By HCR Staff | Dec. 27, 2018
There’s only one week left in the NFL regular season, which means Situational Calls weigh heavier with larger playoff implications. Throughout the season, there have only been a few instances where the entire league and media talked about a single call. We had one of those in Week 16, when Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin decided to attempt a fake punt on a fourth-and-5 with four minutes left — and the lead — in a crucial game against the New Orleans Saints.
First, here was the Steelers’ playoff picture prior to the start of the game: They sat atop the AFC North at 8-5-1 when the day began, but the Baltimore Ravens won their game earlier Sunday to improve to 9-6. So Pittsburgh needed to win to remain in control of their playoff destiny. To make matters worse, with both the Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans moving to 9-6, a loss would drop Pittsburgh way behind the chains, and making the playoffs would be a long shot at best.
There was a lot riding on this game, and the Steelers would have to overcome a team with the NFL’s record, in one of the hardest places for a road team to win. Things needed to go almost perfect for Tomlin’s crew to pull this one out… and things were going fairly well up until the end of the fourth quarter.
The Steelers rallied back from a 24-14 deficit to take a 28-24 lead with a little over four minutes left in the game. They drove to their own 42-yard line when they faced a fourth-and-5. Hoping to keep the ball away from Drew Brees as long as possible, Tomlin called the fake punt. New Orleans’ defense was up to the task and the ball was handed to the Saints in Pittsburgh territory. This was not the right decision under the circumstances. Tomlin defended his decision by saying he wanted to stay aggressive and there was a play call he liked. Teams have been aggressive against the Saints because they want to play keep=away from Brees, but this was not the right time.
While the Steelers were mounting their second-half comeback, the defense had held the Saints’ explosive offense scoreless for three consecutive possessions, so there really wasn’t a need to be aggressive — and risky — at that point.
If the Steelers punted, they would likely have gained a minimum of 30 yards in field position. As explosive as the Saints offense can be, they haven’t been the same in recent weeks — they weren’t consistently making multiple chunk plays of 25-plus yards on a single drive. They needed a touchdown here, so why not make them work for it? Instead, the turnover on downs gave the Saints a short field, and they took advantage of score the go-ahead touchdown. Sure, the Steelers had the opportunity to at least tie the game on the final drive, but it shouldn’t have come down to that. They had the lead, there wasn’t a ton of time left, and their defense was playing well.
It’s been a chaotic season for the Steelers. Throughout it, Tomlin has repeated they’d be fine as long as they didn’t beat themselves. Unfortunately for Tomlin, his decision is the latest and probably most detrimental self-inflicted wound the Steelers have suffered in this late-season collapse. There is still hope, but this week’s Situational Call may have knocked what looked to be a promising, resilient Steelers team out of January football.
For the record, Pittsburgh can only clinch a playoff berth if they beat the Bengals Sunday AND the Ravens lose or tie against Baltimore OR the Colts and Titans tie in their game.