OAKLAND, Ca. – Stop me if you've heard this one before: When the Steelers needed it most, their defense couldn't make a play. Of course, you've heard it before, because it has happened before and very well could end up being the story of their season. And should that be the case, it will be a sad story indeed.
Yesterday, it was a 24-21 loss that shouldn't have been to a team of Raiders lugging a 2-10 record into an exercise that was as ugly as the venue on this otherwise pleasant December afternoon. From the Steelers' standpoint, there were many culprits for the outcome, starting with Coach Mike Tomlin's curious strategy regarding the usage of Ben Roethlisberger in the second half, to an offensive line that couldn't open any holes in Oakland's Swiss cheese run defense, to a placekicker who missed two makeable field goals in a game decided by three points.
But none of that ends up being more than a curiosity on the talk show circuit if the Steelers defense made a play, say, on one of the two fourth downs the Raiders converted on their pair of touchdown drives in the fourth quarter.
First, the quarterback situation, because, well, it's the quarterback situation and since the quarterback is Ben Roethlisberger and we're examining why the Steelers lost a game they shouldn't have, that's always the place to begin.
It's not completely clear, at least to me, when it happened, but at some point in the first half when Roethlisberger was completing 18-of-22 (81.8 percent) for 164 yards and a touchdown to JuJu Smith-Schuster with 10 seconds left to give the Steelers a 14-10 lead, he was injured. The announcement, made soon after the second half began, was that Roethlisberger was being evaluated in the locker room for a rib injury and that his return to the game was questionable.
When he emerged from the locker room later in the third quarter and joined the rest of the team on the sideline, he put a baseball cap on his head instead of a helmet. Roethlisberger watched the Steelers offense struggle to put even a couple of first downs together with Joshua Dobbs at quarterback, and then once the Raiders took a 17-14 lead with 5:20 remaining he was returned to the field.
Tomlin's history is that he's always been a "if he's medically cleared to play, he plays" type of coach to the point of having that attitude publicly criticized, and so I find it unlikely that he would hold Roethlisberger out of such an important game on a whim. And Roethlisberger is a wicked competitor who revels in his reputation as a tough guy who loves to come through for his teammates, and so it seems just as unlikely to me that he ever would choose to be a spectator rather than a participant.
Tomlin also will get ripped, and he already has been, for his decision not to use his timeouts once the Raiders got inside the Steelers 10-yard line late in the fourth quarter during what turned out to be the game-winning drive. Tomlin said he wanted to hold a timeout for the offense, and again, that has been his history, but since the Steelers lost the game and they flew back to Pittsburgh with one timeout left, his procedure there will be criticized as well. And as Chuck Noll always maintained, "When you lose, whatever they say about you is true."
But the usage of Roethlisberger and the timeouts is a moot point if the defense makes a play at any point during the Raiders' two fourth quarter touchdown drives, and those drives numbered a combined 22 plays and covered a total of 148 yards. That's a bunch of snaps and a lot of real estate covered for a defense to come up empty, but that's what the Steelers' did and generally speaking, that's why they're in the predicament in which they find themselves this morning.
The first of the Raiders' two fourth-down conversions came with 8:24 remaining in the fourth quarter with the Steelers holding a 14-10 lead. Oakland's offense arrived here ranked No. 22 in the NFL in rushing, and No. 31 in fourth-down conversions, but on this instance the Raiders made it look easy with a 5-yard run by Jalen Richard. Five plays later, a 3-yard pass to tight end Lee Smith put the Steelers behind, 17-14.
Oakland's tight ends totaled 10 catches for 148 yards and two touchdowns, and the combination of guys charged with covering Jared Cook, Smith, and Derek Carrier didn't get the job done. And neither did Morgan Burnett and Terrell Edmunds on a 39-yard completion to Seth Roberts on the first play after the two-minute warning that gave the Raiders a first-and-goal at the 7-yard line.
Roberts was double-covered, with Burnett in a trail position and Edmunds coming over from the left. Burnett turned back to find the ball too late, and Edmunds didn't get there in time. One second earlier, one step sooner, and maybe that's the play the Steelers defense so desperately needed. But "if" and "maybe" are four-letter words when it comes to December football in the NFL.
Three plays later, the Raiders were faced with a fourth-and-goal from the 6-yard line primarily because Burnett made a nice breakup of a pass for Cook in the end zone. Tomlin used a timeout there to set the defense, and whatever the call it certainly did not include any defensive backs in coverge giving ground in the end zone. But Mike Hilton didn't press Carrier, and when he slipped trying to come up once the ball was thrown it was an easy pitch-and-catch for the touchdown. To a tight end.
Stuff the running play. Don't find yourself behind a receiver in the end zone. When you don't do those things, the talking points become timeout usage and quarterback drama and the questioning of focus and preparedness, and to a degree, professionalism, because how can players who are focused and prepared and professional lose to a bad team when a victory would have done a great deal to put them in a position to reach some short-term goals.
Stuff the running play. Don't find yourself behind a receiver in the end zone. These are the kinds of things drilled in practice and emphasized in meetings at every level of football. It has little to do with strategy, or scheme. It simply comes down to football players making football plays when games are hanging in the balance. Winning teams make those plays, or at least they make one of them.
The Steelers didn't, and now it's their playoff hopes hanging in the balance.