No faith in defense led to Steelers' onside kick
When a weary Mike Tomlin arrived home from the Steelers' 37-36 victory over the Packers, 8-year-old Dino popped the same question to his dad that much of Pittsburgh was asking.
Why did you try that onside kick?
According to the Steelers coach, his son got the politically incorrect answer.
``I just told him to be quiet,'' Tomlin said, laughing, on Tuesday.
The answer for the rest of the world was slightly more complicated, but essentially came down to this: Tomlin no longer believed his defense could stop the Packers during Green Bay's 22-point fourth quarter.
Had the Steelers (7-7) lost, Tomlin's gamble would have been as debated among Steelers fans as much as Patriots coach Bill Belichick's decision to go for it on fourth-and-2 at his own 28 late in the fourth quarter against Indianapolis. New England failed, giving the Colts a short field to drive for the game-winning score.
Tomlin's move didn't work, either, but the difference was the Steelers still had time to recover from it and win, keeping their AFC playoff hopes alive for another week.
With the Steelers leading 30-28 with 3:58 remaining on Sunday, Jeff Reed's bouncing attempt was fielded by Pittsburgh's Ike Taylor before it traveled the required 10 yards. Green Bay took over at the Pittsburgh 39 and needed just six plays to score on Aaron Rodgers' 24-yard pass to James Jones for a 36-30 lead.
If the Steelers had lost, Tomlin might have been spent the next six months explaining the call.
``My 8-year-old asked me what I was thinking. Other than that, I make no apologies,'' Tomlin said. ``In the latter part of the fourth quarter, I felt that both offenses were capable of moving the football. Making that decision to kick the onside kick started first and foremost with the belief we could get the football legally. We weren't able to do that. Even if we weren't able to do that with four minutes left, if we were not able to stop them, I felt we'd have significant time to navigate down the field.''
The Steelers had just enough time, with Ben Roethlisberger throwing a 19-yard TD pass to Mike Wallace on the final play to finish off the quarterback's 503-yard passing day and end the Steelers' five-game losing streak.
Tomlin also explained the idea was to hold Green Bay to a field goal - though, if that was the thinking, the prudent thing to do would have been to kick the ball deep, creating the greater possibility of a turnover or a stalled drive.
Regardless, the Steelers players now head into their final two games wondering why there's any reason to be confident in the defense when the head coach apparently isn't.
``We had 30 minutes of evidence to show they could also drive the ball on us,'' Tomlin said. ``That's why we took the risk when we did.''
That Pittsburgh defense was the NFL's best the last two seasons, leading the league in fewest yards, passing yards and points allowed in 2008. The Steelers are a respectable No. 6 overall this season, and No. 1 against the run, yet at this stage of the season their defense looks nothing like it did last year.
Last season, the Steelers allowed 10 points or fewer to five of their final seven opponents. This season, teams are scoring far more than that in the fourth quarter alone. The Steelers have given up 43 points in the final quarter - 22 to Green Bay, 21 to Oakland - in their last two home games.
For the season, the Steelers' 121 points allowed in the fourth quarter are the second-most in the league. By comparison, the New Orleans Saints have permitted 34 points and Baltimore, which plays in Pittsburgh on Sunday, has given up 59.
The breakdowns by the Steelers' secondary are evident, too. Only Minnesota and Arizona have allowed more yards passing in the fourth quarter than the Steelers' 1,142, and the 11 TD passes thrown against them in the final 15 minutes are a league high.
That secondary would look a lot better with safety Troy Polamalu in it, but he has missed all but a few plays of their last six games with a left knee injury. Tomlin offered no update Tuesday on Polamalu, who said last week he hopes to return Jan. 3 against Miami.
Tomlin has so few options - rookie Joe Burnett looked unsteady when inserted at cornerback - that he hasn't been able to sub out any of the defensive backs who are struggling. Right now, that's about everyone in the secondary.
The Steelers also aren't forcing turnovers; they haven't intercepted a pass in six games, and no Pittsburgh cornerback has picked off a pass all season.
At least no one in Pittsburgh is having to spend any time thinking up a catchy nickname for this defense. The Steel Curtain, it's not.