Steelers set on staying aggressive on fourth down
PITTSBURGH (AP) On the road. First quarter. Fourth down. Pivotal game. A chance to take an early lead with an entirely makeable field goal attempt by the best first-year kicker in franchise history.
And Chris Boswell never left the Pittsburgh Steelers sideline.
Instead, head coach Mike Tomlin kept the league's second-ranked offense on the field, figuring a chance at a touchdown would take whatever juice remained in the Baltimore Ravens season and quietly snuff it out.
One poorly executed running play later, Pittsburgh's fourth-and-1 turned into a first down for the Ravens. Baltimore then methodically drove 75 yards for a score, the spark that helped fuel a 20-17 upset and put the Steelers' once seemingly solid postseason hopes in serious jeopardy heading into Sunday's finale at Cleveland.
''I thought our inability to win the fourth-and-1 at the early stages and their ability to combat that and go the length of the field and score created a climate that was conducive to them,'' Tomlin said.
Yet as numbing as the loss was - to the point where quarterback Ben Roethlisberger curtly offered ''I'm over that one, sorry'' when asked about it on Thursday - the Steelers (9-6) insist they hope their coach makes the same decision this weekend if the situation presents itself.
''I think that's the personality of our team,'' wide receiver Markus Wheaton said. ''We all love it. If he asked anybody on the team, we would have all said the same thing. We want them to go for it.''
Even if that risk-taking doesn't always translate into success. When Wheaton turned the wrong way on a last-ditch drive late in the fourth quarter, the Steelers fell to 4 of 12 (33 percent) on fourth down this season, tied for the lowest conversion percentage in the league and the team's worst ranking in the category since Haley became offensive coordinator in 2012.
The list of misses includes an ill-advised fake field goal against Seattle last month that quickly devolved into a momentum-swinging interception and a pair of botched attempts in overtime against Baltimore in October when Tomlin opted to go for it with backup quarterback Mike Vick instead of attempt 50-plus yard field goals. Instead, the Ravens pulled out an unlikely 23-20 victory.
Tomlin's choices reflect a more risk mindset that's taken off since Haley and the offense has evolved into one of the league's most dynamic behind Roethlisberger and All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown. Pittsburgh set an NFL record by converting seven two-point conversions this season, some of them in non-traditional situations. The confidence carries over to fourth down calls.
It's why Roethlisberger didn't hesitate to chuck it deep in third-and-15 from the Pittsburgh 37 with 2 minutes to play against Baltimore. His fourth-down pass fell incomplete when Wheaton ran inside and Roethlisberger threw it outside. If Roethlisberger has any issues, it's with the execution and not the call.
''It's been that way from Day 1,'' he said. ''It's not like we do it certain games, certain times of year. That's been our mentality, going for 2, that's kind of our mentality all year.''
And in a way, it's Tomlin backing up his words. He's said repeatedly the only thing that can stop the Steelers are, well, the Steelers. Whenever the down marker flips to four and Tomlin points to Roethlisberger, the jolt it sends through the guys wearing black and gold is palpable.
''We expect our offense to score every time,'' defensive end Cam Heyward said. ''We want seven points, not three. We love Boswell, but at the end of the day we'll take seven every time.''
NOTES: Roethlisberger returned to practice on Thursday after skipping Wednesday's workout with an illness. Safety Mike Mitchell also practiced with a sore shoulder. ... CB Antwon Blake (back), LB James Harrison (illness), WR Martavis Bryant (illness) and CB Doran Grant (groin) did not practice.
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