The Pittsburgh Steelers season came to an end Sunday afternoon at Sports Authority Field at Mile High as they were defeated 23-16 by the AFC’s #1-seeded Denver Broncos in the divisional round of the playoffs. The pregame hype focused on the health and capabilities of the two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks. In a season truncated by injury and poor play, could Peyton Manning be the Peyton of old or would this be the last game of his storied career? Could Ben Roethlisberger quickly bounce back from a separated shoulder and carry a banged up Steelers team to victory or would they lose a playoff game in Denver for the second time in four years? The commonality is both offenses were plagued by drops and struggled on third down. But while it was Roethlisberger who had the better statistical day, it was Manning who was able to engineer a late-fourth quarter touchdown drive to seal the victory.
The game turned on it’s only turnover. With the Steelers up 13-12 early in the fourth quarter and driving in Denver territory, running back Fitzgerald Toussaint fumbled and the Broncos recovered. Manning then orchestrated a 13-play, 65-yard drive keyed by a 31-yard catch and run by Bennie Fowler on 3rd-and-12 from the Denver 33. After that first down the Broncos turned to the run game, largely neutralized to that point, and chewed up valuable time in the process. They ran the ball on eight of the next nine plays with C.J. Anderson punching it in from the 1-yard line for the game-winning TD. The Steelers defense was solid, but like last week was unable to get a crucial fourth quarter stop when it needed it, and unlike last week they didn’t generate any turnovers. The offense moved the ball well, but continued failures on third down were again a problem as they ended up settling for field goals or punting inside Broncos territory. The teams exchanged last minute field goals, but the Steelers couldn’t recover a desperation onside kick and the Broncos knelt it out. It was a game the Steelers could have won, but didn’t so it will be the Broncos hosting the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game while the Steelers start their focus on the 2016 season.
*The Steelers were without Antonio Brown (concussion), DeAngelo Williams (foot) and Will Johnson (hamstring) for this game. Linebacker Arthur Moats suffered a pectoral injury in the first half and did not return.
A mixed bag offensively but again not enough production on the scoreboard. Similar to last week the offense was able to move the football outgaining the Broncos 396-324 yards and 6.7-4.6 yards/play, but their ineffectiveness on third downs and in the red zone kept Denver in the game. Add in a handful of drops, a few errant throws and the turnover and kicker Chris Boswell ends up being the team’s leading scorer for the second week in a row. Never a great sign.
*Playing with an injured shoulder Ben Roethlisberger gave the Steelers a solid, but a bit unsatisfying, performance. He challenged the Broncos right off the bat overthrowing an open Markus Wheaton 50 yards downfield on the game’s very first play and he continued to attack the NFL’s #1 rated defense downfield the entire game. Yet despite hitting seven pass plays of 20+ yards, mostly in the middle of the field, he was only able to get the offense into the end zone one time. It’s an issue that has plagued the offense the last four weeks as it put up only 17, 28, 18 and 16 points after putting up 30+ six weeks in a row. Ben’s performance was hurt by an uncharacteristically high number of drops, a potential pass interference no-call in the end zone and a few errant throws, most-notably to Sammie Coates and Markus Wheaton over the middle. Ben threw for personal playoff-best 339 yards, but is now 0-4 in playoff games where he has passed for more than 275 yards. He finished with no touchdowns or interceptions for the first time this season, the first time in 17 career playoff starts and just the eighth time in his career.
*Martavis Bryant stepped up with a career-best performance in the absence of Antonio Brown. He set a Steelers postseason record for yards from scrimmage with 9 catches for 154 yards and 2 carries for 40 more. Bryant in the open field seems almost as elusive as Antonio Brown, which is saying something since he’s 5 inches taller. He still lacks polish as a route-runner and it looked like he made a poor decision on his second rushing attempt when he didn’t cut inside a Roethlisberger block forcing the Steelers to punt, but his ceiling is elite. He gave the Steelers what they needed Sunday.
*Rookie wide receiver Sammie Coates had one catch on the season coming into the game. Sunday he caught 2 balls for 61 yards and showed exactly why the Steelers invested a third round pick in him this past offseason. Big, fast and strong Coates has impressed the last six weeks of practice and he finally got a chance to do it in a game with AB out. The Steelers WR corp is going to be scary-good next year.
*Fitzgerald Toussaint was one of last week’s heroes. This week his turnover proved costly. During the Bengals game I had commented how as soon Toussaint hit traffic he covered up with two hands to protect the football. Credit Denver CB Bradley Roby for a great play. He reached in and was able to jar the ball loose as Toussaint carried it in one hand, while being blocked five yards past the line of scrimmage. As pivotal as any play in the game. Fitz had a great run to set up his first career TD, unfortunately that won’t be the play people remember.
*It’s not often a guy gets criticized for a 58-yard catch-and-run, but in real time and then having watched the replay a bunch times I can’t help but think Darrius Heyward-Bey should have scored. He’s got to use his speed to beat the DB that slowed him up.
*Drops. Across the board. The Steelers receivers not named Antonio Brown have to do a better job making the challenged catches. It started on the 4th-and-1 throw to Markus Wheaton in the end zone in the first quarter. It would have been a tough catch, but as I’ve said many times about Bryant, those are the game-changing plays and the ones that separate the elite receivers. Bryant did drop a slant over the middle after turning Aqib Talib inside-out on a play that would have been a huge gain. The were at least 3 or 4 others, including one by the usually sure-handed Heath Miller.
