Other than bad officiating on purpose, nothing chafes my sense of righteousness like bad behavior and stupid philosophies being rewarded. The NFL changed its game to reward scaredy-cat QBs who couldn’t take a hit, dumped the ball off underneath, and would never take chances with the football. Now, they’re all the rage and statistically superior to gods of the game. AB bad-behaviored himself right into millions of dollars. And the Steelers won a game that reinforces the absolute worst of the head coach’s philosophy of the game.
There was zero reason for that game to have the slightest bit of 4th quarter drama. None. Zilch. Nada. The Steelers, just as they did a year ago to far worse results, gift-wrapped a bullshit comeback for the Chargers, only a couple of tremendous individual plays from Cam Sutton and a punter saved what could have been the most embarrassing loss of Mike Tomlin’s tenure. Literally the only way the Chargers could get anywhere near catching the Steelers after falling behind by 24-0 with 23 minutes left to play was if the Steelers completely took the air out of the balloon on 1srt/2nd down AND if they played 3 safeties a mile off the football on defense. Which is exactly what they did.
In truth, the game was made close a lot earlier than that, like, on Wednesday when the shit show of an offensive plan was borne and installed in practice. A plan that offered a young QB almost no chance to get a feel for the passing game, forcing him into 3rd down throws instead of giving him early-down looks, and once again, turning everything into passes with 2 -3 air yards. You’re not protecting your QB with that 1974 bullshit; you’re handicapping him. 1st and 2nd down are where QBs get open looks and softer coverage. The QB you started played in a run and gun offense, where he was the National player of the year at least once and where he set the all-time passing record. You brought him in largely because he could sling it. You then install a game plan that takes away what he does best and insert one that asks him to do the hardest stuff. It’s not just dull and risk-averse, it’s dumb.
There is nothing new about this approach. It is the Steelers’ “identity” as much as anything. Not just close to the vest but inside the vest, under a couple layers of bulletproof Kevlar.
Yes, the Steelers had a big lead, thanks to its defense playing its best road game of recent memory, and yes, there wasn’t a big need to take a lot of chances… but throwing the ball past the line of scrimmage is not taking an unnecessary risk, unless you’re Mike Tomlin or his philosophical ancestor Woody Hayes. A couple of 1st downs on early-down throws and this game is considerably less close going into Q4. Maybe you’re sitting you studs on defense and they don’t get injured. Maybe some young guys can finally get some snaps. Maybe you can avoid losing games you have no business losing.
While they had Stephon Tuitt and before Haden and Watt got banged up, the Steelers defense played exceptionally well. Devin Bush did something even Ryan Shazier never did: score a TD (of course, Shazier was robbed of a fumble return TD in a certain Cincinnati playoff game). Tuitt, Watt, Dupree, Heyward, Bush, and Vince Williams simply overwhelmed the Chargers OL. They couldn’t do ANYTHING for 45 minutes of football, unless someone on defense fell down or missed a tackle. They played like someone explained the 1876 NFL season to them.
After Tuitt left with what could possibly be a season-ending injury, they were still good but the performance drifted off like the end of every vocal phrase Christopher Cross ever sang (kids, ask your parents). As banged up as they look right now, it’s hard to say this level of defensive dominance can continue, but the team finally––FINALLY––appears to have found a formula and enough 1st round draft picks to make it work. The last 4 games have featured some tremendous defensive play, pass rush, coverage, and forced turnovers.
It might be that the Steelers’ lack of playmakers on offense proves too much to overcome vs better teams. Or, it might be that we have no idea if the playmakers can make plays because they spend so little time targeting them. Where were the seam throws to TEs? Against a team missing its All-World SS? Where were the short crossers to JuJu? The deep targets to Moncrief–– one of the few things he’s done well in his career? If you spend so much time worrying about if you might get robbed that you never spend a dollar, where does that get you? What do you learn? How do you know what to do when your original plan doesn’t work the way you thought it would?
Sadly, the biggest and most likely takeaway from this game is that the Head Coach and his minions will think they won because they bubble-wrapped their young QB, didn’t go for it on 4th and 1 so they could have a 75% chance of ending the game vs a 60% chance of winning after a great punt. Because they played prevent defense vs a HOF-ish QB who was ready to go home before that. Because they would rather lose a close game than take a chance of putting another team away ON OFFENSE–– something they think can only be done on defense.
Cam Sutton was tremendous and there is zero reason for him to be playing behind Artie Burns on the outside. James Conner played possibly the best game of his career, although he always seems to have a breakout game vs. he worst rush defense teams. Maybe that’s enough to make it work, though, because the state of run defense in the NFL is brutally bad. Duck Hodges deserved a slightly better fate with the gameplan and with Johnny Holton’s effort on the deep ball INT, but he did miss a wide-open JuJu on the first play and did completely miss Ryan Switzer (of all people) running free behind the secondary on one of his rare non-3rd down throwing opportunities. I couldn’t tell you that Mason Rudolph is better than Hodges from how either have played to this point. Here’s what the statistics and scoreboard say:
Rudolph: 1-2 63/94 67.0% 646yds 7 TD 7.4% 2 INT 2.1% 6.9 YPA 7.4 AYA 102.5 rat 44.6 QBR
Hodges : 1-0 22/29 75.9% 200yds 1TD 3.4% 1 INT 3.4% 6.9 YPA 6.0 AYA 91.2 rat 88.4 QBR
The Steelers will choose the obvious path, going back to Rudolph for their next game, post-bye… but I’m not sure the reality of either QB being obviously better than the other has been determined. Mason gets his shot to keep or lose the job going forward, and that’s fine. Whether either really gets to play ball without a leash remains to be seen.