Steelers

Kovacevic: So many signs pointing to the top

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JuJu Smith-Schuster loses the ball Sunday in New Orleans. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

NEW ORLEANS -- Rosie Nix isn't a man of few words. He's a man of a single syllable. And that's in the brightest, bubbliest of times.

Which this, most assuredly, was not.

"Yeah," came his answer to my first question.

"No," came his answer to my next.

Funny, I hadn't yet asked a yes-or-no question.

So I tried this instead: In that moment on this Sunday evening that he burst through that defensive front on that fake punt, as he gleefully spiked the ball into turf and bounded toward the rest of the Steelers with L.J. Fort and Cam Heyward leaping and dancing alongside .. what was swirling through his head?

This time, he went from syllables to sentences.

"I was excited for me. I was excited for my teammates," Nix would offer, head hung, through a hushed, biting tone that belied what he was describing. "I thought we had the first down. I thought we were going to win."

So did we, my man. So did we.

We thought it, if we're being honest, all through this latest splintered stake to the heart, a 31-28 loss to the Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. We thought it when Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown began blistering a previously impregnable defense. We thought it when JuJu Smith-Schuster battled an unforgiving groin to make that doubly unfair. We thought it when Fort blocked that late field goal and stirred a celebratory scene on his sideline unlike any all season. And you'd better believe we thought it with that last stubborn burst into New Orleans territory, where, as AB would affirm, "We weren't thinking field goal. We were thinking touchdown."

Because they, like Nix, thought they were going to win.

As we all would have, I'm betting. Had it not been for everything else that led up to this.

But all of that did happen. And added up, compounded by this climax -- these Steelers are now highly unlikely to participate in the upcoming playoffs -- that it might well define the immediate future of this franchise.

Not least of which is that of the head coach.

____________________

Few get to know Mike Tomlin, fewer still are privy to whatever might really be on his mind. I've covered him for more than a decade, and I'm not convinced he could pick me out of a police lineup. And that's cool. He's got his way.

I share this only because I felt like I learned more about the man in the span of a couple milliseconds after this game than in all the rest of his tenure combined.

Shortly after his postgame press conference, the locker room across the hall was opened to reporters. To reach the players' portion, a visitor has to wind through two tight, narrow hallways, one of which was assigned to Tomlin and his coordinators. One learns not to look where they shouldn't be looking in this business, but this was unavoidable. The door was three-quarters cracked open, and Tomlin was fully visible, slightly slumped on a folding chair, eyes glaring wide but aimlessly down at the floor and ... that's all I've got.

It felt jarring.

And sure, it felt a whole lot different than the standard stuff he'd just put forth at the podium, like this: "We made the bed, and we'll lay in it. I expect us to lay in it very well and perform."

That sort of commentary ticks off a ton of the fans, no doubt. It can sound cold, insincere and, worst by far, faux accountable. It's tantamount to declaring that the buck stops here but without ever delineating which desk.

But wait, here's the rest of that remark: "We will control what it is that we can control, like our preparation to play next week. All other things out of our control, we won't worry much about. Like everyone else, we had 15 opportunities at this point to make a case for ourselves. We won't lament our position. We will accept it and control the things that are in front us, and that's next week's preparation."

He means the Bengals, of course. By now, the entirety of the Nation knows it's got to pull on one of these between now and next Sunday ...

[caption id="attachment_744712" align="aligncenter" width="400"] CHRIS BENSON / DKPS[/caption]

... since the Browns need to beat the Ravens while the Steelers take care of their own business.

The part just before that, though, strayed outside the norm. Tomlin rarely, if ever, revisits anything beyond the previous game. He doesn't discuss streaks, trends and the like, and he really hates encapsulating anything over the scope of a full season. But he did there. He acknowledged those 15 opportunities. He acknowledged the "lament," as he put it.

Good. Because there's a lot to be lamented to date.

Cleveland was way back in the opener, but it was before Baker Mayfield, before the buffoon coaches were canned, before their recent discovery of momentary competence. And there were six turnovers committed. Six.

The Ravens came to town early and didn’t just beat the Steelers. They beat them up. Physically. They tried harder.

That 16-point blown lead to the Chargers would have been embarrassing anywhere but, at Heinz Field, in front of a stunned-silent home crowd, it was an utter emasculation.

Oakland. I still can't find adjectives for Oakland. Maybe it's just best to remind that, had Tomlin just snapped his fingers and put Roethlisberger back into the game once he'd been cleared by the Steelers' medical staff, their season never would have come to this.

Insane, right?

Hey, Roethlisberger himself called this season "kinda crazy" when that topic was broached after this game.

It has been, collapsing from 7-2-1 to 8-6-1 and that's not even touching on all of the team's various drama episodes, both perceived and real, as well as bungled clock management, botched or wasted challenges, still not hiring someone to help with video replays, and a lot else.

