At one point, late in the first quarter, second-year former undrafted free agent running back Fitzgerald Toussaint was the hero for the Pittsburgh Steelers, following up a hard-fought 15-yard rush inside the red zone with a one-yard touchdown burst to secure a 7-6 lead. The score helped right the ship after early Steelers bumbles resulted in two short Denver fields, and two subsequent field goals.
The narrative changed in an instant late in the second half, however, when Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby was able to punch the ball out of Toussaint’s hands, forcing a fumble that Denver recovered at its own 35-yard line.
Peyton Manning and the Broncos went on to drive down the field and score the go-ahead touchdown, securing a two-point conversion that game them the seven-point lead with three minutes to play. It was the only turnover of the game, and it proved to be the difference.
It was also the clear turning point, essentially the ultimate deciding factor that likely separated victory from defeat. At the time, the Steelers were nursing a 13-12 lead, but were driving, quickly getting down to the Broncos’ 34-yard line.
At the 10-minute mark in the fourth quarter, Toussaint got the call on a second-and-four run, reaching the 31-yard line when Roby got an arm free from a block to make a swatting stab at the ball, held slightly loose in Toussaint’s left hand, raking the ball out.
The Broncos proceeded to execute a nearly seven-minute touchdown drive on 13 plays, leaving three minutes on the clock and forcing the Steelers to get a touchdown to tie, but the offense came up short, turning the ball over on downs in field goal range.
As we all know, of course, Toussaint should never have been in this position. He was not even on the 53-man roster for the first 10 games of the season. It took injuries to both Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams to reach this point.
But Toussaint stepped up to the plate when the Steelers needed him to up until that fumble, starting for the team in both playoff games, and playing well, even when the rushing yards were hard to come by, contributing in whatever manner he could.
Against the Bengals, he totaled 118 yards of offense, split nearly evenly between rushing and receiving, and was a key factor in the Steelers outlasting their division rivals in spite of the fact that he did not reach the end zone.
Tonight, he rushed for just 39 yards on 12 carries, and was limited to just two yards on three receptions by the Broncos’ defense, but in those snaps were key plays, particularly late in the first quarter, and his pass protection was also crucial.
Toussaint is surely feeling the emotional impact of his error, and will for some time, but he owned up to everything after the game in the locker room with the media. His teammates, coaches, and the front office have been supportive of him. He gave a lot of himself this year in what may be just the start of things to come for the young back.