It was a win Vince Lombardi would have loved. I mean, he’s the one who coined the phrase, “Winning isn’t everything… it’s the only thing”, right? A win is a win is a win is a win.
Not only that, but it gets this team somehow, someway to the .500 mark, after a disastrous 1-4 start. Chuck Noll would have loved this season, “Whatever it takes.”
Not only THAT, but Bill Cowher would have loved yesterday, since the Steelers are doing it with a guy who started the year as their 3rd string QB, without an All-Pro -level Stephon Tuitt, without Pro-bowler James Conner, without Ramon Foster, Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, Jesse James, Ryan Shazier, or Troy Polamalu. “Next man up”, indeed.
Cowher, Noll, and Lombardi might also have loved the run, run, pass, grind it out and depend on your defense strategy the Steelers braintrust employed… but then again none of them coached past 2006.  “Yoi and double yoi.”
It was an appropriately glass half-full/half-empty way to reach midseason… but a win is a win, for sure.
This one had some serious plot twists and drama, some that wasn’t even of Mike Tomlin’s own making.
For starters, Mason Rudolph came out looking like an actual 2019-era, quality QB, pushing the ball downfield on the first series. He made a fabulous throw to drive the ball to JuJu for 12 yards, then fired a bullet through a tight window to JuJu that went straight through the receiver’s hands and became an interception. Not all interceptions are equal, and that one was a little less equal. If I’m the coach when he comes back to the sideline, I say, “Great throw– keep pushing it and good things will happen.
Unfortunately, Rudolph came out after that “mistake” and reverted back to dump off or jump ball football. His one attempt on the next few drives that was in the intermediate range was late and behind James Washington, who, while in midair flight the wrong direction, reached back with one hand to make a spectacular catch.
To be fair, the insistence on “establishing” the run game, despite the Steelers OL’s issues blocking Indy’s front and the predictable down-and-distance playcalling didn’t help, but a quality QB has to make a few plays in unfavorable situations.  As the game went on, it was rarely pretty, but Rudolph got the ball to his playmakers a few times and managed to nibble his way to three scoring drives over 50 yards. He did miss a few easy plays––that happens with even experienced QBs––including missing a wide-open Diontae Johnson and opting for a dumpoff to Vance Mcdonald, who made the decision look good by beating three guys to the goal line. Rudolph missed a wide-open Johnson again on a crucial 4th down play.  Such are the growing pains with a newbie NFL starter and especially so when the gameplan is small ball, move the chains, make a play on 3rd down, find somebody in the end zone. To me, that’s where your HOF QB is truly missed–– that handful of plays that make a difference between winning and losing.
Rudolph is too good to be a bust––in fact, for where he was selected in the draft, he’s a win as far as value. I know there are many reading this who are convinced he’s going to be a franchise guy and the future, but I confess I haven’t seen it yet. If I see a future for him, based purely on what he’s done so far, it’s Marcus Mariota, minus the desire to use his running ability. He’s going to have a high completion percentage, low YPA, low risk downfield thrower, who will at times make enough plays to win and who also will, at times, be infuriating to watch as he dumps it down in a 2:00 drill, with no timeouts left or on 4th down and the game on the line. I’m on record as believing 100% that the worst-case situation for your franchise is to have a good or even very good QB who’s not great. If your goal is to win championships, that is clearly the hard way. You end up overpaying for a starting QB who isn’t making you worse but who also isn’t making you appreciably better.
The money quote from Kodiak:

…MR’s reluctance to push the ball downfield is in his head, not the playcall. And none of that has anything to do with his complete lack of pocket presence.
Look, he’s playing quality ball and keeping up competitive. But I’m under no delusions he can be the future at QB. I’ve seen enough to know he’s not a franchise caliber QB. That shouldn’t be shocking, there’s only about a dozen of those guys in the league with only about 1 coming along every year.
We could have a nice long debate if a franchise killer is a better problem to have than no starter at all. Some people like cock-teases, while others prefer to go looking for something real. That debate is not terribly different from whether or not to fire Tomlin.