But sorry, I can't help but condense it into something so simple: Tomlin's Steelers just took on the Patriots and Saints, meaning Tom Brady and Drew Brees, on back-to-back Sundays, and they beat one of them and should've beaten the next.

Listen to this from Ramon Foster:

As you could hear him say of the Saints, "They're a really good team. But as you can see, we're a really good team, also."

He's right. Oh, they've got warts, but they've also got a Hall of Fame quarterback/receiver tandem that's obviously still in prime form, another receiver who's been maybe their best overall player for a month, a richly experienced offensive line, an emerging standout tight end, a young-ish defense that's legitimately gotten better in recent weeks ... and they won't make the playoffs?

That's what's really kinda crazy. And after being perched high atop the AFC North following that six-game winning streak, it's also -- and I use this term in the literal sense -- inexcusable.

____________________

So was this outcome. And I don't care how hypocritical that might come across, because there's room for both praising the Steelers for putting themselves in position to beat the NFL's best team and for bypassing multiple opportunities to finish it off.

Want to blame JuJu for the fumble that killed the final drive?

Go nuts ...

... but I won't. The kid was bulldozing forward -- to repeat, on a bum groin -- for every bit he could get on a drive that might have benefited most from field-goal position. That's a spirit only a fool would want to dissuade. Also, he was bested by a superlative effort from the Saints' Sheldon Rankins, a defensive tackle who came running an awfully long way downfield to punch that ball out.

To his credit, JuJu stood tall in front of the cameras and microphones and, while he was short, he addressed all questions:

He's proven his worth to this team 19,000 times over. He'll be the better for it.

Want to blame Stevan Ridley for his fumble earlier in the quarter?

Go nuts on him, too ...

... but I'm more inclined to point here to curious coaching.

As in, why suddenly veer away from Jaylen Samuels, who'd had another uplifting showing with 12 carries for 53 yards?

It wasn't because he couldn't handle the load, even with his remarkably light college background at running back. He could handle a dozen or so touches under any circumstance. And it absolutely wasn't because Tomlin and/or Randy Fichtner opted for the bigger back on a third-and-2, since Samuels, at 6-0, 225, is an inch taller and five pounds thicker.

Heck, for that matter, why go into a power-I formation on third down at all and advertise the play to the Saints so they could do what they did and amass humanity at the line?

"We felt like we were in two-down territory," Tomlin replied to a question on this. "We probably would have gone for it on fourth down, had we been unsuccessful and maintained possession of the ball."

It wasn't necessary at all, given how Samuels was running out of passing formations, particularly on the delayed draw.

Want to blame Nix for falling a half-yard shy on the fake punt?

OK, that'd be a little strange, but I'm sticking with a theme here, so roll with it. And that theme, in this case, swings us back to the call.

Part of me doesn't mind the fake punt, if only because advanced football analytics powerfully suggest coaches should try this more often. Another part of me didn't mind it because Jordan Berry's earlier bid to plant one inside the 20 wound up maddeningly sailing into the end zone. So the risk itself felt mitigated by the potential reward.

But -- and this requires a long exhale because it's obviously buoyed by hindsight -- the Steelers needed this game. Maybe this wasn't the time to get wacky-clever. What's more, they weren't at midfield. They were at their 42. And given that the Saints were down four and would need a touchdown, field position was paramount.

"I just wanted to be aggressive," Tomlin explained when this arose. "I wanted to ensure that we had an opportunity to win the game. First of all, I liked the play. I thought where the game was and the time left in the game ... I thought that, if we didn't stop them, that we would have the opportunity to have the ball last. We did. Obviously, it was unsuccessful."

Wait, wait ... what?

OK, now when this quote is weighed into it, the coaching goes from at least arguably understandable to something else entirely. Because, if I grasped that, a sizable slice of Tomlin's thinking involved what would happen not just if New Orleans scored but how quickly.

This play occurred with 4:11 on the clock. Even with Brees at the helm, the only concern at this juncture's got to be pushing the Saints back as far as they can go. The time left means nothing. All that's needed is a stop. And the chances of a stop are many degrees greater if the yardage is greater.

That actually seemed like something he might have spitballed on the way to the press conference. It couldn't have been real.

Want to blame Keith Butler for that soft defense at the end?

Bring that, too, especially if isolating on that third-and-20 that Brees completed to Ted Ginn down to the Pittsburgh 7:

If that scheme up there looks familiar, that's because it's been in place for most of the season and the results have been predictably poor: They'll put the standard four up front and drop everyone else into a vanilla zone coverage. And then, when those four can't get to the quarterback quickly enough, it'll dawn on someone that most of the guys in the back can't cover.

Watch that play again up there and zero in on the four guys in Ginn's vicinity, then ask what would compel someone to keep trying that at all, much less in a season-on-the-line situation.

