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Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger questions late play-calling

Joe Rutter
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Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger calls a play against the Broncos during the first half Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018, in Denver.
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Denver Broncos defensive end Shelby Harris (96) celebrates his stop of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) at the goal line during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)Denver Broncos defensive end Shelby Harris (96) celebrates his stop of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) at the goal line during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t question the offensive strategy the Pittsburgh Steelers used in their 24-17 loss Sunday to the Denver Broncos.

The play-calling sequence at the end of the game is another matter.

Roethlisberger’s interception on a third-and-goal pass from the 2 kept the Steelers from pulling off a second consecutive fourth-quarter comeback on the road.

On his weekly 93.7 FM radio segment Tuesday, Roethlisberger questioned the Steelers deviating from the run-pass option play that was called on first down, and he criticized All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown’s route running on the third-down interception by Broncos nose tackle Shelby Harris.

The Steelers quarterback wanted the final series of plays to focus on wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who had 13 catches for 189 yards, including a 97-yard catch-and-run for a score.

“I think we should have went to him four straight plays,” Roethlisberger said.

A 12-yard scramble by Roethlisberger gave the Steeler a first down at the Denver 3 with 1 minute, 57 seconds remaining.

The Broncos stacked the line of scrimmage to prevent a run. The play call sent in by offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner gave Roethlisberger the option to pass.

The first play featured Smith-Schuster breaking from the slot for the back-right corner of the end zone. Roethlisberger’s fade pass landed beyond the receiver’s grasp.

“You throw (in that situation) 99 percent of the time, maybe 100 percent of the time,” Roethlisberger said. “That’s the look to throw it, and JuJu had been winning all day.”

On second down, Roethlisberger was given the same play to use on the run-pass option. He also had Fichtner telling him in the headset to go with the run. James Conner gained a yard, bringing up third-and-goal at the 2.

Roethlisberger said he wanted to use the same run-pass option on third down.

“I was going to throw it to JuJu again,” he said.

Instead, Roethlisberger said he was given a different run-pass play in which he could throw over the middle to Brown, who would be breaking across the front of the end zone from the left. But Roethlisberger bobbled the snap and nearly collided with Conner in the backfield.

“I didn’t have a good grip on the ball,” Roethlisberger said. “So I kind of tried to throw it in the middle of the field (thinking) maybe AB can get there, but if not, there’s no harm done.”

Two things transpired that led to the ball never finding its way into Brown’s hands for a touchdown that would’ve given him a score in a ninth consecutive game.

First, center Maurkice Pouncey pushed Harris into the end zone. Harris was pushed so deep that he was in perfect position to snag Roethlisberger’s pass.

Second, cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who was covering Brown, had gotten in front of the receiver, presenting another obstacle to a touchdown pass.

“I can’t tell if he would have caught it or not, but he did undercut AB,” Roethlisberger said. “Who knows what would have happened? I told AB, ‘You have to come in flat. You can’t drift in the end zone.’

“Those undercuts can’t happen.”

Roethlisberger didn’t think he made a high-risk throw, one that resulted in the fourth turnover of the game for the Steelers.

“I thought I was doing the safest thing by throwing it where AB was really going to have to make a play for it,” he said. “Like I said, I wish we would have gone back to JuJu for four straight plays.”

At his weekly press conference Tuesday, coach Mike Tomlin wasn’t willing to discuss specifics on the final play, citing competitive purposes in case the Steelers wish to run it against future opponents.

Tomlin, however, defended the offensive approach that resulted in 58 pass plays, including one each by Brown and kicker Chris Boswell, and 16 rushing attempts, of which Conner had 13. The Steelers have a 3-8 record in games in which Roethlisberger throws at least 50 passes.

“We want to have the ability to step into a stadium and dictate our personality that day,” Tomlin said. “Sometimes, we’ll come into a stadium and be run-heavy. Sometimes, we’ll come into a stadium, and we’ll be capable of throwing it on every down.

“We’re thoughtfully nonrhythmic, if you will, in that regard. We strive for balance, and the balance is we are capable of attacking in the ways that we choose. I think that makes it tough on defenses.”

Except for the four turnovers, the plan did make it tough on the Broncos, who gave up 527 yards of offense, including 462 passing yards to Roethlisberger.

“We did what we wanted to do,” Roethlisberger said. “We knew they had a pass rush. We wanted to get the ball out quick and get it down the field. We did that. We didn’t abandon the run. We did what we wanted, and we were successful in doing it. … We just shouldn’t have turned the ball over, and we should have scored.”

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at [email protected] or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.

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