest of that game to be what got the Steelers into overtime. The arithmetic might indicate that, but it’s too much of a stretch to assume the rest of the game would have played out exactly as it did to get to a tie at the end of the fourth quarter. Too many variables, and too many subsequent decisions were made based on those variables.

GREG SMITH FROM GAINESVILLE, VA:
First off, I love Asked Answered. I never miss an installment. At the risk of getting chewed out by you, I am going to ask the question: Why is the defense so intent on playing such soft zone coverage? Against Baltimore the Steelers were facing a quarterback, Ryan Mallett, who signed 12 days or so before the game. Mallet had no chemistry or comfort with the receiving corps, and the Ravens receiving corps is nothing to write home about. I always hear that cornerbacks should jam the receiver off the line to disrupt the route and his timing with the quarterback. With a quarterback who is new to the offense you would think the defense would have been playing a bit more man-to-man and jamming the receivers off the line to disrupt Mallet's timing. Of course that didn't happen and Mallet ended up having his career best game. Your thoughts?

I believe the Steelers play zone coverage because they correctly have assessed they don’t have the kind of talent in the defensive backfield to play a lot of man-to-man, because if you play man-to-man without the proper talent there is a possibility of a lot of big plays allowed. The Steelers defense has allowed 12 pass plays of 40-or-more yards this season, and only four of those were touchdowns, and only three of the 12 came in games the Steelers ended up losing. Bend-but-don’t-break can be maddening to watch, but it’s a better alternative than giving up big plays that end up on the scoreboard. That said, in my opinion the pressure on Ryan Mallett wasn’t what it needed to be, and that more than the coverage is what I believe allowed him to put up career passing statistics.

JOHN H. HUNT FROM LEXINGTON, KY:
If you could "go-back" to that particular day, knowing what you know now, you couldn't have any enjoyment or anything else. It would be like a re-run to you.

Maybe a re-run, but I have seen “The Godfather,” as just one example, close to 100 times. Some re-runs have a way of remaining compelling.

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