Big Ben's late heroics save Tomlin from himself

BY Alex Marvez • December 20, 2009

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 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.

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