There were some highly questionable playcalls––the misdirection shuttle pass using Switzer as a decoy and JuJu getting the shuttle pass can be retired for all-time––and the overall gameplan to try and run into stacked boxes just because the Indy defense has had some trouble vs the run… none of this made anything easier for anybody. But every checkdown isn’t a play call. Probably rarely so. When your QB has like 6 seconds on the clock in a 2 min drill and he throws it to a stationary TE in the middle of the field, that’s not the playcall. When he throws it to a TE 10 yards short of the goal line on 3rd and goal, that’s probably not the playcall. And when he holds the ball in his own end zone for long enough to create a coverage sack, I can assure you that’s not what he was trained to do.
Villanueva didn’t even get burned, really… Rudolph just held the ball and stood in place. There’s only so much an edge blocker can do. Rudolph was, again, so slow to pull the trigger– maybe he took turning the clocks back an hour too seriously?
The dump off strategy will look pretty good between the 20s and it also won’t historically lead to scoring very much. Yesterday was a perfect example, despite the defense creating turnovers and opportunities. Samuels is a really good receiving back, but going to that well enough to make him the all-time franchise leader for receptions in a game might be going to the well and asking him to deke 2-3 guys for a short gain juuust a little too often for my taste.
Where coaching and the talent really came together to hurt was in the treating of play-action as if it is a mortal sin. Fitchner and/or Tomlin not incorporating PA at all after originally going crazy with it in Mason’s first game is a total mind-bender. The only thing I can say in their defense is Mason struggled with most handoffs from under center and his footwork leaves something to be desired. Maybe they were concerned about asking him to do too much with his feet and ball-handling? Regardless, this is an issue that must be corrected.
On the other hand, why do you guys hate empty set so much? This is the NFL in 2019. It works. Our RB is a goddamn great receiver. There’s no LB in the NFL who can cover him in a short area.
Mason Rudolph from empty set:  15/21 189 yds  9.0 YPA  2 TD  1 INT  2 sack  111.0 rating. If anything, you should be like me and dread when we line up for obvious run plays. that’s the area where this team is just not hacking it, except for the occasional game vs. a porous run defense like Miami’s or Cincinnati’s. Mix up the formations and go against type… but please end the suffering we must endure with telegraphed plays that have incredibly low risk/reward ratios.
Right now, the OL has to carry this offense and it’s not always up to the task. It only takes one breakdown on OL to kill a play, especially when your QB has training wheels on and your RBs aren’t experienced runners who can make the most out of every carry, no matter how well it’s blocked. If this team is going to contend, the OL, in particular, has to play much better next week––a much tougher test. Somebody had better hurry up and conjure the spirit of Mike Munchak, or all this fidgeting and clutching our rosarys will be for naught.
As for Tomlin’s coaching, challenges, and game management, I think it was neither great nor as awful as a typical SteelerFury game thread would have you believe. There are pretty much two sides to every decision he made.
1. not challenging the apparent Samuels TD
It might very well have been ruled a TD, but it was no slam dunk. If you watched 2017’s Jets/Patriots game, it wouldn’t have been inconceivable for it to be ruled a fumble into the end zone. Al Riveron reviews are all crapshoots. I think about the risk vs reward. You have 2nd down from inside the 1, even if you don’t challenge, and the chance of reversal was something around 60-40. There were so many reviews just yesterday where the outcome was totally opposite of what seemed obvious. I just think the decision about whether to challenge has to heavily take into account the game situation, the reward vs the risk vs what you’re left with if you do nothing. In hindsight, sure you didn’t need that 3rd challenge and maybe it would have given the Steelers an extra 4 points in a close game. Losing that challenge could also have meant scoring 3 points fewer in a close game, since they wouldn’t have had the third TO to setup the gift-wrapped 2min drill FG.
2. Challenging the DPI
I was told yesterday that determining if the pass was uncatchable is reviewable in this challenge process. It was such a game-changing play that had to be challenged, since it was clear and obvious that it was uncatchable… even though they’ve overturned about 2 PI challenges in half a season. The reward outweighed the risk, even though the risk of one fewer TO was significant.
