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Kovacevic: Tomlin's bizarre benchings

| Monday, Nov. 26, 2012,
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin on the sidelines during the Browns game at Cleveland Browns Stadium Nov. 25, 2012. Chaz Palla | Tribune Review

CLEVELAND — The amazing part wasn't the eight turnovers, and maybe that's the most amazing part in and of itself.

It wasn't that these desperate, defensively stout Steelers slinked off the field as 20-14 losers at Cleveland Browns Stadium, even though the home team was exactly as awful as advertised.

It wasn't that Drew Butler punted six times for 275 yards to essentially outgain Charlie Batch's offense, which amassed 248 when it wasn't booting the ball away.

And, no, it wasn't even that this allegedly deep, dynamic collection of running backs — Rashard Mendenhall, Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Chris Rainey — spit out the ball six times, losing four of them for half of those eight turnovers.

Mike Tomlin called it “ugly,” but I'd prefer to hear from the contrite culprits themselves. Not to name-drop, but these gentlemen seemed capable of coughing up explanations even if they had to fumble for words as they tried to come to grips … OK, sorry, I'll stop now.

Mendenhall: “Embarrassing. Frustrating.”

Dwyer: “Unbelievable.”

Redman: “Unacceptable.”

Rainey: “Can't do it. Can't have it.”

Suffice to say, it was inexcusable in the setting, indefensible given all four players' talent, inexplicable given their history of not being turnover-prone.

When Rainey said, “This is really all our fault,” he came close to the truth.

Close, but not all the way.

No, the truly amazing part to me, the question that lingered well after the Browns were done counting up souvenirs, was this: What exactly was Tomlin hoping to achieve by benching his top three running backs?

Part of it I understand. And for those unfamiliar with the fine print of the coach's doghouse lease, it goes a little like this:

1. Fumble.

2. Sit.

No discussion, no debate. When Dwyer fumbled in Week 3, he didn't carry another ball in anger until Week 6.

But this was wholly different. Or at least it should have been.

Sure, the Steelers' offense fell apart in every way, especially the fumbles. Redman recalled how “we'd just finish telling one guy to keep his head up, and the next guy would go out there and fumble, too.”

It was bizarre.

But Tomlin's reaction was no less bizarre: When Mendenhall fumbled, he was benched for Dwyer. When Dwyer fumbled, he was benched for Redman. When Redman fumbled, Rainey was summoned off kick-return duty.

“Man,” Rainey said with a shake of the head, “I didn't even think I was going to play .”

Play?

The 5-foot-8, 178-pound scatback was the goal-line back for the Steelers' 1-yard TD run near the end of the first half that brought a 14-13 lead. He even was sent, Bus-style, right between the tackles!

Had Rainey not pinballed outside and scored, Tomlin and offensive coordinator Todd Haley would have looked ridiculous.

Tomlin's explanation for benching the backs was succinct and predictable: “They were fumbling the ball. So we are going to play people who can secure the football. But after everybody does it, obviously, there aren't many choices left.”

OK, so why then did Tomlin come back with Rainey to open the second half?

Rainey didn't lose a fumble in the first half, but he let one slip out of bounds.

Is that the new standard?

The Steelers lugged that one-point lead into the third quarter, and they surely didn't need much more to bury this opponent. But their first two offensive drives moved the ball a total of 4 yards, and the Browns had life. That doesn't all fall on Rainey, of course, especially since Batch killed one of those drives with an interception. But Tomlin would have done far better to go with one of his best. Or one of his three best.

This, I dare say, smacked of coaching to be the coach rather than coaching to win.

It's not unreasonable to think one of Mendenhall, Dwyer or Redman could have broken a big one. Or that Mendenhall might have gotten going with more than four carries, Dwyer more than nine, Redman more than two. Or that going to the run had a better chance of success than anything involving the sadly struggling Batch.

Standing by one guy, showing a little faith, might even have cut short the cycle of fumbling.

As Mendenhall put it when asked that hypothetical, “Yeah, when you see it keep happening, you start to kind of shadow-box yourself out there.”

As fate and fickle fingers would have it, Mendenhall fumbled again shortly after his return late in the third quarter.

Like I said, plenty of blame to go around.

Bottom line: The Steelers face what nose tackle Casey Hampton correctly called “a steep climb” at 6-5, three games behind Baltimore in the AFC North with the Ravens next, with no real feel for when Ben Roethlisberger might return and still no clue about their No. 1 running back hierarchy.

It's well past time to pick one and see if the choice — or the football — sticks.

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