X’s, O’s and woes


Mike Tomlin has called this week a “coaches’ week,” in reference to the availability uncertainty the Steelers have been working around while preparing for the Bengals, but in reality every week is a coaches’ week in the National Football League.

And last week the Steelers’ coaches didn’t measure up.

Forget the punt/go-for-it debate on fourth-and-1.

This was about scheme, about putting the players available in the best possible position to have success, about the things coaches consider their mission each and every Sunday.

That didn’t happen on defense in the 26-17 loss to the Raiders.

The glaring indictment of what defensive coordinator Keith Butler tried to do and who he tried to do it with occurred on third-and-10 from the Raiders’ 39-yard line with 9:44 left in the fourth quarter and the Steelers trailing, 16-14.

It wasn’t the blitz Butler dialed up that was an issue.

The X’s and O’s were exquisite.

But the play also depended on rookie safety Tre Norwood finishing it.

Norwood didn’t.

As an unblocked rusher he had a clear shot to quarterback Derek Carr. But after a brief brush with wide receiver Bryan Edwards as Edwards began his route out of a bunch, Norwood took a bad angle and then couldn’t adjust it on the fly and get home in time.

Norwood, listed at 6-foot, 194 pounds, hasn’t represented professionally as a physical player or an accomplished tackler, and he’d never been in such a position previously in his brief NFL career.

There was no evidence to suggest he was capable of carrying out such an assignment.

There still isn’t in the wake of the dagger that was the Raiders’ 61-yard touchdown pass.

Norwood was the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Another component of the play was free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick becoming momentarily distracted due to the defense’s obsession with tight end Darren Waller and failing to get where Fitzpatrick needed to be, back into the post-safety position.

The ball got over Fitzpatrick’s head, which it can’t when you’re the post-safety.

It wouldn’t have had Carr been sacked, as he should have been.

But he wasn’t and it did.

“I shouldn’t have called that dadgum defense at that particular time with those people in the game,” Butler acknowledged.

What the Steelers dialed up on second-and-7 from the Raiders’ 30 with 2:55 left in regulation was also ill-advised.

Fitzpatrick was plenty deep this time. But with the Steelers down 23-17 and time running out they needed the ball back. A first down for the Raiders would all but seal the deal.

The blades of grass beyond 7 yards didn’t matter. And the Raiders got the 7 they were seeking and 18 more when they isolated Waller, one of the NFL’s most challenging coverage conundrums, on linebacker Joe Schobert on a wheel route.

Schobert said he had run-gap and pass-coverage responsibilities on the play, which, in retrospect, screamed for help on Waller being provided by Fitzpatrick. Schobert lamented not being as fast as Waller. Butler lamented Schobert not being as tall as Waller.

And Fitzpatrick was positioned too deep initially to do anything but watch Waller catch the ball over Schobert.

After spending the vast majority of the game ensuring somebody besides Waller would have to beat them, the Steelers allowed Waller to beat them at the game’s critical juncture.

The offense spent the vast majority of the game not accomplishing much.

The 25-yard, catch-and-run touchdown pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to running back Najee Harris was an exception, and an example of what the Steelers should seek to achieve a lot more often.

Harris is a matchup nightmare in comparison with most linebackers and safeties.

So, in theory, is tight end Pat Freiermuth.

But those two have for some reason been under-utilized in an offense that’s stuck in the mud.

They’re the type of players that compelled the Steelers to trade up and draft Devin Bush and trade for Schobert in the first place. The Steelers did that because they were having a hard time dealing with the Freiermuth- and Harris-like players around the NFL.

But Freiermuth and Harris are only matchup nightmares if they’re schemed to be, and if they’re fed the ball.

Change that and it may not come down to go-for-it or punt on fourth down next time.

And “coaches’ week” may not feel like pulling teeth.

 Pittsburgh Steelers

Photo: Getty Images North America


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