F. Dale Lolley Column
Steelers blew game on one mishandled play
Pittsburgh drops ball on mishandled play
Pittsburgh Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey (53), center, is helped from the field after being injured in the first quarter an NFL football game against the Tennessee Titans, Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Don Wright)
Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey (53) is acknowledged by wide receiver Antonio Brown as he is taken from the field after being injured Sunday.
It’s often said that football games – or games in general – can hinge on one play.
After watching the Steelers muddle their way through a 16-9 loss in the season opener to Tennessee at Heinz Field, you can see how that’s the case.
The final score wasn’t as close as this game truly was, though the Titans didn’t do much offensively to win.
But this entire game turned on one fateful play in the first quarter.
After Tennessee’s Darius Reynaud fielded a bouncing opening kickoff at the Tennessee 1-yard line and then stepped back into the end zone to take a knee – and a safety – to give Pittsburgh a 2-0 lead, the Steelers marched quickly downfield to the Tennessee 6.
Along the way, however, they lost center Maurkice Pouncey when teammate David DeCastro inexplicably dove at the Pro Bowl center’s knee while blocking on a running play. DeCastro was trying to get the player Pouncey was engaged with to the ground.
With Kelvin Beachum in at center, the Steelers faced third-and-1 at the 6. They had a play they had worked on all week ready to go for just such a situation. They would have either LaRod Stephens-Howling or Felix Jones line up at tailback with Isaac Redman in front as a fullback. But instead of handing the ball off to the tailback, they would run a quick fullback dive to Redman, hoping to catch the Titans off guard.
The only problem was that the Steelers had fullback/tight end David Johnson on the field at tailback instead of Stephens-Howling or Jones. Several players looked to the sideline, where the coaching staff waived them back to the line of scrimmage. They quickly lined up with Johnson behind Redman. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Redman failed to connect on the handoff.
“When he called the play, I realized what he said and we looked around and thought we needed another tailback,” said Redman. “We looked to the sideline. Then we looked at the clock. D.J. went to tailback and I went to fullback. The exchange with Ben and Beachum was slower than it is between him and Pouncey. The whole timing of the play was off.”
The ball was fumbled into the end zone, where Tennessee recovered. Instead of taking a 9-0 lead, the Steelers came away empty.
The Steelers would not drive inside the Tennessee 10 again until the closing minutes of the game, when they scored a late touchdown after falling behind 16-2.
“In hindsight, we would look at taking (a timeout) there based on the result of the play,” said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.
Hindsight is indeed 20-20. But with players scrambling to get in place and a new center in the game, a timeout there probably would have been in order.
It didn’t happen.
“We didn’t play well enough,” said Tomlin. “We didn’t coach well enough.”
That much is certain.
“I thought about calling a timeout because we had the wrong personnel in,” said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. “The thing was, the play was going to Isaac Redman the whole time. He was in and knew the play, so I didn’t feel it was necessary to burn a timeout when we had the guys necessary to run that play.”
This is not to say the Steelers would have beaten the Titans had they scored a touchdown or even kicked a field goal in that situation. But it certainly changed the complexion of the game.
It let the Titans off the hook following a boneheaded play on their part.
“That was a big momentum change,” Redman said. “Any time you get down that close and come away without points, it hurts you. I almost wanted to call a timeout, but I’m not able to make that call. It was a messy play all the way around.”
And one that easily represented a messy day all around for the Steelers.
F. Dale Lolley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org