Big Ben’s late heroics save Tomlin from himself

Mike Tomlin opened his postgame news conference with a succinct

statement about the Steelers’ playoff chances.

“Not dead yet.”

No thanks to him, of course.

Pittsburgh is still barely alive after Sunday’s 37-36 victory

over Green Bay despite Tomlin rather than because of him. Whatever

present he had planned to buy Ben Roethlisberger for Christmas,

Tomlin should spend triple.

The Steelers quarterback has no need to reciprocate. You

can’t put a price on the gift that Roethlisberger gave Tomlin with

a 19-yard touchdown pass to Mike Wallace as time expired. By

orchestrating yet another late game-winning drive a la Super Bowl

XLIII, Roethlisberger saved Tomlin from the ignominy that would

have followed one of the wackiest in-game coaching decisions this

side of Bill Belichick.

In fact, Tomlin’s call was so out there that it made New

England’s infamous failed fourth-down attempt against Indianapolis

last month seem like a low-stakes gamble.

The Steelers had just taken a 30-28 lead with 3:58 remaining

when Tomlin ordered an onside kick. That’s right. Pittsburgh was

leading  by two points, yet Tomlin was willing to

risk giving Green Bay prime field position through one of the

sport’s shakiest possession gambits.

The Packers were caught off-guard, but it didn’t matter.

Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor botched Jeff Reed’s squib by

touching the football before it had gone the required 10 yards. The

Packers took possession at Pittsburgh’s 39-yard line and marched

into the end zone on six plays, adding a two-point conversion with

2:06 left.

“With the element of surprise, I thought we had the chance to

get it,” Tomlin said. “But if we didn’t and they were to score, we

would have the necessary time to go down the field and score. Plan

A didn’t work, but it kind of unfolded the way you envision it.”

Come on. Not even Carnac the Magnificent was that good at

predicting the future.

According to the advancenflstats.com Web site, onside kicks

have a 60 percent success rate when used at unconventional times.

Tomlin figured 60 percent is greater than 100 percent effort from a

defense that has clearly lost his trust.

“We had 30 minutes of evidence there to show we could drive

the ball on them,” Tomlin said. “We also had 30 minutes of evidence

that they could drive the ball on us. That’s why we took the risk

when we did.”

So basically, Tomlin sloughed all the pressure of having to

drive the length of the field and score a touchdown against what

was the NFL’s No. 3-ranked defense on Roethlisberger’s shoulders.

Fortunately for Tomlin, Roethlisberger again carried the burden. In

vintage fashion during an 11-play, 86-yard drive, Roethlisberger

slithered out of numerous sack attempts. He converted in such

precarious situations as fourth-and-seven, third-and-15 and the

third-and-10 with three seconds left that broke Green Bay’s

back.

Roethlisberger said Wallace — a rookie wide receiver

whom he chewed out on the previous snap for a perceived lack of

effort — was his fifth read on the play. Fifth!!! Wallace,

though, came through with a tip-toe catch in front of cornerback

Josh Bell on the end-zone sideline. Reed’s extra point then won the

game.

“It’s amazing how one play can change everything,” said

Roethlisberger, who passed for a franchise-record 503 yards. “If

that last play is incomplete, there’s no one in the [locker room]

talking. Everyone’s down and we’re probably having the worst

Christmas ever.”

Nobody would have received a bigger lump of coal than Tomlin.

The Steelers (7-7) already were on the verge of becoming the first

defending Super Bowl champion to drop six consecutive games the

following season. Tomlin had promised Pittsburgh was going to

“unleash hell” in December, only to see the Steelers get roasted in

losses to lowly Kansas City, Oakland and Cleveland. Paced by 383

passing yards and three touchdowns from quarterback Aaron Rodgers,

Green Bay (9-5) was in prime position to further raise the heat.

Under Tomlin’s watch in 2009, the Steelers have lost their

identity. The strong running game that was the franchise’s

cornerstone is lacking. Unable to compensate for injured strong

safety Troy Polamalu, the Steel Curtain defense has been torn to

tatters in the fourth quarter. Special-teams coverage is abysmal.

While statistically still alive in a muddled AFC wild-card

race, the Steelers have seen the playoffs essentially slip away.

Some of the NFL’s most loyal fans already have given up hope. There

was more yellow from empty seats than Terrible Towels on display

Sunday in the Heinz Field upper deck.

Pittsburgh’s locker room might have been the next thing to go

without this improbable victory. Steelers defensive players

acknowledge they aren’t playing up to snuff — “We’ve been

letting this team down,” linebacker LaMarr Woodley said — but

they are a prideful, veteran bunch and deservedly so from previous

accomplishments. Tomlin chanced more than just field position with

his onside ploy. He also risked another divide in a locker room

that already has cohesion issues stemming from the recent

Roethlisberger-Hines Ward concussion controversy.

Tomlin, though, doesn’t lack for self-confidence. You don’t

successfully replace a coaching legend in Bill Cowher and win a

Lombardi Trophy at age 36 without lots of it. Tomlin says he

wouldn’t hesitate to attempt the onside kick again even knowing

failure and a Steelers loss would have resulted in heavier public

skewering than what Belichick received.

“I’ll wear that like a badge of honor,” Tomlin said. “That

comes with the job. I don’t live in my fear. I just play to win. I

don’t worry about being judged.”

He’s right. The ones who should worry? The players and

assistant coaches Tomlin will be kicking to the curb this offseason

as he tries righting the Steelers in 2010.