5 Smoldering Questions on the 2017 Playoff Ruins

A132FC3E-BC23-42BC-BBE5-C4A2C17488A2.jpegPhoto via Steelers.com

By Hombre de Acero

If ever there was a week when circumstances would match the title of this column, it is this week. The Jacksonville Jaguars came into Heinz Field and embarrassed the Steelers to the tune of a 45-42, eliminating them from the playoffs and rendering their 2017 season a smoking ruin.

With that introduction, here are this week’s 5 Smoldering Questions on the Steelers 2017 Division Playoff loss.

1. A year ago the Steelers were without Cam Heyward, had Eli Rogers and DeMarcus Ayers as their number 2 and 3 receivers, played Ross Cockrell and William Gay as their number 2 and number 3 corners, yet made it to the AFC Championship. This year, save for Ryan Shazier, they were at full strength, with a 1st round bye, yet gave up 45 points to an offense that only managed 10 the week before, against the Buffalo Bills. 

What the hell happened?

2. Heads are already rolling on the South Side, with Todd Haley sent packing. Haley, in the tradition of Steelers offensive coordinators was a lightening rod for criticsm during his tenure and if social media is any guide, the vast majority of Steelers Nation is happy to see him go.

Yet, Haley was brought into save Ben from himself, and numbers don’t lie.


Do you agree with the decision to part ways with Haley? Defend your choice.

3. Meanwhile, if Gerry Dulac’s reporting is correct, the entire defensive staff that oversaw and effort that tied the franchise record for most points given up in a playoff game will remain intact….

However, Mike Mularkey has been relieved of his duties in Tennessee which could make things interesting.

Assuming the new head coach doesn’t retain the assistants, and assuming Dick LeBeau would even listen to an offer—perhaps neither assumption is correct—but were he to become available, should the Steelers consider bringing back LeBeau in some sort of Assistant Head Coach Defense capacity?

4. It’s been reported on two occasions this season that the Steelers have prohibited Ben Roethlsiberger from making quarterback sneaks for fear of him being “Ear holed.” Do you agree or disagree?

5. You are Art Rooney II. Realistically, what do you say, or perhaps ask, Mike Tomlin in your year-end meeting?

That’s all for now. Depending on which stories develop, we may have another 5 Smoldering’s in the next week or so, if not we’ll certainly be back for free agency and the draft.

Until then, use your number 2 pencils, be sure to look at your neighbors paper, and by all means show your work.

I would like to express my thanks to Hombre for the great questions he comes up with for us, a task which he has to somehow fit into a very busy life with work, family, his own website, and travel. We will look forward to the next set of questions, whenever they hit my inbox : )


  • 1. This is THE question, and I expect the coaching staff is almost as puzzled as we are. But it is the question which has to be answered if next January is going to be any more pleasant than this one.

    2. I’m going to be putting up an entire article on this very question, so I’ll save my thoughts.

    3. Um, Dick LeBeau’s defense didn’t do much better against the Patriots than the Steelers’ D did. If there is to be a change defensively, surely it is better to change to something else. I can’t imagine the guys would execute LeBeau’s complicated system any better than they did Butler’s related but less complex one. Although in one sense it is entirely fair to say they “executed” the system last Sunday. It was, apparently, DOA.

    4. Totally agree. And as much as he says he would like to be the cowboy out there, I expect Ben knows why, and I expect his wife agrees.

    5. What the hell happened?

    Okay, here’s what I would ask if I were the boss—Please give me three scenarios. Assume in the first it was the coaches. Assume in the second it was the players, and in No. 3 the distractions. In each case tell me what can be changed to give a better result. Then tell me what combination of those three (along with some possible fourth factor) you think was actually responsible, and what can be done about it.


    • Breaking news, and very good IMO – Munchak withdrew his name from the Cardinals job to stay with the Steelers. I assumed that would be because they made him a big offer along with promotion to OC, but apparently they are just about to name Fichtner as OC. All very mysterious, but at least it’s one piece of good news…

      Liked by 1 person

    • 4) It may well have been the Rooneys that made the decision and the coaching staff would have to live with it.


  • 1. This defense was gashed on the ground and gave up far too many big plays in the air this year. They seemed unprepared for this game. that’s either poor coaching by Butler or a lack of talent, or a combination of the two. We have weaknesses on our defense that must be addressed. Inside linebacker and safety come to mind immediately but I’m not impressed with where Dupree’s game is at either. Vince is good but he’s not Timmons, and after Shazier there is nobody I feel good about at ILB.