*Marcus Gilbert had a killer facemask penalty that took the Steelers out of FG range.
*2-12 on third down, 0-2 on fourth down. The Steelers really struggled in this area down the stretch. Just not good enough.
As I wrote last week the Steelers defense continues to be incredibly enigmatic, but the formula for success never changes. Create turnovers. Last week they got four, this week they didn’t get any. The team finished the season with a record of 0-6 in games where it lost the turnover battle. While acknowledging they weren’t playing against top flight offenses in the playoffs, the defense continued to improve. They played well enough for the second week in a row, but after getting outscored 16-3 in the fourth quarter last week, they got outscored 11-3 in the fourth quarter of this one. Game. Set. Match.
*The defense was put in bad field position early because of poor special teams play. The Broncos started their opening drive on the Steelers 30 after a 42-yard punt return and they started their third drive on the Steelers 31 after a 27-yard punt. Both times they were held to FGs. The Steelers could have found themselves in a monster hole early, but the defense came through big.
*The Steelers were generally excellent against the run. Stephon Tuitt, James Harrison, Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier all made outstanding plays at different points in the game. Harrison deserves specific note in what might have been his final game. He finished with 7 tackles, 3 for a loss and the team’s only sack, running over Anderson to get Manning.
*Mike Mitchell had a big pass break up on 4th-and-3 from the 37, jarring the ball loose from Emmanuel Sanders. The play would have gone for a first down and put the Broncos in FG range. In the 3rd quarter William Gay did a great job sniffing out a WR screen on third down, making an excellent tackle and forcing a punt.
*The Steelers held the Broncos to 3-15 on third down and 0-1 on fourth. Excellent.
*Again the Steelers couldn’t get a big stop when they needed it most. The Broncos were able to go 13 plays and 65 yards for their only TD with less than 10 minutes left in the game. The big play was a 3rd-and-12 completion to Bennie Fowler for 31 yards. Apparently Brandon Boykin got the play call late and wasn’t in great position and then Will Allen missed a tackle. Probably the second biggest play of the game.
*The Steelers just didn’t get enough pressure on Manning. Safety Will Allen was able to come free a couple of times off the edge, but the Steelers couldn’t do enough rushing four.
*Gay has been criticized for not catching what appeared to be an easy INT. The reality is Sanders made a great play to break up the pass.
*Chris Boswell finished a great season going 3-3 on FG attempts. The kicking battle between Boswell and Shaun Suisham will be one of the more interesting battles in training camp next summer.
*Jordan Berry and Markus Wheaton vying for the top spot here as both were terrible. Berry had two punts of 27 yards and later punted one into the end zone from the Broncos 39. He did pin the Broncos inside the 5 one time, but it was a tough day.
*Wheaton had a nightmare returning punts. He fumbled one, muffed another, made a very dangerous choice to field a third and didn’t block a gunner on a fourth. The only saving grace is he didn’t turn the ball over, but I don’t know that it could have gone any worse otherwise.
*After giving up a 24-yard return at a crucial moment late in the game last week, the punt return unit gave up a 42-yard return, the longest return against the Steelers this season, on it’s first opportunity this week.
*Keith Butler did a good job both setting up the defense to stop the outside zone running game and occasionally having his DBs disrupt Broncos WRs at the LOS.
*Mike Tomlin has been roundly criticized for eschewing long field goal opportunities in the first and fourth quarter. In the first quarter the Steelers faced a 4th-and-1 from the Broncos 32. The Steelers went for it and Ben missed hooking up with Markus Wheaton in the end zone. I liked the call and the aggressiveness. It is also important to note that Ben’s first read was a short pass into the left flat to Jesse James, but he was covered. He did have Heath Miller open on a shallow cross, but elected to go deep to Wheaton. They play was there, they just didn’t connect. The second opportunity came with the Steelers up 13-12, facing a 4th-and-20 from the Denver 34. I would have kicked the FG, but Tomlin chose to punt. Jordan Berry sailed it into the end zone. In Tomlin’s defense, Broncos kicker Brandon McManus said this:
McManus said it was worst wind he’s kicked in in his life. “Nothing in pregame then 30 mph. Was tough”
— Troy Renck (@TroyRenck) January 18, 2016
Big Officiating Calls:
*Just before the end of the first half, the Broncos had a 2nd-and-9 from their own 6. C.J. Anderson went over left guard for 34 yards. It sure looked like NT Steve McLendon was tackled on the play. The Broncos ended up driving for a FG.
*On the Steelers opening drive of the 2nd half they faced a 3rd-and-5 from the Broncos 10. Ben threw to Martavis Bryant in the right side of the end zone. Talib clearly made contact early but pass interference wasn’t called.
*Early in the 4th quarter it looked like Will Allen was going to sack Peyton Manning who slid to avoid contact, essentially “giving himself up.” There was no whistle and Manning got up and completed a 34-yard pass to Sanders. The play isn’t reviewable, the refs blew the call.
(Sorry for the Steelers slant, I just didn’t see much that could have gone the Broncos way.)
Up Next: The Steelers next game will be in September to open the 2016 season.
Reminder: You can hear me on the pregame show on WDVE & ESPN before every Steelers game and on weekdays on ESPN Pittsburgh 970 and 106.3 FM from 4-7 pm. You can follow me on twitter @DavidMTodd.