Make no mistake – this one’s on Ben. To his credit, the offense moved fairly well against what could be considered the NFL’s best defense. Couple that with the fact that he was playing on a bum ankle in a road contest in the west coast and his 330 yards and the team’s 8-of-14 performance on third down looks even better.
Of course, the most important numbers from the night were four and three. Four turnovers, three points – with the latter being the result of the former. In the end, it didn’t matter that the offense picked up some yards, because three interceptions and one fumble by the quarterback effectively killed four drives, including the first two of the game. Let’s take a closer look at the four turnovers.
1st Qtr, 10:36 remaining; 2nd-and-7 at the 49ers’ 19-yard line– This play was three-parts bad decision and one-part awkward play design. Roethlisberger lined up under center with a receiver and a tight end to each side and a running back in the backfield. Big Ben dropped back to pass before attempting a throw to Mike Wallace at the edge of the end zone. Truth be told, he would have needed a near miracle to sneak the pass through.
Carlos Rogers, who was responsible for covering Wallace, managed to stick with the receiver in close coverage. When the throw arrived, he was actually in better position than Wallace to catch the pass. He did, and it cost Pittsburgh at least three points.
Ben made two errors on the play. First, he tried to take the shot with Wallace despite having time to throw. Had he waited a half-second longer, he would have been able to hit Antonio Brown over the middle for a marginal gain and, most likely, a first down. Wallace was blanketed by Rogers and also had safety Dashon Goldson breaking his way. Goldson nearly got his hands on it himself before Rogers picked it off.
The other error was the location of the throw. If he was dead-set on going to Wallace, he needed to lead him with the pass. When the pass left Ben’s hands, Wallace had 20 yards of forward space to work with – 10 to the end zone and 10 more in the end zone. Had he led Wallace and thrown ahead of him, he might have been able to sneak the ball over Rogers. Even if he couldn’t, Rogers would have been much more likely to tip the pass, rather than intercept it. Instead, Ben threw back-shoulder to the inside, exactly where Rogers had the best chance of snagging it.
The other bizarre part of the play was its design. David Johnson was lined up on the right side with Wallace. The play had him going downfield, pretty close to where Wallace was set to end up. That brought extra coverage to the area. While it was the corner that ultimately made the play, the addition of the safety plus DJ’s defender made it an even more troubling decision. Besides, why is DJ running any route beyond five yards there? He’s already shown this season that he’s a poor threat as a receiver. That route design made as much sense as having a 36-year old James Farrior covering the most athletic tight end in the game one-on-one on a play in the third quarter.
1st Qtr, 0:32 remaining; 2nd-and-10 at the Steelers’ 42-yard line – Ben lines up in the shotgun with Mendenhall as his sidecar. Two receivers and a tight end left, one receiver right. The line did an excellent job on the play, giving Ben five seconds of free time where he didn’t even have to move. The quarterback fired a pass to Heath Miller that was too high and too hard. The ball hit off Miller’s fingertips and landed in the hands of safety Dashon Goldson.
This turnover was less of a bad decision and more of a poor throw. There was no reason to throw that high on Heath, who had to leap just to get a passing chance at catching it. It looked to me like the ball just sailed on Ben, something that was happening on a few of his incompletions in the first half. The problem with having a bum left ankle for a righty is that it makes it difficult to drive through on the pass. The result? Throwing mechanics that are slightly off because the passer has too much of his weight on his back foot, resulting in sailed throws.
4th Qtr, 11:31 remaining; 2nd-and-9 at the Steelers’ 29-yard line – Ben lines up in the shotgun, with the same personnel from the last turnover play. The 49ers get a good push at the snap and everyone is covered, and covered well. Ben’s fate is sealed right from the get go – this is a sack unless he throws it away. He chooses to wait – as he usually does – and takes the sack. Unfortunately, he also fumbles and the 49ers recover.
Here’s where Ben’s backyard-style becomes a double-edged sword. Even though it’s essentially a dead play from the get go, Ben tries to stay alive. Sometimes, it works. He shakes a rusher or two and makes one of his signature plays. Sometimes, he keeps the ball exposed too long and fails to tuck and protect it before it’s too late.
As a result, he’s become a bit of a fumbler, and that is something that has grown as his confidence has. In his first three seasons, he fumbled only nine times, including just four in his first two years. In the five seasons since (including this one), he has averaged nine fumbles per year.
I, personally, can normally live with that as long as he keeps making Ben-style plays to offset them. However, on a play like that where he’s already playing on a bad ankle, he needs to throw it away and play for the next down.
4th Qtr, 3:17 remaining; 2nd-and-10 at the 49ers’ 42-yard line – By the time this play occurred, the game was out of reach. Honestly, a hobbled Ben should have been on the sidelines for this drive (I won’t delve into that; it has received enough coverage/opinion). Similar personnel to the previous two turnovers.
Ben rears back at tries a deep shot to Mike Wallace, only to see the ball intercepted by Terrell Brown. The throw is to Wallace’s inside shoulder (where Brown is) as opposed to his outside shoulder. Like the first interception, he didn’t have much of a chance to make the reception. The throw was off, but the game was out of reach anyways.
With that in mind, should Ben have played at all? I’m personally fine with him playing if he thinks he can go, and I do believe he should be able to have a majority of the say of whether or not he’s on the field, provided that the medical staff clears him first.