But blaming Butler, as ever, comes with an asterisk in that, ever since last season when word emerged that Tomlin was taking over the defense, no further clarity's come of their roles. That's why all my references to the defensive coaching are Tomlin/Butler.

The blitz and the pass rush were working in the second half. If Tomlin wanted to go at Brees and play to his defense's strength, he'd have done so.

[caption id="attachment_744738" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Mike Tomlin argues with down judge Jerod Phillips. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

A final one of these: Want to blame the refs?

Well, let's instead take that this way: Want to blame Joe Haden?

Ha! Yeah, thought not!

Look, the officiating crew of Craig Wrolstad entered the game with the reputation of being both bad and of favoring the home team. The latter, generally speaking, is common in sports, and it's one of the most challenging aspects of training officials, to resist the very human inclination to be influenced by the crowd. But that, too, is part of being bad. And as much as some won't want to hear this, Vrolstad and his men were awful in both directions in this game, in fact throwing nine flags on the Saints to the Steelers' six.

Still, the two pass interference calls on Haden, both demonstrably incorrect, did more damage than all the rest combined. One led to New Orleans' first touchdown, and the other only kept the Steelers from winning the game.

“I’m very frustrated. I’m very pissed,” Haden would say at his stall, though in a calm voice. “This means a lot to me. I come out here, I bust my tail and try to play good defense. It’s just tough the way the game is changing."

The game hasn't changed that much. This was bad officiating, a stance buoyed by a host of former referees stating publicly -- on TV and social media -- what these refs misjudged specifically on the Haden calls.

But here, too, coaching looms large: Tomlin had two significant chances to challenge plays, and he didn't try either one.

One was a deep ball from Brees to Michael Thomas that, depending on one's viewpoint, he either failed to catch or fumbled. If it was the latter, since the Steelers pounced on it and were storming back the other way, it could have been enormous:

That's a fumble. Thomas takes two steps after firmly possessing the ball. As it was, the Saints would go on to score their second touchdown.

No challenge.

Tomlin would brush off questions about the referees' work, saying, "I'm not here to evaluate the officiating." But he is here to give his team every opportunity to win, and few things in football are bigger than change of possession. And all he did, from the best of our ability to discern from high above, was to ask one of Wrolstad's crew if he could challenge. When apparently told he couldn't, Tomlin was caught by a camera clearly speaking into his headset, "They told me I can't challenge it."

Without holding a master's degree in the NFL Rule Book, I don't see why not. Catch/fumble is absolutely within the scope, and the only thing that could have kept it from being reviewable was a whistle. No one heard one of those until well after the recovery.

Also, even if Tomlin was told he couldn't challenge, he could have thrown the red flag regardless, if only to stall and buy everyone -- including New York -- extra time to take another look. If the officials would then have told him he wasn't allowed to challenge, he couldn't have been penalized further.

In the fourth quarter, Ginn made this alleged catch:

That's not a catch. If looking at Ginn's right foot carefully, it's evident it tapped out of bounds upon second contact before the left one touched inbounds. It was part of the drive that led to the blocked field goal, so it didn't hurt. But it was a first down and improved field position, so it also didn't help.

No challenge.

As it was, Tomlin’s lone challenge was rejected, extending his losing streak to 11, which has just got to be a record.

Pardon me for the repeat screed, but it's mindboggling that the Steelers are the only team in Pittsburgh -- and one of the few in the NFL, to my knowledge -- that doesn't have a specialist for this. Fully equipped with all the video tools needed, and in full contact with the head coach or manager as needed.

When asked about Haden's second pass interference call, one on which some Steelers alleged that Stephon Tuitt tipped the ball at the line -- that would negate any interference -- Tomlin's response was as follows: "I thought that it was tipped, but I didn't have the courtesy of a replay."

He's referring to the stadium scoreboard.

Don't make me tell that whole story, yet again, about our exchange in Cincinnati on this subject. Short version: In road stadiums, he just looks at the big board and hopes they show a controversial replay that might go against the home team.

My God.

____________________

That's as far as I'll take this. For now.

The Steelers do have another game next week, and there are a billion reasons why they'll beat the Bengals, not least of which is that Rosie, Ramon and the other leaders will have everyone ready. It's also no longer unreasonable, much less laughable, to expect the Browns to be able to beat the Ravens, so the playoffs could still be at hand. And from there, since we've seen what this group can do against the league's top teams when duly focused, there might be something beyond, as well.

But something's off here. A distressing percentage of the signs keep pointing in the same direction.

And that will, someday, maybe soon, become a bona fide yes-or-no question.

MATT SUNDAY GALLERY

[caption id="attachment_744651" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Steelers at Saints, New Orleans, Dec. 23, 2018 - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

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