Victory changes attitude toward defense
Mike Wallace's latter-game touchdown might have redeemed Mike Tomlin's playcalling -- onside kick, anyone? -- and if the coach is lucky, the score may have changed the Steelers' season as well.
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With this shambles of a Steelers' defense sleep-walking through another tedious sequel, the one where they gallop from ahead still again to give the game away in the fourth quarter, and with head coach Mike Tomlin trying to accelerate that very process unwittingly or not, one play changed everything.
But potentially for a long time.
And, of course, maybe not at all.
One play, with three seconds left in a December drama that went on for 218 minutes, got Tomlin and his tiresome defense off the hook, raking from their backs what the head coach identified, with typical rhetorical flourish, as a "five-week monkey."
If there isn't a punk band called Five-Week Monkey, there certainly ought to be, just as there certainly ought to be some recognition on the part of everyone who contributed so mightily to what looked suspiciously like a six-week monkey of a losing streak that Ben Roethlisberger and rookie Mike Wallace averted exactly that with a harmonic blast of athletic brilliance unseen since Santonio Holmes tap-danced past three Arizona Cardinals at the end of Super Bowl XLIII.
"When I came out of my break, the ball was already in the air," Wallace said of Roethlisberger's game-winning strike, the one that vaulted the Steelers to a 37-36 victory at Heinz Field, its first in six weeks. "You really can't explain a throw like that."
Nor would you even attempt to explain it had Wallace not made the superb catch as he tip-toed at the end zone's left border in front of Green Bay's Josh Bell.
"There aren't many options when you're talking about having to put the ball in the end zone, and they have very good coverage," Tomlin said. "They had two deep with Charles Woodson acting as a middle linebacker in the middle of the field. That P-2 or Tampa-2 as people call it, there's not many places to throw the football and that's probably one of the few places that you can get to do it.
"What you look for is somebody one on one, and somebody's got to win it."
In a game when Roethlisberger set a Steelers record with 503 passing yards, when he completed 29 throws of 29 different degrees of difficulty, Wallace caught just two -- one for 60 yards and a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage, one for 19 yards and a touchdown on the last.
But that second one changed more than a game.
It handed Dick LeBeau's defense another week to find itself, to at least find out why there hasn't been a takeaway around here in nearly a month, to find out why Green Bay went 10 for 16 on third down yesterday on its way to 22 more fourth-quarter points, to find out whether there's any point in even pretending to be a playoff team with a secondary that looks like something out of bad post-apocalyptic cinema.
It furthered allowed Tomlin to regain his footing in a locker room where he has made it clear he doesn't trust the defensive half. Though he insisted otherwise yesterday, he has zero faith in his defense, which is why he ordered an onsides kick with the Steelers ahead by two points and 3:58 left on the fourth-quarter clock.
"I'll be very bluntly honest with you," he said. "Based on the way the game was going in the second half, first of all I thought with the element of surprise we had a chance to get it, but if we didn't get it and they were to score, then we would have the necessary time on the clock to score or match their score.
"We had 30 minutes of evidence that we could drive the ball on them. We also conversely had 30 minutes of evidence to show they could also drive the ball on us. That's why we took the risk when we did."
That sounds awfully close to plausible except that Tomlin kicked short on the previous kickoff as well, trying to have Jeff Reed drop one in a dead area from which there are few long returns. But in doing all of that, Tomlin set up Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (383 yards, three touchdowns) at his own 38 and at the Steelers' 39 in the final nine minutes of a game the Steelers once led, 24-14 and 27-21.
If you kick the ball deep both times -- and mind you there hasn't been a kick returned for a touchdown against these Steelers in four whole games -- maybe you make Rodgers work for more than 10 plays to get two touchdowns. Maybe a Steelers cornerback accidentally comes down with an interception for the first time since the AFC championship game almost a year ago.
But what are you telling your beleaguered defense when you're trying to manipulate field position so that they'll get off the field faster?
"It's hard to accept," said linebacker James Farrior. "But you have to look at it from the coach's position. You wouldn't want to lose just because you keep going with the same thing.
"I don't blame him."
Maybe Tomlin was simply bending convention to the reality of the moment, and maybe he deserves a ton of credit for that. But are you telling me he's so good at this that he can figure out exactly how long he needs to keep a panting defense out of the way to enable his burgeoning offense to score with no time remaining to win by one point?
That's a little too much genius for one day.
First Published December 21, 2009 12:00 am