Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) throws a touchdown pass to wide receiver Sammie Coates during the first half of an NFL football game against the New York Jets in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016. (Don Wright/AP Photo)
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PITTSBURGH — They inched closer to the abyss with another head-scratching, four-letter-word-inducing flop that pointed directly at the man in the charge.
Forgettable execution aside (and there was plenty of that), Todd Bowles won't exactly remember this latest defeat fondly. The second-year head coach made a series of questionable decisions in the Jets’ 31-13 loss to the Steelers on Sunday that has their season in peril three weeks before Halloween.
Bowles speaks with a calmness and authority required during these tough times for an underachieving bunch taking up space alongside the dreadful Dolphins in the AFC East cellar, but he isn't immune to this Steel City mess.
A string of odd fourth-quarter coaching calls highlighted a day that included breakdowns in the secondary (for unofficially the millionth time), a stalled offense in the second half (sound familiar?) and an underwhelming performance from this team's supposedly strongest link.
"I take all the blame," Bowles said. "We're 1-4. That falls on me. As I lead, they follow. I need to do a better job of leading these guys and getting them prepared… You can put it all on me."
The Jets are in deep doo-doo.
"It's nut-cutting time," said defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson.
Bowles' curious decision to punt on 4th-and-2 from the Jets 46-yard line despite being down 24-13 with 7:36 left in the game was a calculated blunder that doomed his team. For all the mistakes that his players made to drop their third in a row, Bowles was also off his game.
Punting at that moment made little sense on myriad levels.
The Steelers’ potent offense moved the ball well on Bowles' defense all game, especially on the previous two drives. Ben Roethlisberger (34-for-47, 380 yards, four touchdowns, 124.4 passer rating) orchestrated an 80-yard touchdown drive capped on the first play of the final quarter. He had marched Pittsburgh to the Jets 14 on the next drive before committing a turnover.
It was obvious that the Jets defense was sputtering. Bowles had unrealistic expectations for a unit that frankly wasn't good enough against one of the NFL's most dynamic offenses.
"We figured we could get them pinned down there and go three-and-out," said Bowles, whose defense had forced just one three-and-out in nine Steelers drives to that point. "Anytime something doesn't work in life, it's a mistake if you look at it that way. I don't think it's a mistake."
It turned out to be a backbreaker. Roethlisberger & Co. chewed up 5 minutes, 43 seconds on the ensuing 79-yard drive capped by his fourth touchdown pass that put the dagger into Bowles' team with 1:46 left. By the time his offense got back onto the field, it was a wrap.
Ryan Fitzpatrick: "It ended up not working out."
Nick Mangold: "You just do what you're told."
Quincy Enunwa: "That's not my call."
The players supported Bowles' call, but it was not a good look for a coach, who has done some very good things since taking over for Rex Ryan.
The fourth quarter continued to haunt him. The Jets have been out-scored 31-7 in the final quarter during their three-game losing streak. Their only touchdown came on a fluky fumble recovery and run by Charone Peake.
Bowles' forgettable fourth quarter also included an ill-advised challenge on a third-down spot after a catch and run by Bilal Powell. Replays clearly showed that Powell's knee was down one yard short of the first down, but the Jets challenged… and predictably lost.
Bowles called his second timeout with 1:51 left in the game after Le'Veon Bell did him a favor by running out of bounds. The reason? The Jets had 12 men on the field.
The coach, of course, didn't lose the game by himself. He had plenty of help.
The Jets scored on three of the first four possessions and racked up 216 yards before halftime before vanishing. Ryan Fitzpatrick & Co. managed just 100 total yards after intermission.
"Clearly," said Mangold, "I think there's plenty of things that are very perplexing."
Chan Gailey's offense went 2-for-11 on third downs. The second half looked like this: five punts and a failed fourth-down attempt.
The Jets defensive line barely laid a finger on Roethlisberger. Has anyone seen Mo Wilkerson since he signed that big contract extension this summer?
Although players maintained that the playoffs are still possible, the numbers suggest it's a longshot. Only 6 percent of 1-4 teams have made the postseason under the current playoff format.
Bowles' team is 0-for-4 against playoff teams from a year ago.
"It just hasn't happened for us," said Brandon Marshall (eight receptions for 114 yards and a TD). "It's a stretch that we knew was going to be hard. We knew it was going to be a great challenge. We thought we could play with everyone. The only thing we've proven is that we can play with these guys. We can't beat them."