That final drive of the game, with the Steelers scoring the game-winning touchdown on the final play, was so painful to watch yesterday. Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press-Gazette had the same thought I did on the game-winning TD pass by Ben Roethlisberger to Mike Wallace: it was like the 1995 "Yancey Claus" game in reverse. Back in 1995, when the Packers were still more than a year away from their Super Bowl win, the Steelers came to town on Christmas Eve. With the Packers clinging to a lead, the Steelers drove down the field, and Yancey Thigpen of the Steelers gave the Packers a Christmas present by dropping what should have been the game-winning touchdown. In fact, he described it as a Christmas present at the time. The drop gave the Packers their first division championship in 23 years, and they made it as far as the NFC Championship game before losing to the Cowboys. This made such an impression on the Packer fans that they cheered Thigpen years later when he returned to Green Bay for another game.
But of course, this time the Steeler receiver caught the ball, and the Packers lost the game. To add insult to injury, the Vikings lost Sunday night to the Panthers, meaning that the Packers would have still been alive to win the division but for the loss against the Steelers. Not that they likely would have won the division - but they would have had a shot and would have gone a long way toward clinching a playoff spot by winning this game.
I am out of town, and saw the game at Casey Jones Grill in Phoenix, home of the Desert Packer Backers group. A nice sports bar, with all the games on, but with the sound up on the Packer game, and with special sound effects to commemorate good plays, scores, etc. The Packer fans there were excited when the Packers finally took their first lead of the game in the fourth quarter, and when the Packers held the Steelers to a field goal on the ensuing drive. When the Packers had a 3rd and 14 at the 25, the sense of relief was palpable when Rodgers completed a touchdown pass to James Jones which, with a 2 point conversion, gave the Packers a six-point lead. Relief because nobody rooting for the Packers wanted to see Mason Crosby line up for a go-ahead field goal, after he had already missed a medium-range field goal earlier.
So, after all that had happened, and the Packers finally had a 36-30 lead, it was just devastating to watch the Steelers march down the field for the game-winning touchdown, after the Packers' lead had been so hard to achieve. It is not as if there were no opportunities to put the game away. The Packers intercepted Roethlisberger on one play, but the interception was nullified by a very clear illegal contact penalty. Charles Woodson had a chance for an interception on another play. The Packers just missed a sack that would have run out the clock. But the thing that frustrated me the most was Dom Capers' decision to rush only 3 or 4 players on most of the plays of the drive. I can see the arguments on the other side - the Steelers had moved the ball up and down the field all day, including (at the point the drive started) over 400 yards passing. So, in that sense, what the Packers had been doing on defense was not working, why not try something else, basically the old "prevent defense?"
But I would argue that the prevent defense is the worst decision you could possibly make. If the Packers have had trouble stopping Roethlisberger's passing game all day, why would you think it would improve your chances if you only rush 3 or 4, letting Roethlisberger have as much time as he needs on most plays? Sure, you have more players dropping back in coverage, but it is a truism that if you give a quality quarterback enough time, eventually someone will get open. I am not arguing for an all-out blitz on every play, but I am arguing that you need to put some pressure on in the hopes of disrupting the passing game. Otherwise, if you give the quarterback enough time, and if there are enough seconds left on the clock, they will just methodically move down the field and score. Which is exactly what happened.
The defense was so essential in some of those games that made up the five-game winning streak. But the defense let the team down yesterday, both generally (no turnovers, way too many yards and points given up) and especially on that last drive. The lessons I take away from this game are:
- Something has to be done about the Mason Crosby problem before he loses another game for us. Whether it is just a mental thing with him right now is not clear, but he is not performing at an acceptable level. (See here for the ugly details on his slump.)
- No more prevent defenses in protecting a lead of 8 points or less. Ever.