3. Clock management… i.e.: turtling with a 2 point lead.
I’m never going to defend turtling with a 2 point lead, unless maybe you’re down to your emergency QB or something. This is the NFL circa 2019––there are too many advantages to the opposing offense, especially when they get 4 downs per series in desperation mode. Tomlin loves this endgame of counting on his defense to make a stand, which is super quaint, but which hasn’t been the play for like 10-15 years in the NFL. To his credit, this time, they did manage the clock well enough to give themselves an opportunity even if Vinatieri made the FG (no sure thing if you watched the previous 8 quarters of Colts football). The Steelers would have gotten the ball back with over a minte left, needing a FG for the win. If Rudolph had shown even some signs of life in the 2 min drill, that’s a pretty reasonable ask of your offense. So, to summarize: I hated hated hated the turtling, felt like the clock management from a practical standpoint worked well enough at the very end of the game, and in general, much like their young QB, they like things the hard way.
Here’s the only summary that matters: Tomlin’s Steelers are 14-10 without Ben. They’re 4-2 this year with a 1st year QB and an undrafted rookie starting games. However much better you think it could be if only he did things differently, that’s damn impressive. I’m not sure it’ll hold up vs. better teams this year, but we continue to have a hell of a lot more hope that we have a right to expect at this point, all things being taken into consideration.
Yesterday win was a full slate of where this team is at:  The defense was at times soft and gashed and at times dominant and ruthless. The offense barely clicked, barely threw to WRs or TEs, yet put just enough points on the board to win vs a decent team that pushed around our defense. STs was pathetic in the return game, yet punted well and FG kicking was, without question, the difference in the game. Coaching was at times awful and occasionally really good. Welcome to the 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers season!
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Dan Fouts must die. I don’t think they’ll ever fire him but he must go! No reasonable offer refused! He is a mockery of the modern football color analyst. The really unfortunate part is we’d get Phil Simms or Solomon “Rotlitsberger” Wilcot as his replacement. I feel like CBS––a billion-dollar org–– has only three announcing teams, and we seem to only get Fouts-Eagle or Nance-Romo. How refreshing it will be next week to get a Fox crew, just for the change of pace.
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How would you like to be the two teams who pretty much got NFL/officiating screwed out of victories yesterday? The Jets had a TD wiped out with an explanation that completely contradicted the facts the video evidence showed. Ryan Griffin got control, got three feet in, and even maintained enough control of the ball to move it from both hands cradling to curling it in one arm… yet the TD was overturned by good ‘ol Al because “he went to the ground and didn’t maintain control of the ball”.  I thought this was 2019, where going to the ground after getting three feet down isn’t subject to the “going-to-the-ground” rule, anyway, but even so, he maintained control. Maybe Al turned the clocks back to 2017? Taking away the TD on 3rd down made the Jets settle for a FG and changed the endgame strategy… likely cost the Jets at least a shot at the win on their last possession.
For the Vikings, it was much worse.  A 15 yard gain into FG range was wiped out and a 5-yard penalty taking them further out of FG range was assessed for an illegal man downfield… only he wasn’t close to being illegally downfield when the pass was let go. The throw was a short lob screen, and the official was fooled by the length of time the ball was in the air. Unfortunately, the call isn’t reviewable or fixable, so it cost the Vikings a shot at a FG that would have forced the Chiefs to score a TD late and certainly would have meant at least OT.
The point is: it’s obvious to EVERYONE that the game is completely over-officiated right now. Imagine if the police arrested or cited people for every potential infraction, no matter how obscure. Imagine if they stopped you or arrested you on any close calls, just to be on the safe side that you didn’t break the law, and imagine the system of reviewing whether you get charged/fined was handled by some mysterious police office in the sky, with no accountability nor transparency.  We’d be rioting in the streets… yet that’s exactly what we’ve got in the NFL.
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Minkah Fitzpatrick is the living explanation of what a defense looks like with excellent safety play vs even adequate safety play. In the modern NFL, a playmaking safety might be the most valuable guy on the defense. He’s the Steelers’ MVP to this point, without argument.
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Tune in next week, for another over-officiated, blood-pressure inducing gameplan, mystery play calls, up and down defensive success, dumpoff-loving/WR/TE avoiding passing attack, running into big piles of Aaron Donald, misadventures of Ryan Switzer STs, with the outcome hanging in the balance of an Al Riveron decision. At least it won’t feature Dan Fouts.