It was an important matchup against one of the NFL’s best teams. A win meant the inside track on home-field advantage, something this team desperately needs. A loss would mean what is likely a wild-card berth and a slate of road games for a team that, quite frankly, plays terrible on the road.
In that situation, you want to see your best players on the field. No disrespect to Charlie Batch, but a hobbled Ben is still a stronger option. Could things have been different with Charlie as the quarterback? Sure. I believe the Steelers would have gone with a more conservative approach with the backup quarterback in, for one. Honestly, I would have liked to see them do the same with Ben under center – his injury warranted it.
Ben started and Charlie didn’t. Ben thought he could give it a go and, turnovers aside, he wasn’t bad. He wasn’t 100% though. Regardless, what’s done is done.
I really hate to complain about officiating, but this game warranted it. Oftentimes while watching the game on Monday night, I was forced to wonder whether the officiating crew was watching the same game I was.
They missed some important calls for sure, and I’m willing to cut any crew some slack when their job is to make tough judgment calls in pressure situations. However, the sheer volume of bizarre penalties worries me.
The most important blown call was, no doubt, the phantom returner interference call that negated a Steelers takeaway. Replays clearly showed that it was a 49ers blocker, not Keenan Lewis, impeding the return man’s chances of fielding a punt. Even before Lewis entered the play, the blocker was far too close to his return man.
Lewis actually had perfect timing on the play. He didn’t touch the returner until the ball reached him. Once it did, Lewis reached out and prevented the returner from pulling the ball into his chest. The result was a fumble, recovered by the Steelers.
Unfortunately, the crew thought that Lewis interfered with the catch and a penalty negated a big play in what was a 6-0 game to that point. That flag cost the Steelers a chance at a score, for sure, and affected the progression of the game.
The two chop blocks? Bogus. I haven’t seen two chop blocks called all season and they call two in one game? No doubt they happen, but what we say on Monday weren’t chop blocks. By rule, the defender being chop blocked has to already be engaged with another offensive player. Neither defender was, and each team earned itself a penalty anyways.
Leaping is a completely new one for me. I can say, with honesty, that I had never heard of such a thing before Monday. At first, I assumed they meant “leverage” or using a teammate/opponent as a way to boost your own jump. Turns out, they meant an illegal leap, a penalty which none of the three analysts in the booth agreed with.
One thing to note: when asked about the penalties the next day, the usually vague and emotionless Mike Tomlin seemed very displeased. He still said very little (though he did admit he didn’t receive a sufficient explanation), but it was easy to read between the lines to see that he was ticked off at the quality of the officiating.
Obviously, what’s done is done. I just hope this crew is held accountable for what was a poorly officiated contest. I would hate to see a playoff game altered the way this one was.
Stat that stood out to me the most on Monday? The average start of each team’s drive. Pittsburgh’s offense, on average, started at its own 15-yard line. On the other hand, San Francisco boasted an average starting position of its own 36-yard line, over 20 yards closer than the opponent.
The turnovers played a part in that, as two of Pittsburgh’s four turnovers occurred on their own side of the field. The other major factor was 49ers punter Andy Lee, who absolutely killed the Steelers. Six punts, four inside the 20, and most of those inside the 10.
It’s tough to score points when your offense has to go 80 or 90 yards every time out. Conversely, it’s easy to yield points when the opposing offense has less than 70 yards to go every time out.
For whatever reason, Pittsburgh has no pass rush on the road. For the third time this season, the Steelers defense ended the game without recording a sack. All three of those games have been on the road.
Those games aren’t outliers either. In seven road contests this season, the Steelers have only five sacks. In their seven home games, they have twenty-five sacks. The defense has picked up three or more takedowns in every home game this season.
I couldn’t begin tell you why the split is so massive. What I can tell you is that the team’s lack of a pass rush is a big reason why this team is getting killed away from Heinz Field.
Let’s do one final Pro Bowl update. The balloting closed this past week, meaning the fan portion of the voting is over. As I’m neither a coach nor a player, I submitted my ballot the same way many of you did – a fan ballot. Here is who I voted for:
Offense: QB Ben Roethlisberger, WR Mike Wallace
Defense: DE Brett Keisel, CB Ike Taylor
Special Teams: KR/PR Antonio Brown
Offensively, Big Ben and Mike Wallace are no-brainers. Even if I had waited to vote until after Monday night’s game, Ben would have been in. The way I saw it, Brady and Roethlisberger were my two locks at the position. Wallace has been one of the AFC’s best receivers and looked like a Pro Bowler from week one. Antonio Brown nearly made it onto my ballot, but I had a hard time subbing him in for any one of my three other receivers.
Defensively, I believe Keisel is having as good of a season as he had last year. He’s been a consistent threat in a front seven that has needed one, with all of the injuries. His stats aren’t as pretty as some of the other candidates, but he gets my nod for his all-around impact. Ike has been a stud all season and was an absolute lock in my eyes. Woodley and Harrison missed out this year, as I just couldn’t put them in with the time that each of them missed. Polamalu will likely make it, but the fan ballot only allows for one SS, and I had that spot filled.
Brown is top-five in average yards per return in both kickoffs and punts in the AFC, something no other regular AFC return-man can boast. He was a workhorse in both areas, and managed to pick up a touchdown along the way.