PITTSBURGH – Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy stood behind his decision to attempt a 57-yard field goal late in the third quarter despite the fact it backfired when kicker Mason Crosby missed badly, setting up the Pittsburgh Steelers for a game-tying score.
The Packers were ahead 21-14 when linebacker Blake Martinez intercepted Ben Roethlisberger’s tipped pass at the Pittsburgh 45-yard line, further building the momentum they were enjoying in the second half.
The drive petered out, however, at the 39-yard line after quarterback Brett Hundley was sacked twice, leaving Green Bay with a fourth-and-18 at the 39. McCarthy's options: punt and try to pin the Steelers deep in their own territory or attempt a field goal that would be four yards longer than the longest ever made in Heinz Field history.
He chose the field goal and Crosby missed badly to the left.
“We had a mark for going north and south,” McCarthy said of the limits for which Crosby had hit in pregame practice. “That was right on the fringe. I obviously have a lot of faith and trust in Mason.”
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McCarthy is notoriously aggressive with some aspects of the game and admitted he was in this situation.
“Absolutely,” he said. “We knew we needed points. You look at the flow of the game. You look at time of possession. Those are the things you’re thinking about all through the course of the game. How long has your defense been on the field?
“That’s the right decision.”
It turned out to be wrong when Pittsburgh turned around and drove 57 yards for a touchdown. The six-play, 3-minute and 25-second drive completely shifted the momentum back to the Steelers.
After Pittsburgh tied it at 21, the crowd became louder and the Steelers' defense started playing lights out. The Packers went three and out on their next two possessions before falling behind on Roethlisberger’s 33-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown with 8:50 left in the fourth quarter.
If the Packers had pinned the Steelers back in their own end with a punt and held them without a touchdown, the final outcome could have been different. As it was, the Steelers’ Chris Boswell hit a game-winning 53-yard field goal kicking in the same direction from which Crosby had missed.
Watt vs. Biegel: It took one play for Packers rookie Vince Biegel to cross paths with former Wisconsin teammate and Steelers rookie T.J. Watt on the field.
On Sunday night’s opening kickoff, Watt was part of a double-team block against Biegel. Receiver Martavis Bryant returned the kick up the right side to the 41-yard line, helping set up an opening-drive touchdown.
“It was kind of a different aspect,” Biegel said. “I’m usually on the same side that he is, but it was nice to kind of go against him. Wish him the best of luck, and we’ll continue to move on.”
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The Packers could have drafted Watt with their 29th overall pick in the first round in April, but instead traded out of the slot. The Steelers drafted Watt one pick later.
Watt had a good game against his home-state team. He finished with four tackles, including one tackle for loss, with a defended pass. He also helped kill the Packers' potential game-winning drive with a sack inside the final 90 seconds.
Left tackle David Bakhtiari did not seem impressed after the game.
“I never saw (Steelers outside linebacker Bud) Dupree, I just saw Watt,” Bakhtiari said. “On that end, I’m happy that we took Biegel, to be honest. I’m very happy that we ended up getting (Kevin) King and took Biegel."
Spriggs' shot: For all the positives Justin McCray brought to the right tackle position, his future with the Packers is on the interior of the offensive line. The Packers made that clear Sunday by making a change to their starting lineup and handing the reins to Jason Spriggs.
"I thought Jason Spriggs did some things, did some good things,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “I think like any of our players, our units, the things that particularly in Week 11 — and I know he’s just coming back — but the repeated mistakes are what we need to do a better job of. But he did some really good things in pass protection. The run game was not as good as his pass protection. But it’s great to have him back out there.
“As we move forward we’re going to stay with Jason at right tackle.”
Turning to Spriggs allows the Packers to determine both their short-term and long-term future at the right tackle position after the season-ending injury to Bryan Bulaga, who tore his ACL against the Detroit Lions. Spriggs played well against the Steelers in his first significant action since injuring his hamstring in the season opener, and an extended run of good performances could position him to win the starting job in 2018.
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Bulaga, who is under contract for next season, is unlikely to reach 100 percent until mid-September at the earliest after reconstructive surgery. It’s possible Bulaga has played his last snap for the Packers given his lengthy injury history, and in that case Spriggs would be the preferred replacement. Kyle Murphy, another 2016 draft pick, would be in the running as well.
McCarthy and offensive line coach James Campen decided late in the week to replace McCray with Spriggs, the former second-round pick who returned from injured reserve earlier this month. In addition to affording the coaches an opportunity to evaluate Spriggs, the switch allows McCray to focus on his role as a utility lineman along the interior.
“Couple of different formulas and variables involved in that,” McCarthy said. “I think you’ve got to look at Justin’s versatility. He’s been preparing to play two or three positions each and every week. With him being the backup center, obviously that’s a huge responsibility. He hasn’t taken quality reps there in quite some time, so that’s one aspect of it. The other aspect of Jason and his abilities and what we think of him. Then the third part of it is who you’re playing against.”
“We didn’t miss a beat,” McCray said. “Jason played really well. I’m really happy for him.”
Spriggs said he found out Friday or Saturday that he would be starting against the Steelers. It was his first real opportunity to assuage critics after a disastrous training camp and relief appearance against the Baltimore Ravens last week.
“He did some good things but he also had some areas we need to clean up,” offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said. “We had a couple repeat mistakes in the run game where we need to clean that up. And so pass-game-wise, he did a good job, overall from a finish standpoint, you saw him pushing the pile and he was very aggressive from that standpoint. So we did some positive things. We’ve just got to build on the positives and make sure we don’t have any repeat mistakes.”