PITTSBURGH – Ben Roethlisberger might be the king of the comeback – as he repeatedly shows against some of the toughest defenses in the league.
But, with a lead, Roethlisberger’s just another robot taking orders from a coach who wants to kill the clock with the running game.
In the last two games, the Steelers have not killed the clock, and they’ve squandered leads and lost both games.
So, why can’t the Steelers attack with Roethlisberger as if he’s trying to come from behind?
“I guess you could,” said Roethlisberger. “When we’re behind we’re pressing the issue, we’re passing, we’re really hurrying things up, and when you get the lead you tend to slow things down and run the ball and try to use up as much clock as you can. So, I guess you could, but the smart play is to use the clock and count on your defense.”
But, it hasn’t been so smart lately, has it?
“Two games,” Roethlisberger said, emphasizing the shallow pool of statistical evidence.
Problem is, it hasn’t only been two games for the Steelers. Before letting 4th-quarter leads slip in Chicago and Cincinnati, the Steelers lost a 4th-quarter lead in the Super Bowl. In fact, the last six times the Steelers have sent out their offense for a series (that didn’t include a kneeldown) with a lead of 8 points or fewer, they’ve lost that short lead five times.
The Steelers lost late leads, and games, to the Bears, Bengals, Colts and Giants. Fortunately, they had enough time to re-rally for wins after blowing late leads against the Cardinals in the Super Bowl and the Ravens in the first meeting last season.
The only short 4th-quarter lead they haven’t squandered since hosting the Ravens early last season was the AFC Championship Game, in which the Steelers went 3-and-out with a 2-point 4th-quarter lead. Troy Polamalu’s interception return for a touchdown ended Baltimore’s rally in that game.
Want to blame the defense for the recent problems? Fine. But, the offense isn’t helping. While playing with short 4th-quarter leads since the start of the 2008 season, the Steelers have run 15 first-down plays. Eleven of those have been running plays for 23 yards, with four passes (two completions) for a total of zero yards. Inevitably, the Steelers stall, punt and blow the lead.
Can’t the Steelers keep their foot on the accelerator with a lead?
“Oh, yeah, sure,” said offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. “We kind of did that in Chicago.”
Only, they didn’t. In Chicago, with a 14-7 fourth-quarter lead, the Steelers handed off to Parker on one first down and threw Parker a 3-yard pass on the other. The drive stalled, Jeff Reed missed a kick, the Bears tied the game, and later won it.
“We were successful on first down in Cincinnati and not as successful on seconds,” Arians continued. “It set up a couple third downs where we were outside of a makeable third down when they all-out blitzed and tackled the hot receiver.”
With a 5-point 4th-quarter lead in Cincinnati, Parker ran for no gain on one first down and for 3 yards on the other. The Steelers punted and the Bengals drove for the winning touchdown.
“If you feel you can take the time off the clock, and make first downs, you can run the ball,” Arians said. “If not, you’ve got to continue to throw it and mix it up and make first downs. The key thing is making first downs and gaining possession of the football.”
Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe the key is not “making first downs,” but instead scoring, adding to the lead, and driving a spike into the heart of the opponent.
The Steelers have the quarterback and the receivers to do it. Maybe they just need to change the way they look at it.
And why not? It couldn’t be worse than the current course of action.