PITTSBURGH -- Players and coaches often talk about wins and losses in NFL games being separated by a couple plays here and there.
Sunday's 30-27 Steelers win at Heinz Field was greatly influenced by two plays. One the Steelers made; the other the Cleveland Browns didn’t. Taken on their own, they were two plays in a game of 131. Taken in the context and situation of the game, the two plays had large significance.
That might seem silly to say in a game in which 57 points were scored, but one adjustment by Steelers veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger mattered greatly, just as the Browns' inability to improvise and run an important play proved critical.
Both came on the last possession for each team, with the score tied at 27.
Pittsburgh’s was successful and led to the game-winning field goal. Cleveland’s was not and contributed to a punt that gave the Steelers the ball for their game-winning drive.
For the Steelers, Roethlisberger’s savvy and poise were on display with 20 seconds left. As he walked to the ball at the Cleveland 44-yard-line, he realized the play the Steelers had called would fail.
“[The Browns] showed a coverage that the initial play we called wasn’t going to be good with,” Roethlisberger said.
So he signaled to Markus Wheaton and told him to run a different route. Wheaton broke open against what looked like zone coverage by the Browns, and his 20-yard reception at the Browns 24 set up Scott Suisham's game-winning field goal.
It sounds simple, but only five seconds were on the play clock when Roethlisberger made the change -- a situation that could cause some quarterbacks to lose their cookies. Not Roethlisberger, who has been in the same system in Pittsburgh since he was drafted. It was a change made by a veteran who is familiar with coverages, play calls and systems. It went to a receiver who has been with the Steelers for a full season.
“That is why we put the work in,” Roethlisberger said.
He then referred to an offseason and preseason record of mental mistakes by skill players. A tally sheet was kept of any player who missed a call or made a mistake, with the loser having to buy pizza and chicken wings for the group.
“That’s where it all comes from,” Roethlisberger said. “We make an adjustment last-minute, [and] no one blinks, no one flinches. They run the proper play, and we get into field-goal range.”
The Browns' play was not nearly as dramatic, nor did it come in the same field position. But it had a huge effect on their chance to win with a final drive. That possession started at the Cleveland 20 with 1:53 left, with Mike Pettine wanting to go for the win.
“We had gone up-tempo the whole half and moved the ball,” Pettine said. “Why take the foot off the gas at that point? I felt like we had them. They were tired.”
On a sack, the play clock starts when the ball is set, which means it is set where the quarterback is tackled. By the time the Browns huddled, the play clock had been running. Hoyer gestured to the sideline to signal in the play.
Kyle Shanahan did so, but the Browns plays can have as many as 17 words, so Hoyer did not get the entire call before the sideline communication shut down, which it does with 15 seconds left on the play clock on every play.
“I got the formation and protection but couldn’t hear the route,” Hoyer said. “I just went with a play we have prepared for that situation.”
The timing was off and the play rushed. The ball was snapped with 1:08 left, and Hoyer’s short throw was knocked down.
“It was kind of a messed up situation,” Hoyer said. “But we tried to not have to waste a timeout.”
Instead the Browns wasted a play at a key time. On third-and-16 from the 14, the Browns pulled in the reins. Hoyer threw a wide receiver screen that went nowhere, which forced a punt and set up Roethlisberger for his winning drive.
It would be tough to find better examples of the difference between winning and losing coming down to, as coaches often say, executing at important parts of the game.