PITTSBURGH – Coming off a devastating touchdown reversal against his Steelers, coach Mike Tomlin predicts intense offseason discussion over the NFL’s catch rule.
Tomlin, who’s on the league’s competition committee, saw officials override tight end Jesse James’ 10-yard touchdown catch against the New England Patriots with 28 seconds left because he didn’t “survive the ground.” The Patriots held on to win 27-24 after Ben Roethlisberger threw an interception with 5 seconds left.
“I think that we all can acknowledge that all of this needs to be revisited,” Tomlin said. “It’s not just this play … As a member of the committee, I acknowledge we have our work cut out for us this offseason regarding a number of those things.”
Emotions were raw in the Steelers’ postgame locker room scene after players saw James catch the ball with his knee down, then attempt to hold the ball over the goal line. Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster called the reversal ‘bulls – .” NFL rules require receivers to possess the ball after initial contact with the ground.
The review process took nearly three minutes, and Tomlin said officials warned him the clock would run off 10 seconds if deemed a completion at the 1-yard line, where James’ knee was down. That complicated the Steelers’ playcalling, Tomlin said, since an incompletion was “probably the least of the (likely) scenarios from my expectations.”
As a result, Roethlisberger said on his weekly radio show the Steelers had one play called – a 3-yard gain to Darrius Heyward-Bey in bounds with 22 seconds left – and wished they had two ready to go.
The play caused a ripple effect through the NFL similar to Dez Bryant’s controversial non-catch in the 2015 playoffs. Coach Bill O’Brien, whose Houston Texans play the Steelers on Christmas Day, said “surviving the ground” isn’t applicable in other levels of football.
“I realize we have a higher standard in the NFL, the highest level of football, but I think when you’re in the heat of the moment and the way the game is played, guys are trying to make plays,” O’Brien said on a conference call with Pittsburgh media. “I think we do have to discuss the rule.”
Tomlin discussed the controversial ending, confirming he told Roethlisberger in the headset to run a play on third down in the final seconds. As the Steelers scrambled to get lined up, Roethlisberger gave the spike signal, then faked the spike and attempted a pass to Eli Rogers into double coverage over the middle. Patriots cornerback Eric Rowe tipped the ball to safety Duron Harmon for the easy pick.
Roethlisberger told the media after the game that he wanted to clock the ball and give his team the option for a field goal but was told by coaches to run a play.
Tomlin said he had a good discussion with Roethlisberger about the sequence.
“I find comfort in the fact 7’s my quarterback,” Tomlin said. “If everybody on the field is uncomfortable, that’s advantage Pittsburgh Steelers. And that’s why we chose not to spike that ball. We wanted to try to win that game in regulation. We knew that a spike or a fake spike or an incomplete pass, maybe running the field goal unit out, there were extra seconds there I wanted to take advantage of. That’s why I instructed him not to spike it. Given an opportunity to do that again, I’d do that again. We’ve made a lot of hay in those circumstance over the years when everybody’s a little uncomfortable.”
A veteran quarterback such as Roethlisberger “certainly” has latitude to override coaches’ calls and clock the play as he sees fit, Tomlin said.
“There’s no script for those moments,” Tomlin said. “He is on the field. He is inside the helmet and on the field with those guys. He has a feel for what transpires on the field … We call plays all the time that he may change at the line of scrimmage based on game circumstances that he sees.”
Roethlisberger said on his radio show that had he clocked the ball, Tomlin might have been “crazy enough” to go for the win on fourth down. Tomlin said there was a chance of that but he probably would have opted for overtime.
The James play wasn’t the Steelers’ only issue with officiating. With 34 seconds, Pittsburgh was rewarded with a timeout. Tomlin said he didn’t want a timeout, but official Tony Corrente mistook Roethlisberger communicating with his head coach as a timeout signal. On the CBS broadcast replay, Roethlisberger is seen giving the timeout signal toward Pittsburgh’s sideline.
Despite the last-minute confusion and the Patriots’ triumph, the Steelers can seal at least a No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs with wins over the Texans and Cleveland Browns.
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