What happened on two crucial fourth-and-short situations in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 45-42 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the divisional round of the playoffs on Sunday? Did Ben Roethlisberger audible on both plays that the Jaguars stopped in what was a wild shootout that few anticipated?
In a thrilling, tense game that twisted and turned several times and featured a combined 87 points scored, it’s hard to boil it down to just a few plays. But the Steelers will be watching at home next Sunday as the Jaguars take on the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game, and the two fourth-down failures were a massive reason why they could not complete an improbable comeback.
Overcoming a 21-point deficit would have tied the Steelers' franchise all-time record, something they hadn’t done since the 1997 regular season, and yet it was right there for the taking with the way they had swung the game back.
Likewise, the Jaguars had never blown a lead bigger than 17 points in their history, and yet every single body inside frigid Heinz Field had to feel like that was bound to happen late in the game. It just didn't. The Jaguars were the more poised team on Sunday.
"They won the moments," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said.
So again, we ask: What happened on those plays?
It sounded as if Roethlisberger said something like “Thunder, thunder!” on both key plays. Was he changing the plays at the line of scrimmage based on the Jaguars’ alignment?
It might be easy to throw Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley under the bus at first blush in this situation, but more information is needed here. It sure looked like Roethlisberger wasn’t just making dummy calls at the line or trying to get the Jaguars to jump offsides. It also felt like he could have tripped over his own feet and gotten the first on both plays.
But Tomlin, without clarifying too much, said after the game that neither play was designed originally to be a Ben sneak. Instead, Tomlin credited the Jaguars' defense and defended his team's design and intent.
"I'm comfortable with what we called," Tomlin said.
The first fourth-down failure came late in the first quarter, with the Jaguars shockingly up 14-0. The Steelers faced a 4th-and-1 at the Jacksonville 21-yard line, badly needing a score. It was no shock that the Steelers would give it to Le’Veon Bell … but on a toss sweep? The Jaguars’ fast defense was all over it, snuffing it out for a 4-yard loss. Eleven plays later, the Jaguars drove 75 yards to make it a stunning 21-0 game.
The second situation came on 4th-and-1 again, this time at the Jacksonville 39. This time, the “1” might actually have been about 18 inches or less for the first down. But instead of Roethlisberger leaning forward for what traditionally is an easy conversion, the Steelers called a pass downfield to Juju Smith-Schuster. Jalen Ramsey, who helped tackle Bell earlier, was in tight coverage and prevented the catch.
That was the ballgame right there. The first fourth down was, in essence, a 14-point swing. So was the second, as the Steelers had a chance to tie the game on the drive but instead let the Jaguars go down and push it back to a two-touchdown advantage after all the momentum had swung against them.
Let's pause to credit the Jaguars' defense on both fourth-down stops. Not doing so would be irresponsible. They were ready for anything and didn't jump early. They read the first toss sweep beautifully and were ready for a pass on the second. That's good defense for sure, even for a unit that allowed the Steelers to gain a stunning 545 yards in the game.
The Steelers actually were wildly effective on two other huge fourth downs in the game. On 4th-and-11 near the end of the first half, Roethlisberger threw a dime over Jaguars safety Tashaun Gipson for a stunning touchdown to make it a 21-14 game before halftime.
Then later, again down two touchdowns, the Steelers faced a 4th-and-5 at the Jacksonville 43-yard line with just over nine minutes left. Roethlisberger hit Antonio Brown on his second insane touchdown grab of the game, both of them coming with Jaguars cornerback A.J. Bouye in Velcro coverage.
So being aggressive in both of those situations surely was warranted. Failing on the first one might have put the Jaguars in a kneeldown situation at the end of the half; it's hard to imagine them asking Blake Bortles to try to steal three points in less than 30 seconds, even with the Steelers getting the ball first in the third quarter.
On the second fourth-down TD, they had no choice to go for it. Those situations were not at all comparable, either based on the yardage needed for a first or with the time and score of the game.
The Steelers still had a shot to win late, as they cut the lead to 42-35 with 2:19 remaining. But they chose to attempt an onsides kick, which the Jaguars fell on — almost in field-goal range to begin their final drive. Jaguars kicker Josh Lambo nailed a 45-yarder to silence the stunned crowd.
There's no question that the Steelers' defense, which blew multiple coverages early and barely pressured Bortles most of the game, deserves a big chunk of the blame. Coaching decisions also plagued Pittsburgh, as Doug Marrone and his staff appeared to outcoach Tomlin and Co.
But for our money, those fourth-down stops — whomever was to blame — were massive momentum killers and a big reason why the Jaguars are in the AFC title game and not the Steelers.