    2. Yes it was the right decision. I’m not buying that Haley is the reason Ben’s sack numbers dipped. He may have had some influence but I think Ben realized his own mortality to a degree and decided to get rid of the ball sooner, combined with the jelling of the offensive line and the emergence of AB. A lot of the times Haley’s play calling seemed to bog Ben and the offense down and they didn’t get into a rhythm until Ben started calling the plays in the no huddle. I will not miss those infuriating bubble screens.

    3. I don’t bring Lebeau back in any capacity. His time has passed as a D coordinator and if he’s there in any other capacity he becomes a shadow looming over the DC. It’s time for Dick to ride off into the sunset.

    4. I agree. We have a big powerful back, a big powerful fullback, and three pro bowlers on the OL. There is no need to run a sneak with Ben. If we can’t make 1 measly yard with our backs, then we should punt it.

    5. Mike tell me what you need from me to get us over the hump. Mike, I’ve also seen a lack of discipline hurting this team consistently in games over the past few years. This has to change. It’s hard enough to win in this league without incurring penalties related to undisciplined play. It also reflects poorly on this organization, which spent many years building the Steeler name into one of the most respected in all of professional sports.


  • 1. The defense wasn’t that physical and simply wasn’t that good. They were quick. But once you lost Shazier and his backup – and then lost VW for part of the Jax game – you had a D that could get pushed around. They out-schemed and out-quicked a bunch of second string QB’s for most of the year, because all the first stringers they were going to face got hurt. And even Kiser and Hundley made them look bad. Hey, folks! Just because they’re wearing black and gold doesn’t mean they can out-physical other teams. Look at the two Jax games and the Bears game. They need more muscle to pressure the QB and especially to hold the edge. We went into the season thinking the D would be weak. They added Haden and Watt, but the improvement was at least partly a mirage. They’re not that good. And don’t hand me sack numbers, because 25% of those were against the Browns. You need a several big ugly nasties on D – one at safety and one ILB and one OLB. THEY WENT AN ENTIRE GAME AGAINST JAX WITH ONLY ONE PLAY FOR NEGATIVE YARDAGE, AND THAT WAS BORTLES TAKING A KNEE!!!

    2. Haley was brought in to get Ben away from BA’s dangerous ways, and he did that. And he did as much as he could, given the personality issues involved. He took it as far as he could, and it wasn’t gonna get any better. Too much drama. It was over after the New England fiasco. Bye, Felicia.

    3. See answer number one above. You need some new and more powerful horses. You can’t coach strength and toughness.

    4. Brady still lives. You know what yardage you need. You get it. And then you protect yourself. It’s not rocket science, but, even if it was, Dobbs could figure it out and teach Ben and the OC how to do it.

    5. Okay, let’s spend two days – you and me and Kevin – going over what we have, what we need, and how to get where we want to be. (When Tomlin first interviewed for the HC job, he brought binders with assessments of every player, etc; His thoroughness and preparation is what got him the job in the first place.) This session will begin with the coaching staff the rest of the front office, and go through the roster and PS. It’s a full top-to-bottom review.


    • In the CFL it is standard practice to have a back-up QB go in for 3rd and 1 situations. They have a limited playbook suited to the situations and the back-ups are usually younger, more athletic and, very importantly, disposable.


    • Let me quibble at the margins here, Homer. The Steelers defense is a main reason why the team got this far. Seriously. In the early part of the year (until the 2nd half against the Colts) the offense wasn’t clicking. Ben was off, way off, Bell wasn’t running to well, and when Martavis Bryant wasn’t dropping passes he was asking to be traded.

      The defense kept the Steelers in a number of games early on, and one writer privately contacted me telling me that this was very close to a shut down defense.

      Think the 1st half of the KC game or the 2nd half of the first Cincinnati game. Or even think to the Detroit game, where sure, they gave up gobs of yards, but the Lions had something like 17 or 18 shots from the Red Zone, with about half of those coming from inside the 10, and they couldn’t punch it it.

      OK, it was the Lions we’re talking about, but that was incredible.

      Then Haden got hurt, and that threw everything off. The Steelers don’t didn’t have a number 3 corner. (Sorry, Coty couldn’t get it done.) And of course losing Shazier was a huge blow.


      …My point is not to apologize for the defense. Far from it. Even if you take away Shazier (and Hargrave who didn’t play much) this defense is FAR too talented to give up 38 points to the Jaguars (not counting the pick six.)

      It honestly didn’t surprise me that the Jags could move the ball and score, but the Steelers were powerless to stop them. And this is with the benefit of two weeks to prepare for an attack they knew was coming…..


