Kovacevic: Passive playcalling? Against Titans? Why?
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Don't blame Thursday.
However anyone chooses to analyze the Steelers' atrocious 26-23 loss to a terrible Tennessee team that dropped their record to 2-3 and might have tipped their playoff hopes, don't go the trite route of blaming the short week of preparation. It's preposterous to suggest. The Titans had the same break.
Don't blame all the injuries, either. The Titans were missing starting quarterback Jake Locker.
Don't blame playing on the road. If the Titans had a home-field edge, it would have been news to the 30,000-plus at LP Field decked out in black and gold.
And you know what?
Don't even blame the secondary.
Yeah, I was here. I saw Ike Taylor getting torched so often it's as if the Titans' receivers were trading Demaryius Thomas masks amongst each other. I saw Keenan Lewis allow a sure interception — if there is any such thing with the Steelers' defensive backs — to ricochet so far out of his hands it might have landed in Memphis. I saw Will Allen start for the first time in three years, sadly forced into action by the poor play of Ryan Mundy, who still found a way to do damage by missing his man on a Tennessee blocked punt.
Yeah, I saw it all. No need to pull punches. Exempting Ryan Clark, who was terrific again, this is the softest secondary the Steelers have seen since the Harvey Clayton days.
And that's with all due apologies to Mr. Clayton, who managed three more interceptions in 1986 than Taylor and Lewis have totaled this season.
This was Mike Tomlin's assessment afterward: “Obviously, we need to look at everything, but I doubt that the process itself is an issue.”
The bulk of the blame for this fiasco, if you ask me, goes to the playcalling.
Both sides of the ball.
Let's start with this simple premise: When facing a 1-4 team that's been outscored, 181-88 … um, let me think how to say this … oh, yeah … GO FOR THE JUGULAR.
Stamp them out early.
Sap them of their will.
Shouldn't have been all that hard in facing an opponent whose not-really-a-star running back, Chris Johnson, earlier in the week was quoted as saying, “We're not exactly headed in the right direction.”
Not until the Steelers played tour guide.
Dick LeBeau's defense came out in the same conservative mode we've maddeningly seen most of this season. The corners play miles off the line of scrimmage, and the linebackers occasionally join them. It looks at times like a video being rewound.
The result was immediate: Whatever's left of Matt Hasselbeck coolly moved Tennessee down the field for an opening field goal.
The Steelers responded with a tying field goal and, later, in the first quarter, decided to GO FOR THE JUGULAR with a Ben Roethlisberger heave to Mike Wallace.
The result: An 82-yard touchdown, a 10-3 lead, and Roethlisberger was 5 of 8 for 130 yards.
Why mess with that, right?
Well, for reasons only Tomlin and Todd Haley could know, this team seems hellbent on showing it can run between the tackles and throw screen passes, no matter the evidence to the contrary, no matter that Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman were felled by injury, no matter that they were playing the Titans and really might have done well to GO FOR THE JUGULAR at least another time or two.
They didn't. They ran up 22 rushes for 56 yards, yet another meager average of 2.5 per carry. That was lowlighted by a head-scratcher of a call on second-and-6 on the Steelers' last drive, on which Baron Batch was held to a yard. One incomplete pass later, Shaun Suisham missed a 54-yard field goal try.
That's no jab at Batch or Chris Rainey, undersized backs who did the best they could. And it's certainly no jab at the line, which lost Maurkice Pouncey for the game and Marcus Gilbert and Ramon Foster for spells.
No, it's an indictment of playcalling that's starting to look more like it's predicated on ego than, you know, winning the game.
When did how the Steelers win ever matter?
Defensively, Dick LeBeau's scheme was even more conservative and even less effective.
Again, I'm not absolving the players. All of the numbers point to a collection of corners utterly incapable of pressing.
But if there ever was a time to push an opponent around a little bit, this was it. In addition to using their backup QB, the Titans have a zero-star receiving corps. And yet, Hasselbeck stayed mostly comfortable thanks to few bring-the-house blitzes, and the receivers had ample room because of what the coaches call the “tackle-the-catch” approach.
Give even a bad NFL team an inch for free, and they'd be crazy not to take a yard.
As with Haley and the offense, why wouldn't LeBeau play to whatever strengths he has among his personnel?
Was that really James Harrison dropping back into coverage on tight end Jared Cook's 25-yard reception that set up the winning field goal?
Yeah, it was.
Don't blame Harrison for that.