Gene Collier: Hazy coaching calls darken Steelers' poor season



Now that there's simply nowhere to turn in this pungent slumgullion of a Steelers season, let's just retrace our collective steps for a minute to follow that smell.

OK, well, that didn't take long.

It's coming from the sideline, according to our preliminary findings, where decisions keep getting made that only further detract from the reliably skittish performance of the athletes.

Tomlin discusses Steelers' 34-28 loss to Dolphins

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin disusses his team's loss to the Dolphins at Heinz Field Sunday. (Video by Matt Freed; 12/8/2013)

Do not adjust your nostrils.

"If you punt there, they have an opportunity to convert third downs and kill the clock and the game," Mike Tomlin was saying about what might and might not have been the absolute worst of those decisions Sunday.

"We hadn't done a great job of stopping them in the second half, so we weren't ensured of getting the ball back. If we didn't, then whatever was going to happen was going to happen quickly."

Rarely does the loquacious Tomlin deliver an explanation that makes less sense than the decision in question, but he nailed it right there.

Rare as well comes a football game so wild and entertaining that it still avoids yanking the focus from Tomlin and his staff.

Dolphins 34, Steelers 28 was just such an occurrence.

Running back Le'Veon Bell just shook his head as questioners wondered how he'd pretty much disappeared from the offense after a successful first quarter. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger tersely referred questions to offensive coordinator Todd Haley when asked pretty much the same thing.

"Their scheme, I don't know, there was no particular reason," said No. 7.

But let's start at the top, with Tomlin, who successfully refrained from breaking into the hokey pokey along the sideline this week, but succeeded at little else.

With the Steelers trailing, 31-28, and Roethlisberger's third-down pass tipped incomplete by Miami corner Nolan Carroll with 2:33 to play, Tomlin figured out a way not to punt -- which is what he was explaining above. The Steelers had two timeouts remaining, plus the two-minute warning, and were standing on their 10.

Going for it on fourth-and-10 from the 10 is a dubious proposition, particularly when a punt can push Miami back near midfield, where you stop the clock three times and maybe get the ball back into Roethlisberger's hands with a minute or more to play.

Deciding otherwise is high stakes, but Tomlin doubled down when he spent his second timeout before the fourth-down play.

With the clock stopped.

"We didn't have enough communication to get the type of call that we were comfortable with right there," Tomlin said. "We decided to [take the timeout] in an effort to get a good call and win that down.

"None of the other things that transpired after that were going to matter unless we got a good [play] call and made every effort to win that down."

Even after the play failed and Miami took over, Tomlin waited until after the two-minute warning to use his third timeout (at 1:54), which unnecessarily cost the Steelers another six seconds. But this wasn't so much a matter of seconds because the head coach had blundered outside of clock management across most of an afternoon.

It was Tomlin who instructed Troy Polamalu to return a missed field goal from 8 yards deep in the end zone, sending him on a wacky, two-lateral run that wound up involving a couple of legendary ball-handlers, nose tackle Steve McLendon and Ike Taylor.

"Absolutely," Tomlin said. "I waived him back there."

Just by letting the 52-yard field goal fall short, the Steelers could have run two or three plays from near midfield at the end of the first half trailing, 10-7.

But Tomlin wasn't helped in the least by Haley, who had Roethlisberger whipping it deep on third-and-3 and Bell watching almost helplessly as the offense failed to let him wind the clock when the situation pleaded for it.

"I really don't know," Bell said judiciously when asked if a snowy day and a four-point lead in the second half might have meant more than five carries for him after intermission. "I guess, whatever was going on, it was working, we got points."

True enough, and probably enough to win with a defense that doesn't give up 50-yard plays on an almost weekly basis (11 in 13 games).

But it's not far less than astounding that with a 28-24 lead in the fourth quarter, on a snow-covered field, the Steelers' play-calls went, pass, pass, pass, pass, run, pass on one possession. Then pass, run, pass, pass, pass on a second.

That's against a Miami defense ranked 25th against the run.

These are matters Dan Rooney and Art Rooney II have plenty of time to analyze between here and next September, as nothing looms urgently in between.

Even among the most pious of the faithful, plenty in the Steelers congregation got comfortable with the prospect of a football-free January as early as the third week of September, when Mike Tomlin's team got flogged in its own house by a Chicago Bears team that went on to scale the heights of mediocrity.

Others weren't convinced about the existence of a second consecutive season without playoffs until the Christmas tree went up, but no one who watched this latest home invasion, in which the Steelers failed to repel a disjointed school of fish that can barely keep from eating its own, can labor under any delusions.

It doesn't really matter that Antonio "Out of Bounds" Brown stepped across the sideline for no apparent reason on a final desperation play that might have won the game. Or that Tomlin violated another sideline the week before.

January will be dark.

Time to let it go.


Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.

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