  • 1. As a fan I have lots of opinions. But no actual knowledge. (What a time to be alive!) But in all seriousness, this is the question that I’d like answered. It looks like a bunch of things went wrong. Injuries. Poor play. Heyward said something to the line of players not executing / believing in the defense, and maybe too much freelancing. We can demand all kinds of things as fans, but I seriously question how much we actually know what went down. I just hope the Steelers have an answer to it.

    2. I think Haley transformed both Big Ben and the Steelers offense. I think he’ll thrive wherever he goes next. In a way I’m sad to see him go – but if he and Ben aren’t on the same page that’s a problem. We have a very small window here before our hopes for SB #7 get pinned on guys like Blake Bortles being our QB.

    3. I am not convinced that Keith Butler is the answer. But then again, see my reaction to Q1.

    5. I think Tomlin did a great job this year. Setting the bar at winning the SB is a ridiculous goal to equate to “success.” Tomlin got this team ready for a stretch run. Had the right adjustments to beat the Patriots (defensively). And I generally like his philosophy of not living in your fears. When it comes to “success” there’s a difference between being outcoached and outplayed. I think the Steelers D was generally outplayed. And again, see my thoughts in Q1 for this.

    But in my view, I’d have 2 conversations with Tomlin: #1) You need someone to manage the clock for you at the end of the game. (Poor job in both the Pats game and the Jax game. My guess is as a HC, there’s too much going on to control the clock AND select a strategy / keep guys motivated / fix problems.) #2) How are you going to fix the Defense?

    Tough season as a fan and for the Steelers. I’m optimistic about their chances next year. But they got outplayed in too many games on Defense to make me feel comfortable.


  • 1. Keeping in mind one of Chuck Noll’s favorite sayings; things aren’t as good as they seem when they are going well, nor as bad when they are going poorly. I don’t know all of what happened, but let me suggest the following to meditate upon.

    *Tom Coughlin and matchups. With due respect to Belichick, Coughlin has proven to be one of the best football minds currently active. He is the power behind Jacksonville’s resurgence. Teams can be match up problems for other teams that aren’t accounted for in broad based rankings. The Steelers, for example, consistently gives Kansas City fits. The Jags have always been a tough out for Pittsburgh, and Coughlin set the template for the franchise and is now back. Also take that into consideration concerning their chances against the Pats, whom he has taken down in Super Bowl matchups twice.

    *Shazier and the inside linebackers. Hombre mentioned personnel from a year ago. A year ago the ILBs and backups were Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier, Vince Williams and Tyler Matakevich, none of whom were on the field for a stretch of time this past Sunday. Their replacements Sean Spence and L.T. Fort couldn’t match their production. Surprised? If I were to guess, I would say that Shazier was central to the Steelers defensive concept, and his loss, coupled with the general decimation of the linebackers and the AWOL of three key players, Stephon Tuitt (was his injury more severe than we were led to believe), Javon Hargrave and Mike Hilton was too much to overcome. I am not in the Bud Dupree is a bust camp.

    *Butler outcoached. Beyond the above, the Steelers appeared unprepared, and unresponsive to the Jags play action game, nor was the spy, in concert with zone principles that would suppress Bortles in evidence. But the Jags also got some help in the form of…

    *The Pittsburgh offense. Part of what the strength of a team does is help to offset its weaknesses. In the past the defense did its part to help a less than inspiring offense. As awesome as the 42 point display was, the simple truth is that the Steelers offense’s decision making and execution hung its crippled defense out to dry. Two turnovers led more or less directly to two touchdowns, and the two imprudent 4th down decisions gave them field position boosts that led to two more scores. 28 of the Jags 45 points came with helpful assists from the Pittsburgh offense.

    *The proof may well be in the form of the recent personnel decisions. Steelers head coaches do not act as autocrats. So, it is unlikely that the decision to retain the defensive staff (for now at least) and part ways with Haley was Tomlin’s alone.

    2. I have been a loud, proud Haley hater for some time, and like Rebecca what I have to say is greater than can be contained in this space and will be coming soon.

    3. No. See #5

    4. If true, it only provides a partial explanation for the 4th down decision making and raises other disturbing questions as well. It still does not explain the absence of Plan B in these situations; running the best back in football behind one of the best blocking fullbacks, behind All Pro/Pro Bowl caliber linemen. And if Ben is considered too fragile to risk on a quarterback sweep, then that also means that all those spread, empty set formations in short yardage situations are strictly pass only.

    5. What would you consider to be a workable, creative reconfiguration of staff responsibilities? Might you have a scenario where Munchak becomes the assistant head coach in charge of the offense, with Fitchner doing the play calling, which would free up Tomlin to take a more hands on approach to the defense? In response to #3, it may have made sense to yield to LeBeau in the beginning when the players were already part of Coach Dad’s system. Tomlin was a successful defensive coordinator in his own right, with his own players. A return of LeBeau in a subordinate role might work if he is amenable.


