Labriola on challenges, Conner vs. Bell, Bosa

Ready or not, here it comes:

• It was the third quarter of a game that was tied, 14-14. A 25-yard run by James Conner looked to many to be a 26-yard run by James Conner, which meant that as side judge Dyrol Prioleau was spotting the ball at the Cincinnati 1-yard line, what many were thinking, or screaming, was, “throw the challenge flag.”

• Mike Tomlin did not, and because the Steelers had to settle for a field goal and a 17-14 lead instead of getting a touchdown and a 21-14 lead, he has taken heat for his decision.

• I wouldn’t have thrown the challenge flag in that situation either, and what follows will be an attempt to explain my reasoning:

• As the ball was being spotted on the 1-yard line, there was 8:18 remaining in the third quarter, which meant there was 23:18 remaining in the game. Because of a failed challenge in the first half, Tomlin had just one challenge remaining. And because the first one was denied, challenging the Conner run would have meant being out of challenges for the rest of the game, regardless if this second one was successful or not.

• That’s too much time to be without a challenge, especially in a game against the Bengals, because these games can go from physical to competitive to contentious within the span of a few series, and I wouldn’t want to be without the opportunity to challenge anything until the final two minutes of the game and then depend upon booth reviews to do the right thing.

• Also, there was no slam dunk that the challenge on the Conner run would be upheld and a touchdown awarded. Prioleau was standing right there with a clear view of the play when he ruled Conner down short of the goal line. Would there be a clear view that would compel referee Clete Blakeman – or maybe more accurately, would there be a clear view that would compel Al Riveron in New York – to overturn the call on the field?

• And sitting in the Paul Brown Stadium press box with a television tuned to the network feed just above my seat, I didn’t see anything shown that offered anything close to definitive evidence, not that Conner had crossed the goal line but that the call on the field would be overturned.

• I believe that’s an important distinction for fans to grasp. When dealing with NFL officials, it’s not necessarily what is correct that must be considered but it’s what they are likely to call/overturn that should be the primary consideration.

• That’s why I wouldn’t have challenged the spot on the Ryan Switzer catch in the first half against the Bengals, as Tomlin did, because even though I believe the ball wasn’t spotted properly and that Switzer had gotten enough yardage for the first down, the zebras aren’t going to give you that call.

• Finally, since the Steelers already had scored two touchdowns in this game on 1-yard runs, I would have felt confident that a third touchdown from that distance was a much more sure thing than winning a challenge. And again, even if I win the challenge, I’m left with no more for the rest of the game.

• While on the subject of Conner, I have to admit to being impressed with every aspect of his performance so far this season, as well as with the significance of his contributions. I didn’t think he would have the kind of season he’s been having, not only in terms of his production but also in the physical, punishing manner in which he’s accumulating his statistics.

• Through six games this season, Conner has a better rushing average, more yards from scrimmage, and more touchdowns than Le’Veon Bell had in his first six games last season. Also, Conner has made himself a reliable blocker in passing situations, both in terms of recognition and also in his willingness to put his body between Ben Roethlisberger and the pass-rusher.

• Still, I’m not ready to say Conner vs. Bell is a wash, because there’s still something Conner has yet to be able to do, and that’s put the team on his back and carry it to victory in a game. To be fair, Conner has yet to be asked to do that, but whether he’ll be up to that particular challenge remains an unknown.

• Think Bell never did that? Think again.

• Just last season, Bell helped the Steelers beat the Ravens, 26-9, in Baltimore with 144 yard rushing on 35 carries (4.1 average) and two touchdowns, plus four catches for 42 more yards. Later in Kansas City, he rushed for 179 yards on 32 carries (5.6 average) and a touchdown in a 19-13 victory. Then in Cincinnati, he rushed for 76 yards on 18 carries but caught five passes for 106 yards and a touchdown in a 23-20 victory, and in that 39-38 come-from-behind victory over the Ravens at Heinz Field, Bell scored three touchdowns.

• Those all represent significant contributions in important games against quality opponents. Not that Conner can’t do the same, but so far he hasn’t.

• A couple of weeks ago, Mike Tomlin was fined $25,000 for making comments critical of the officiating in the Steelers’ victory over the Atlanta Falcons. Not surprisingly, Scott Green, the Executive Director of the NFLRA, made some self-serving comments in support of the fine.

• “Are we glad to see the league take a response like that? Yeah. But we’re not saying, ‘Hey, we never make a mistake.’ We make mistakes. [If] you want to point out our mistakes, that’s understandable,” Green said.

• I thought that was what Tomlin did.

• Nick Bosa, a college defensive end, and the brother of Chargers defensive end Joey and son of former Dolphins defensive lineman John, has decided he’s had enough of the boola-boola college game. After sustaining a core muscle injury on Sept. 15 that required surgery, Nick Bosa has decided to concentrate on rehabilitating his injury and then preparing for next April’s NFL Draft instead of playing for free for the honor and glory of The Ohio State University.

• Because of the NFL’s thirst for pass rushers and how rare they are – just ask Raiders coach Jon Gruden – and because Bosa arguably will be the best one available in the 2019 draft, he’s making a wise decision to concentrate on his life’s work, which is professional football.

• Bosa’s ability to play football at a high level is why Ohio State was paying him room and board to throw his body around the Horseshoe, and Bosa chose Ohio State because he determined it was the best place for him to advance his skills as a professional-football-player-to-be.

• And any NFL executive who says Bosa’s actions here will make him less desirable to a team is either lying or trying to make his stock drop so his team has a chance to pick him. Because Bosa will be a top five pick in the 2019 draft, and if you’re a team picking fifth and wanting him you’d be wise to consider a trade up in the round.