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Steelers

Tim Benz: An unpopular view of Mike Tomlin's 'challenging' problem for Steelers

| Monday, Oct. 15, 2018, 12:15 a.m.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin directs his players on the sideline in the second half against the Bengals on Sunday, Oct. 14, 2018, in Cincinnati.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin directs his players on the sideline in the second half against the Bengals on Sunday, Oct. 14, 2018, in Cincinnati.

During Sunday’s 28-21 win in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin had a “challenging” problem.

Let’s be honest. If the Steelers had lost that game to the Bengals, we’d all be concentrating on one topic: Why didn’t Mike Tomlin challenge that call of James Conner being down at the 1-yard line?

You know the one . It happened on the first Steelers drive of the third quarter. Conner ran 25 yards before getting upended by Cincy’s Jessie Bates at the 1-yard line.

Replays showed that Conner might have gotten into the end zone. But Tomlin didn’t challenge the play.

The Steelers then went three-and-out from the 1-yard line. The club had to settle for a field goal and a 17-14 lead instead of a potential 21-14 advantage.

If the Steelers had lost 21-20, as they may have if Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown didn’t hook up for that winning touchdown, it would’ve been open season on Tomlin.

Based on some postgame phone calls I heard on TV and the radio, as well as what I saw on Twitter, Steelers fans were ready to light up the coach for keeping the red flag in his pocket.

Part of the reason for the rage was that Tomlin already had lost a challenge — and a timeout — in the first half because he challenged a spot on a Ryan Switzer reception that came up inches short of the first-down marker on third down.

He also had challenged a spot — and lost — against the Ravens two weeks ago.

So why not challenge this one, in a much bigger situation with what appeared to be a more valid argument than those other two situations?

“I didn’t see it,” Tomlin said after the game. “You don’t get opportunities at replay in visiting stadiums.”

Well, that’s a lame response. After all, Tomlin challenged the Switzer play earlier in the game. And it was such a big moment some people will say: “Why not at least give it a shot and see if the replay officials give you a break?”

Many will disagree, but I support Tomlin’s decision to keep the challenge flag in his pocket. Here are a few reasons why:

• First of all — and no one in Pittsburgh will agree with me on this — I thought the officials got it right on the field. At the very least, I didn’t see conclusive evidence to overturn it. It looks to me as if Conner didn’t break the plane of the goal line with the football before his shoulder touched the ground.

• It’s a greater roll of the dice to challenge when it is your last chance to do so. It is also a bigger risk to challenge in the second half when losing a timeout could cost you the game. The Steelers approached playcalling on their game-winning drive in the manner that they did, in part, because they had three timeouts on the board. Ben Roethlisberger said as much after the game.

“To look up and see three dots (in your timeout column),” the Steelers quarterback said. “There is no real panic.”

Maybe they would’ve only had two if Tomlin had challenged the call. Just because most of Pittsburgh thought that the decision should’ve been reversed, that doesn’t mean one guy in New York had the same opinion.

Because of the touchdown connection between Big Ben and Antonio Brown, the Steelers only needed one timeout.

However, if Brown had been tackled in play after that throw, the Steelers would have had to burn timeout No. 2. Then they likely would have used the third to get the field goal unit on the field after whatever play they tried next.

• I bet Tomlin is gun-shy about throwing challenge flags. The Switzer call was the eighth consecutive time Tomlin threw a challenge flag and lost. He hasn’t won a challenge since the playoff game versus the Miami Dolphins after the 2016 regular season.

• Given that the ball popped out after Conner rolled over the goal line, when did the play actually end? I know he picked up the ball on his own. But once he picked it up again and discarded it to celebrate with his teammates, would he have been whistled for a fumble?

That sounds stupid. But, then again, what did you think the first time you heard the phrase “surviving the ground?”

Sorry. Wish I didn’t have to bring back that memory.

• I’m sure Tomlin thought — and I can’t blame him for this — that, “It may not be wise to risk a 50-50 challenge when we only need to get a yard to score. I mean, we can get a yard, right? Right?”

Tomlin’s challenge strategy seems haphazard and random. It doesn’t appear that he is getting good advice on when to throw the flag. In many cases, I agree, he has deserved to be second-guessed.

In this instance, I understand why Tomlin waved the white flag on the idea of throwing the red one.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at tbenz@tribweb.com or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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