  • In #4 quarterback sweep should be quarterback sneak


  • 1. Many of those 45 points were given up by the offense, but yes what the heck happened? As someone who wants Kraft/Belichik/Brady defeated, I am remembering that the coach who defeated them twice in the Super Bowl is the eminence grise behind the improvement of the Jaguars.

    2. Simply put, being better than Bruce Arians is not good enough. I was really annoyed by the first two series against the Jaguars, it seemed like no thought was given to playing the Jaguars, and it seemed soooo familiar. The offense has underperformed all year and I put most of that on the play calling.

    3. No, no, no! The Titans giving up 35 points to the Patriots being the latest reason.

    4. Ben is big, but he has proven himself to be fragile. We are thankful for Munchak and his offensive line for keeping 7 upright and his uniform clean, and we should want care taken for Ben’s health in play selection.

    5. What do you need?


  • What i have seen is munchak comes in and after a year we have one of the best offensive lines in football. Can this be said of Lake and the secondary or of Porter and the linebackers. Development is poor in those 2 areas. Haley has come in used this high caliber offense and turned it into a scoring machine but there’s more development to be made aND Haley is maxed out. Haley moves on. So if there are denfensive coaches out there with great teaching talents, the Steelers can only improve in the 2 defensive areas mentioned. I think LeBeau is more of a schemer than a teacher. Butler needs help. Gay may fit into coaching picture sometime along the way, but for now Porter and Lake are a problem.


    • Let me admit to being (or at least having been at one point) a bit of a Homer for the “Lake Effect.” Strictly speaking, I’m not sure your point is that on, with respect to Lake. Carnell Lake arrived after 2010, when the Steelers cornerbacks outside of Ike Taylor was seen as a pressing liability. William Gay was discussed in the same tones that Antwon Blake was being discussed before he left, and by Rebecca’s reporting, the Steelers had given up on Keenan Lewis.

      But Gay improved in 2011 and Keenan Lewis worked himself into a viable starter. And Cortez Allen was flashing signs of being a stud in late 2012.

      Should Carnell Lake get credit for that?

      I can’t honestly answer that question.But it seems like he should, perhaps.

      On the flipside, Cortez Allen was a mirage, and Shamarko Thomas was a disaster. Now we don’t know of Lake’s role in drafting Thomas, but he spoke highly of him going as far as to suggest he’d have been a first rounder had he been 2 inches taller.

      People point to the lack of a two year leap by Sean Davis and Artie Burns and finger Lake as a problem. That might be the case. But both players made tremendous strides during the 2nd half of their rookie seasons. Does Lake get any credit for that?

      To be clear, you might be 100% right in your assessment of Joey Porter and Carnell Lake’s abilities of position coaches. I’ve been on record (elsewhere) as cautioning against welcoming Hines Ward back as WR coach.

      But with the information that is in public view, it is really hard to for a fan to do more than make an educated guess.


  • Pingback: The Todd Haley Question: Point/Counterpoint | Going Deep:

  • 1. Actually it is as simple as we did not have enough heft and meanness in the tackle box. Spence was not on the team for a reason and Fort must be even worse if this far into the season he was back up to Spence. With this big a hole against Jacksonville’s strength it should have been a coaches perogative to scheme well. I would start with eight in the box and a ninth close by. McCullers plays over the tackle crashes inside to make that “tackle box” even smaller. Use him in some 4-4 looks. Would have been nice to have James Harrison, either to take some reps inside or to replace TJ so he could go inside.

    2. Haley and his “Personality” with his play designs was the needed breath of fresh air to scrub Bruce Arians out of Ben. It is nice to have our first string QB play 16 gamesa season and into his late 30’s. IMO Haley’s lasting legacy is Ben’s gunslinger days are behind him. In place of gunshot prone Gunslinger Ben is a more risk calculating Ben who can zip the ball into tight spots when needed. Thus I admire Haley for both his personality and play designs. However it is time to move on from him. He had the last two seasons with top talent and solid OL to establish a top 3 offense. Hasnt happened and I blame his terrible situational play calling. It is time to try something new but not too different.

    3 Dont be silly. Lebeau is never coming back and deserves it. He is past his prime as evidenced by his tired old schemes and tactics and the fact his defense had hit a plateau like Haley and the offense.

    4. Seems odd for a qb as big as most rb’s. I think there are times he should sneak. Perhaps he has a glass knee, elbow, or shoulder from the Bruce Arians years. UGH he is the only guy associated with the Steelers I have ever hated.

