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Steelers Commentary

Saunders: Mike Tomlin Challenge Explanation Stinks



Steelers HC Mike Tomlin

PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin expanded on his explanation for why he chose not to challenge the call on Diontae Johnson’s non-touchdown in the first quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals.

The only problem is that his explanation stinks.

Tomlin said after the game on Sunday that he didn’t challenge it because he couldn’t see it live, and the Cincinnati scoreboard didn’t provide him a replay.

He expanded on that on Tuesday, saying that he in general, if he doesn’t have a good feeling about what the replay holds, he believes the officials err with calling most of the close scoring plays touchdowns, to generate an automatic review. 

“Oftentimes, I proceed with the assumption that if they call it a non-scoring play, then I believe they’re not speculating in any way,” Tomlin said during his weekly press conference on Tuesday. “Obviously, we have automatic replay for scoring plays and that component, that mechanism, I think if there was any question in their judgment, they probably would have called it a scoring play and allowed the automatic review to happen. And so, sometimes when I’m in road stadiums, if I don’t get a look or if it’s not provided in stadium, I ride with that premise and that knowing because I know how games are officiated.”

Tomlin is probably correct about that. The problem lies in the process.

The Steelers have access to the in-house feed and the broadcast feed. As CBS viewers around the country were seeing Johnson take three steps in the endzone before he was hit and forced to the ground, so was at least one Steelers staffer in the press box at Paycor Stadium. Tomlin made that clear on Tuesday.

“I’m not going to disclose how we divided our labor up, but rest assured there’s somebody that’s on that job each and every week, home and away, all Season, regular season, preseason, postseason,” he said.

So there was someone that was viewing Johnson make the catch in the back of the end zone, and Tomlin still didn’t challenge it. What gives?

Really, only two explanations make sense, and neither of them are good looks for the Steelers.

Tomlin got bad advice and he’s protecting his guy. 

It would be a very Tomlin thing to do, and his willingness to take the heat when others on his staff miss the mark is laudable, but that was not a particularly tough decision to make.

The risk/reward of a potential touchdown against a first-half timeout is pretty negligible, and it’s not as if the Steelers were in a position where they should’ve figure the touchdown was inevitable.

While Jaylen Warren’s fumble on the next play was uncharacteristic, the Steelers were facing a 3rd and 2 at the Cincinnati 15, and Warren was fighting for a first down that he wasn’t sure to get when he turned it over. The Steelers could very well have been settling for a field goal, and even a four-point swing is worth a first-half time out.

Steelers HC Mike Tomlin

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin during a game against the Cleveland Browns on Nov. 19, 2023. — Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

Tomlin got good advice, but doesn’t fully trust his person in the booth.

This seems much more likely. 

After all, why would it matter if Tomlin could see the play live, or if Tomlin got a view of the play on the scoreboard, if Tomlin explicitly trusted the opinion of the person watching his replays?

If there was someone that Tomlin trusted, with the experience and knowledge to make the decision for the team in the booth, then what difference would it make?

Tomlin used to have such a person. When Teryl Austin was hired in 2019 as senior defensive assistant, that was part of his role. Austin had been a two-time NFL defensive coordinator and had decades of coaching experience. Brian Flores assumed that role in 2022. He was a former NFL head coach.

While Tomlin said that there is a person manning that role, it’s clear that the experience of that person is not what it once was.

The Steelers did not replace Flores as senior defensive assistant when he departed after the 2022 season. They have never had such a position on the offense.

In the three seasons before hiring Austin in 2019, Tomlin was 2-12 on challenges. In three seasons with Austin in the booth, the Steelers went 5-9. With Flores last year, they were 0-2. They’re 2-3 to start this year. The overall NFL success rate on challenges is about 40%, so Tomlin is right in line with the national average.

So the process might not stink. But the explanation of it sure does. Tomlin doesn’t have to tell us what actually happened, but we don’t have to take his nonsensical explanation at face value, either.