Armchair Coach: Tomlin’s mistakes cost Steelers chance at huge upset



Head coach Mike Tomlin and the Pittsburgh Steelers lost to the New England Patriots on Sunday, 27-16. (TNS)

By Steve Rotstein | Sports Editor

The Pittsburgh Steelers lost to the New England Patriots Sunday, 27-16 — but don’t blame backup quarterback Landry Jones. This one’s on the coach.

Jones performed admirably, starting in place of the injured Ben Roethlisberger. After throwing a horrible interception in the end zone on the Steelers’ second drive, he was surprisingly efficient, completing 29 of 47 passes for 281 yards and a touchdown against the stout Patriots defense.

But Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin made several bad decisions that hurt the team throughout the game. And when it mattered most, he didn’t give Jones a chance to bring the Steelers back.

Tomlin’s first bad decision came before the game even started. The Steelers won the coin toss, and he chose to receive the opening kickoff rather than defer to the second half.

This is common for the Steelers, even against tough opponents. Last year, in a 34-27 win against the eventual Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos, Roethlisberger asked Tomlin what he wanted to do if they won the coin toss.

“You want the ball? They’ve got the No. 1 defense in the world,” Roethlisberger asked.

“I’ve got you,” Tomlin replied.

But on Sunday, Tomlin didn’t have Roethlisberger — he had Jones. Roethlisberger is a quarterback Tomlin can expect to step right onto the field and lead the offense on a scoring drive. But Jones was making his third career start and likely needed a couple of series to get into the flow of the game.

Choosing to receive the opening kickoff with Jones isn’t all that bad, but doing so against the Patriots plays right to that team’s advantage. It’s well known that Patriots head coach Bill Belichick prefers to receive the second half kickoff to try to secure a “double possession” — by ending the first half with a score and receiving the ball again after halftime.

While the Steelers prevented that “double possession” with a field goal drive of their own to end the first half, they failed to pick up a first down on their first series, and the Patriots got the ball less than two minutes into the game — essentially starting both halves with possession of the ball.

Tomlin’s next mistake came with 12:46 left in the second quarter.

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady completed a pass over the middle to tight end Rob Gronkowski for 13 yards on third-and-9 and a new first down. After tackling Gronkowski to the ground, Steelers safety Mike Mitchell ripped the ball out of his hands, trying to trick the officials into ruling the pass incomplete.

Turns out his own coach took the bait instead.

Tomlin used one of his two allotted coaches’ challenges to get the referees to review the play, even though Gronkowski clearly caught it and went to the ground with control of the ball long before Mitchell ripped it out. Officials upheld the catch, and the Steelers wasted a challenge along with one of three first-half timeouts with almost 13 minutes left in the second quarter.

Poor clock management hurt the Steelers again in the second half as they burned their first timeout with 11:42 left in the third quarter and used another with 6:57 left in the fourth.

Trying to save timeouts is always important, especially at the end of the game. But those timeouts are also crucial in the first half against a team like the Patriots because teams need all the time and points they can get to win.

With the Steelers trailing, 27-16, with 9:05 left in the fourth quarter, Tomlin made yet another coaching error.

Just when it seemed like the game was getting out of reach, the Steelers recovered a fumble by Patriots punt returner Julian Edelman and were set up in great field position. The Steelers had all the momentum and a chance to really make things interesting by scoring a touchdown.

But rather than go for it on fourth-and-3 from the Patriots’ 36-yard line, Tomlin sent out kicker Chris Boswell for a 54-yard field goal attempt.

Yes, if Boswell made it, the Steelers would have been within eight points. But assuming Brady and the Patriots aren’t going to score again is a risky proposition. The Steelers were still going to need a touchdown at some point, and that was their best chance to get it.

Instead, Tomlin went with Boswell, whose career-long field goal is from 51 yards and had already missed from 42 yards out earlier in the game. His 54-yard attempt never had a chance, sailing well to the right of the goalpost. The Steelers never scored again.

The Patriots have the best record in the NFL and are the favorite to win the Super Bowl. They have a four-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback in Brady and a four-time Super Bowl-winning head coach in Belichick.

Playing without Roethlisberger — their own two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback — the Steelers needed Tomlin to coach one of the best games of his life to have a chance to win.

Instead, he picked a bad time to coach one of his worst.

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