    5. What worked well and did not work well on offense, defense and special teams? What are the three improvements that will make the biggest impact towards #7? How will you implement those plans? Likewise what worked well and did not work well with the coaching staffr? What one improvment will make the biggest impact towards #7 How will you implement this plan? Likewise what worked well and did not work well with your leadership? What one improvement will make the biggest impact towards #7? How do you fix it? Finally what one strength we had that might not be reliable this coming season?

    Id also ask these questins to Kevin C. Then follow up three weeks later with one question a piece. Are you on the same page as the other guy?


  • 1. We ran into a team that ran a defense that is strong against us, and whose offense we are in no way designed to stop anymore.

    2. Yes. Haley was brought in to reduce Ben taking hits, and he did that, taking the team sack% from ranking bottom 5 in the NFL 4 of 5 seasons under Arians to 15th twice. Then Munchak joined the team, and the rate dropped a lot. Here’s my fun chart of Steelers sack%:
    2017: #1
    2016: #4
    2015: #8
    2014: #14 M. Munchak becomes OL coach.
    2013: #15
    2012: #15 T. Haley
    2011: #20
    2010: #29
    2009: #28
    2008: #29
    2007: #31 B. Arians
    2006: #25
    2005: #22
    2004: #28 K. Whisenhunt

    Haley helped, but Munchak helped a lot more. During Munchak’s OL coach time in Tennessee the Titans ranked 2nd for fewest sacks allowed, Behind only Peyton Manning’s Colts (manning never got sacked). Meaning that with Munchak coaching the O-Line, Steve McNair, Billy Volek, Kerry Collins and Vince Young were sacked less than Tom Brady.

    As for his offense, I was a consistent defender of his offense, it is really good. His play-calling wasn’t always great, but you can’t underestimate the impact his abrasiveness has on a locker room. More on that later.

    3. No to LeBeau, but only because his defense is still just as good as it always has been. Titans were top 5 against the run this year despite not having a great front line, and they gave up the lowest percentage of 20+ yard plays in the NFL, by a good margin. They beat Jacksonville twice and won a playoff game, but they also got destroyed by both Tom Brady and his clone Jimmy Garoppolo. Meanwhile we struggled to prevent big plays or stop the run, but we held Brady to the lowest yards against us since we beat them in 2011. More on that later.

    4. Well, I wouldn’t have him sneak it in a game against Cincinnati, but in the playoffs? Gotta take chances sometime right?

    5. “I’m sorry.”
    Yes, you read that right.
    A. Who brought in Todd Haley, putting Tomlin is the enviable spot of navigating a feud between the OC that was hired over his head and the franchise QB that Art made clear multiple times was more important than everyone else that worked for him?
    B. Who gave Tomlin the edict to get younger players on the field early? Gone are the days where Keenan Lewis sat for two seasons until he learned to tackle right and not let WRs get past him. Today we have blown assignments and missed tackles leading to the highest percentage of 10+ yard plays and 50+ yard plays allowed by any defense in the league, but hey, at least Artie is starting before the rookie deal ends.
    C. The Patriot obsession. We have rebuilt this defense entirely with the goal of beating the Patriots. Smaller faster lineman, lateral speed, man coverage. It worked to the point that we weren’t embarrassed by Tom Brady, but it also is a big part of why we can’t stop the run and why we lost to Jacksonville. Our old defense had two flaws, and both became too much for this team to tolerate. First you don’t play early, which is why we tackled so well, but also not efficient in a rookie scale NFL, where the team’s best friend is a rookie contract. Second it took away the deep ball and the run, and forced the opposing QB to make consistently smart and accurate short passes to win. Tom Brady happens to be a QB that is willing and able to find and accurately deliver the ball to the right short pass route almost 100% of the time. Manning couldn’t, Rogers couldn’t, but Brady could do it all day, and we aren’t willing to stuff all the other offenses but throw up a white flag if Brady walks on the field. We chose to be vulnerable to a lot of other teams in return for a chance to beat the Pats.
    D. For me, the team atmosphere is what you get when a coach isn’t the real power, and the players know it. The Haley-Ben feud was over Tomlin’s head, and that makes it very hard to convince everyone in that room that you are the real power. I find it very telling that Munchak dropped out of the HC hunt and Ben went from Brett Favre to Tom Brady in his approach to retirement the minute Todd Haley was no longer in the equation.

    I put the mess that is the Steelers, from a defense that can’t tackle right to the lack of leadership square on the shoulders of Art Rooney Jr. Maybe Dan should have named him after himself, because this Franchise’s great history is the story of Dan Rooney, and we might have to accept that he may have taken that greatness with him.


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