The Silver Linings from the Pittsburgh Steelers' Loss to the Denver Broncos
That is the only word that could be used to describe watching Demaryius Thomas sprint down the field after a mid-length pass over the middle became an icy dagger in the heart of The One and Only Nation in sports.
In the days since the Broncos' remarkable win over the Steelers, many words have been written about what went wrong for the once-mighty Black and Gold.
Some pundits have opined that the Steelers were arrogant in their defense, not adjusting when it was clear the Broncos intended to throw the ball.
There are many of these kinds of arguments, and most of them are valid, but what positives can be taken from this loss and the decisions both before and during the game that ended the Pittsburgh Steelers 2011 season?
Ben Roethlisberger Is a Gamer, as Tough as They Come
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We can all debate the wisdom of Ben playing after he injured his ankle in week 14 against the Browns. In my humble opinion, he probably should have shut it down during the loss in San Francisco. I think the Steelers could have beaten the Rams and the Browns without him and even if they didn't, they would have been in the same place as they ended up anyway.
Except for one thing...
Ben would have been healthy. Or, at least, healthier.
There is no way to know if the outcome of the Denver game would have been different if Ben had been healthier, but it couldn't have hurt. Were his throws being effected by his bum ankle or his movement in the pocket? Would he have been able to make one of the sacks he suffered into one of his classic broken plays that goes for a touchdown?
Either way, I defy you to find a tougher quarterback in the last 10 years than Big Ben. Love him or hate him, you have to admit that the man is virtually indestructible. When you look at the records of teams like the Lions and the Rams, who have had issues keeping their quarterbacks on the field, you begin to realize that Ben should have missed several more games than he has during his career.
Playing behind a porous offensive line for a large part of his career, Roethlisberger has, at times, taken a savage beating on the football field. Despite that, he hardly ever misses a game. Hell, he was only out of the Browns game for a couple series.
All citizens of Steelers Nation should thank their lucky stars that Ben is as tough as he is, or we could be in the same fix as fans in Western Michigan or St. Louis.
The Steelers Are Very Well Set at Their Skill Positions
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When Rashard Mendenhall went down with a season ending injury, a lot of The Nation were worried that Isaac Redman would not rise to the occasion. When he put the ball on the ground twice late in the Browns game, those worries turned to genuine fear.
Watching Isaac Redman run on Sunday night was a thing of beauty. He played a great game. The only thing missing was a touchdown. He finished the game with 121 yards on 17 carries, good for a remarkable 6.7 yards per carry.
He is a poor-man's Jerome Bettis. Put him in the backfield with a healthy Mendenhall and up-and-comer John Clay, and there is a lot to like about the Steelers' running game.
TE Heath Miller continues to display the skills that made him a first round pick in the 2005 draft. David Johnson calls to mind guys like Eric Green, who played tight end for Pittsburgh. He is big and strong. He just has to learn Miller's knack of catching with soft hands.
Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, and team MVP Antonio Brown make up an outstanding receiving corp. Future Hall of Famer Hines Ward has stated he would be willing to take a pay cut to stay with the Steelers and can still be productive out of the slot.
Overall, this Steelers offense is a potent unit, one to be reckoned with if they can stay healthy.
Speaking of Health, Imagine What This Team Could Do If They Could Stay Healthy
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You could start a very good team with the guys who have missed time this year with injuries from the Steeers roster.
We already talked about Big Ben, who probably should have missed more time with his ankle than he did. Against the Broncos, he was playing without Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, starting running back Rashard Mendenhall, and third-down RB Mewelde Moore.
Most of the offensive line was banged up at one point or another. With the possible exception of penalty-in-waiting Chris Kemoeatu, any of the guys currently on the Steelers roster is good enough to start for this team. The problem is the Steelers spent so much time playing musical chairs on the line that they couldn't get a cohesive unit together.
On the defensive side of the ball, the injury bug was especially voracious. Former defensive Player of the Year James Harrison, and current DPOY Troy Polamalu missed time for injuries. Harrison had an additional game off for a hit he delivered to Browns QB Colt McCoy. Lamarr Woodley also lost time during the season.
Ryan Clark couldn't play against the Broncos because of a disease he has that is exacerbated by the thin air in Denver.
On top of that, the Steelers lost DE Brett Keisel during the game with the Broncos.
But one has to wonder just how good this team would be if all of their stars were healthy and on the field at once. Let's hope we get a glimpse of that in 2012.
The Broncos Won the Game More Than the Steelers Lost It
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Ask yourself something: before Sunday, how would you have defended Tim Tebow? You know the guy can run, but he has shown a marked inability to throw the ball with any consistency.
If you are the Pittsburgh Steelers, boasting the best passing defense in the NFL, you load up the box and dare Tebow to beat you with his arm. Under no circumstances can you let Tim Tebow beat you with his feet.
That is what the Steelers did and Tim Tebow had a career game. He threw for more yards and had more long passing plays than any other quarterback this season. He bested his previous high for passing yards by 80 and put up his second highest passer rating for the year.
He was helped by a poor game by CB Ike Taylor and some great play out of his wide receivers.
Go back and look at the first long pass to Thomas and the touchdown to Eddie Royal. The coverage on both plays was very good. The Broncos just made the plays. The pass interference call on Taylor in the 3rd that set up the only score in the second half for the Broncos was a dubious call at best.
But that raises another point. For more than 45 minutes of game time, the Steelers defense held the Broncos to three points. Denver only had eight yards of offense in the first quarter!
Should the Steelers have scored touchdowns instead of field goals on their first two scores? Absolutely. While being up 14-0 may have changed the course of the game, there is no way to know if it would have changed the outcome.
Should some of the pressure they got on Tebow turned into sacks? Probably. But Tebow has good feet and good pocket presence. Face it, the guy can play. It may not always be conventional, but he can play.
The fact is the Broncos made the plays they had to in order to win. I don't fault the Steelers for playing the way they did.
All the Steelers' Losses Were Losses Against Playoff Teams
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This was an excellent season for the Steelers, aside from the way it ended.
A 12-5 record is nothing to sneeze at. The Steelers did not lose to any team that didn't eventually make the playoffs. The same cannot be said about any other playoff team this year.
They were in the hunt for a first round bye until the end of the season and locked up their playoff appearance before eventual division champs, the Baltimore Ravens.
They were the number one ranked defense in the regular season in total yards, passing yards, and scoring.
They made the playoffs despite an alarming lack of turnover production and an almost embarrassing tendency to give the ball away themselves. In fact, of all the playoff teams, the Steelers were worst in turnover differential with -13. The only other playoff team to have a negative turnover differential? The Denver Broncos (-12).
In the end, any season that does not end with the Steelers winning the last game of the year is viewed as a sub-par season in Pittsburgh, but consider what that says about the Steelers and the citizens of The Steelers Nation. We have become so used to the Steelers winning every year that anything less than a championship is considered a failure.
It is hard to win the Super Bowl. Parity has ensured that every team has a chance to win every year. It is nothing for a team to go from worst to first in the NFL. The Steelers have finished under .500 four times in the last 20 years while making the playoffs 14 times in that same period. They have played in three Super Bowls in the last six years and won two of them.
The only team that can boast that kind of consistency in the recent past is New England and they play in the mediocre AFC East. The Steelers play in one of the toughest divisions in the league, and have to play a team that is exactly like them twice a year every year.
The fact that the Steelers consistently win year in and year out is a testament to their owners, coaches, and players.
Few other teams in any sport can claim such a record of excellence.
So take heart, fellow citizens of The One and Only Nation, for the Steelers will be back.
How do I know? I know because they are the Pittsburgh Steelers.