The Pittsburgh Steelers dug themselves a big hole in the first half of Thursday Night Football in Week 14 against the New England Patriots. Entering the second half, Pittsburgh trailed 21-10, and with their offensive struggles this season, it felt like the game might be over. The defense got the ball back for Mitch Trubisky and the offense early in the fourth quarter, leading to a scoring drive, and Pittsburgh was suddenly making a legitimate comeback. Unfortunately, those efforts ended up squashed on a critical fourth down when the team elected to go for it.
On Monday, Head Coach Mike Tomlin defended the decision to take a deep shot to Diontae Johnson on the fourth and two with 2:01 left in the game. He said it was the same play that they’d used against the Baltimore Ravens to hit George Pickens deep which helped them win that game. He argued that just because the result was different this time around, it doesn’t mean it was the decision-making process by the play-caller or that the quarterback was wrong.
Roethlisberger on episode 46 of the Footbahlin’ with Ben Roethlisberger podcast broke down his former team’s game against the Patriots. The Steelers’ longtime master of the fourth quarter comeback said that in that same situation, he’d have done nearly the same thing that Trubisky did.
“I would’ve thrown it,” Roethlisberger said. “If I had one on one with Diontae [Johnson], I’d throw it. I would’ve just gave him a chance to catch it.”
Roethlisberger and Johnson had a pretty special connection during the time they shared in Pittsburgh. The University of Toledo product was the future Hall of Famer’s most often thrown to target in his final two seasons in 2020 and 2021. In 2021, he helped Johnson reach the Pro Bowl.
Johnson and Trubisky haven’t quite had that same connection. Trubisky and Johnson got into an intense halftime conversation in 2022 during Pittsburgh’s game against the New York Jets and it led to Trubisky being benched in favor of Kenny Pickett. Johnson was also reportedly pulling for Mason Rudolph to start over Trubisky against the Carolina Panthers in 2022 when Pickett had to miss the game.
Despite their checkered relationship, Trubisky still tried to take a shot to Johnson when the team needed a big conversion. Roethlisberger did question the call a little bit, but ultimately, thought Trubisky made the right call.
“I know what you’re trying to do, but I think you have to do it on third down,” he said. “Fourth down, you’ve got one on one, you take the shot and give one of your best players a chance.”
Unfortunately, the ball was not close enough to Johnson for him to catch the deep ball. Johnson tried to argue that there should have been a flag for pass interference, but in that situation, referees are known for keeping their whistles in their pockets and it certainly wasn’t egregious. Maybe, Roethlisberger could’ve thrown the perfect ball to complete that with Johnson in one-on-one, but Trubisky couldn’t. It ended any real chance the Steelers had of pulling off the comeback and avoiding the disappointing upset.
Steelers Fourth Down Woes Cost Them In Back To Back Games
The Steelers finished one for three against the Patriots on fourth down and had a second situation relating to fourth down in that contest that had a critical impact on the outcome of the game. After Trubisky snuck into the end zone to get the Steelers within a score, the defense forced a quick five-play drive by New England that ended with them punting the ball back to Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh quickly faced a fourth and one at around midfield trailing by one score and decided to use their second timeout with 7:13 left in the game to go over their fourth down plan. The team converted with Trubisky going up the middle for two yards. Unfortunately, the drive ended in a punt and Pittsburgh ended up burning a timeout they ended up possibly needing later.
Against the Cardinals, the failure on fourth down came after Pickett was injured and the team had a third and goal and then a fourth and goal stopped on the one-yard line. Tomlin defended going for the touchdown, even though it would’ve been an easy chip shot to get points from Chris Boswell. The process in some of these instances might be correct, but the execution is not. Pittsburgh needs to do better on fourth down in all areas if they’re going to win tight football games.