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Coaching Decisions Lay Framework for Success

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Over the course of this past NFL Divisional Playoff weekend, a few coaching decisions separated the contenders from the pretenders, sending some teams onto the conference championship game and some teams home for the season. Both the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Jets made some gutsy calls in their victories and the theoretical question that remains is would the losers of these games have made the same calls in the same situations?

In the game that mattered the most to Baltimore Ravens fans, the Steelers had two occasions where they took the risk that could have either won the game for them, or doomed them to defeat. First up was the decision to go for it on fourth and one, when Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger came to the line of scrimmage, seeming to feint snapping the ball in order to draw the Ravens offsides. The Ravens wouldn't fall for it, but on the third fake, Roethlisberger actually took the snap and pushed ahead for the first down.

Would the Ravens have gone for it and could QB Joe Flacco have sold the play like Ben did? Knowing the confidence that Baltimore has in their punter, Sam Koch, something tells me they might have faked the play and either called timeout or taken the delay of game penalty, but I could not see that type of play being anywhere in the Ravens playbook. 

The other key moment in the game came late in the fourth quarter and was the deciding factor and probably the biggest philosophical difference between the Steelers and the Ravens. Pittsburgh was facing a third and nineteen. Obviously, the safe thing to do would have been to either run a draw or a screen pass to get some positive yardage and then pin the Ravens deep in their territory to either run out the clock and send the game into overtime, or try to get a turnover or defensive stop to have one final chance at a win.

I remarked to my family watching along with me that Roethlisberger should just heave it deep, hope for a miracle catch or pass interference penalty, with the possibility of an interception not being much different from a punt. Big Ben must have heard me and when the Ravens only rushed three men, he had the time to set up and chuck the ball downfield, where his receiver had inexplicably ran right past a flatfooted Lardarius Webb for the reception and what would ultimately turn out to be the game-winning touchdown a few plays later.

Two key things happened on this play that you might wonder what the Ravens would have done, and what happened in another game at a similar point in that contest. Most Ravens fans say there would be no way that Baltimore's coaching staff would have thrown a deep pass in that situation, as they have played conservative ball most of the season, especially in third-and-long situations. In addition, rushing three players has been a frustrating trend for the them, rarely resulting in what the team had designed that scheme to do, and opposing QB's have consistently burned the Ravens secondary after sitting protected in the pocket until one of their receivers got open fr the completion.

In comparison, it was late in the New York Jets victory over the New England Patriots and the Jets clinging to a lead with the Pats facing a fourthand thirteen. Patriots QB Tom Brady dropped back to pass and rather than sitting back in a prevent defense with maximum defensive backs, the Jets blitzed Brady, forcing him to throw prematurely and incomplete, securing the New York victory.

Two games, four teams, two significant plays. The difference could have easily resulted in the Baltimore Ravens defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers and getting ready to host the New York Jets in the AFC Championship Game. The difference between winning and losing, between guts, glory and going home. The Steelers and Jets are moving on. The Ravens are going home.