Despite Tim Tebow's worst stretch of his professional career, the Denver Broncos have stumbled into the playoffs. Still, any hope for a Super Bowl run will be quickly snuffed out by the Pittsburgh Steelers defense, which presents the worst possible matchup for Tebow's style of play.
John Fox and the Denver Broncos deserve a ton of credit for having the humility and flexibility to craft an offense completely around Tim Tebow.
Knowing that Tebow doesn't have the ability to drop back and pick apart pass defenses on every down, Fox and his staff brought in concepts that Tebow ran in college.
The shift in approach helped to accentuate Tebow's strengths as a runner while masking his faults as a passer, but it also helped to ease Tebow into his role as an NFL starting quarterback. He was already facing defensive schemes, size and speed that he'd never encountered as a Florida Gator, it could have been overwhelming to ask him to react to those schemes in a completely new language. Tebow is fluent in the spread system, and Fox's changes allowed him to continue speaking his own language.
At first, the element of surprise helped the Broncos ride a Tebow-led surge to the top of the AFC West, but over the last few games, opposing defenses have figured him out. Denver went without a win in its last three games and managed progressively lower point totals in each game, bottoming out with a 7-3 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Unfortunately for Broncos fans, it's going to get worse this weekend.
The Pittsburgh Steelers don't just have the best defense in the league, they have the best defense in the league for stopping Tim Tebow.
In the past, many NFL dual-threat quarterbacks were slight in stature, using field-scorching speed and ankle-breaking agility to elude defenders and keep plays alive. Tim Tebow is not that kind of player.
Tebow succeeds because of his size. When he's able to find a crease in the defensive line with a full head of steam, his 236-pound frame allows him to bull his way through arm tackles and grind out extra yardage.
Unfortunately, a 3-4 defense loaded with huge linebackers doesn't bode well for his success.
The Broncos' last three opponents (New England, Buffalo and Kansas City) all run the 3-4 as their primary defensive alignment. Of those defenses, only the Chiefs rank above 26th in total yards allowed, but even against weaker examples of the 3-4, Tebow wasn't quite himself, at least not the "himself" he'd been in the previous eight games.
He fumbled five times in those three games and wasn't able to reach his per-carry season average. He actually had a nice game against the Patriots, rushing for 93 yards on 12 attempts, but against the Bills and Chiefs, he managed barely three yards per carry.
The Steelers will align in much the same way but have a better crew of linebackers than any team that Tebow has faced this season.
With LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison both returning to the lineup, Pittsburgh will be fully stocked at the second level. The Steelers' starting linebackers all weigh in at 234 pounds or more. All are excellent tacklers that can match Tebow in terms of size, speed and strength.
They're led by Dick LeBeau, one of the most successful defensive coordinators in football history. He'll certainly have something special cooked up for the Broncos, but even in its simplest form, his system is perfectly suited to dismantle Tebow's signature play, the zone read.
The zone read is a shotgun option run play in which the quarterback reads the pursuit of the defender on the end of the defensive front. Rather than blocking him, the quarterback just reacts to his movements.
If that defender crashes inside, the quarterback hands the ball to the running back who takes off around the corner. If the edge defender stays wide, the quarterback fakes to the back and keeps it himself.
If Tebow runs this play against the Steelers, he'll be reacting to the movements of Woodley and Harrison, LeBeau's edge-rushing linebackers and two of the most devastating hitters in football. Both players have the ability to track down either option runner, but more importantly, both are veterans with the discipline to stay at home and not give Tebow an easy read.
If a zone read defender simply turns the corner and stops, the quarterback has nothing to read. In college, a player like Tebow can just take on the defender by himself, but that's not going to work against Woodley or Harrison.
Their discipline will stall Denver's option game, allowing the rest of the Steeler defense to collapse on the play before it even gets started.
Tebow will struggle to run against Pittsburgh, but when he tries to pass, things will get even worse.
If Tim Tebow's 2011 season has proven anything, it's this: Right now, he cannot succeed as a traditional, drop-back passer.
Tebow has started 11 games this season; he's completed at least 53 percent of his passes once.
As a passer, he's at his best when he can get out of the pocket. There, he forces defenders to choose between stepping up against the run or staying back to prevent the pass. The threat of quarterback run works almost like a play-action fake, distracting players in coverage and widening holes in zones.
Through these wide open windows, Tebow can connect with his favorite receivers, both of whom offer a barn door-sized target. Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker are both 6'3".
Pressure isn't that much of a concern as long as it's on Tebow, not his receivers. His accuracy doesn't wane much when he's on the run, but he hasn't shown an ability to fit the ball into tight coverage, regardless of whether or not he's able to set his feet.
The key to defending Tebow as a passer is to keep him between the tackles. Again, Pittsburgh's defensive discipline makes it perfectly equipped for the task.
While the Steeler linebackers get most of the glory, they couldn't do what they do without the help of Pittsburgh's space-eating defensive line. LeBeau doesn't prioritize penetration for his front, he'd prefer that they create a wall of humanity behind which his linebackers and run free. He asks players like Ziggy Hood, Casey Hampton and Brent Keisel to occupy as many blockers as possible and push the offensive line into its own backfield.
That approach, combined with Woodley and Harrison flying off the edges, will create a vice around Tim Tebow.
On a younger defense, outside rushers might over-pursue and leave lanes to the outside, but the Steelers are too smart for that. They know that Tebow can't beat them from the pocket and that forcing a contested throw into coverage can be almost as effective as a sack.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are famous for their unique blitz packages and confusing defensive schemes, but against Tim Tebow their base defense will be more than enough to squash the Broncos offense.