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Steelers vs. Broncos: 10 Observations from Pittsburgh's Wild Card Loss

Joshua HayesCorrespondent IIJanuary 9, 2012

Steelers vs. Broncos: 10 Observations from Pittsburgh's Wild Card Loss

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    The defending AFC Champions officially lost their throne on Sunday Night as the Pittsburgh Steelers fell in a 29-23 overtime loss to the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

    After dominating the early play, the Men of Steel were caught in a whirlwind of Denver momentum in the second quarter.  Downfield strikes by former Florida Gator Tim Tebow and stagnation on offense by the Steelers were catalysts for a complete role reversal, and Pittsburgh’s early 6-0 lead evaporated into a two touchdown deficit at intermission.

    The Black and Gold rallied in the second half, cutting the score to 20-13 on an end-around run by receiver Mike Wallace.  After exchanging field goals, the tying touchdown was set up courtesy of a Willis McGahee fumble in the final minutes.  Ben Roethlisberger capitalized with a magnificent touchdown strike to receiver Jericho Cotchery, tying the score at 23-23.

    With thousands of Terrible Towels whipping in the stands once again, Pittsburgh had an opportunity to win the game at the end of regulation.  However, on that final drive into Denver territory,
    questionable clock management, pressure on Ben Roethlisberger, an inopportune delay of game penalty and a quarterback fumble showcased the lack of clutch play that ultimately separated these Steelers from their championship prestige.

    The setbacks served as a microcosm of Pittsburgh’s recent miscues on the road, as well as their challenges in 2011, and the opportunity to win would not present itself again.

    Following the last in an evening of touchbacks, Denver took control from their own 20-yard line.  Tim Tebow received the game’s final snap from center J.D. Walton after the Steelers defense crowded the
    box.  As the football whistled over the middle of the field from southpaw to receiver, it nestled perfectly into the hands of Demaryius Thomas, who was behind Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor with only green
    grass ahead of him.

    As Thomas’ perfectly timed stiff arm sprung himself loose for the walk off score, fans in Pittsburgh realized that the Steelers’ 2011-12 season had just been effectively “Tebow’ed.”

    Here are 10 observations following the Black and Gold’s sudden season-ending defeat in the Wild Card Playoffs.

Get Ready for Syndication Overkill

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    While not trying to rub salt in the wounds, I want to warn the masses of Steelers fans about what is coming.  And, it's not pretty...

    THE INSTANT CLASSIC.

    THE GAME OF THE WEEK.

    RAMPANT SYNDICATION IN MANY NAMES AND FORMATS...

    …unrelenting reminders of a disappointing night will continue to be replayed over and over again on ESPN, NFL Network and ESPN Classic (you know Tebow Week is imminent this offseason!).

    Replays, documentaries, etc.  This one will be remembered for a long time.  And, the better Tebow goes on to become (the greater his long-term impact), the worse it will be!

    Can you say "Tim Tebow Nostril View?!"

    Whether or not you believe in the ability of Tim Tebow, the league understands what a catch the young star has become.  The marketable athlete’s performance will go down in history as a great NFL moment, and the contest will be re-aired in gross quantity.

    Like Raiders fans re-watching “The Tuck Rule” or Cowboys fans reliving “The Catch,” Steelers Country will not have to wait long to see advertisements for the re-air, one amongst the many shown under the label of “NFL’s Greatest Games.”

    History doesn’t forgive injuries, bad game plans or circumstances.  It also tends to veil these contests rather vaguely.  Commercials for the syndicated showing will simply say, “Tebow’s first playoff game,” and that will automatically conjure up the coined term “the Throw” (or “The Te-throw”) systematically burnt into our brains in relationship to last night’s events.

    While the rest of football’s most passionate fans view the game under the scope of Tebow’s heroics, Steelers fans will get to question the whole set of events again…and again...

    And again.

    An NFL that vilifies quarterbacks for not winning playoff games (Tony Romo, Matt Ryan) also knows how to overblow the first-ever playoff win of an unproven commodity way out of proportion.  

    Prepare yourself, Steelers fans...

    It's going to be like a cranial tattoo.

Questioning the Defensive Strategy

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    The Steelers were too focused on defending Tim Tebow when they should have been more focused on just playing defense.

    While they were injured, they had the personnel to be successful in Denver, but they did themselves an injustice in choosing to stack the box so frequently, isolating their corners in man coverage and leaving opportunities for big plays downfield.

    It was an out of character approach that did not force the Denver quarterback to overcome his weaknesses.  The Steelers dared Tebow to throw, but they didn’t force him to throw into coverage.  In the end, the “kid” made them pay.

    The result was five plays by Denver of over 30 yards, an achievement that the Broncos knew would be necessary if they had any hopes to leave Sports Authority Field with an upset over Pittsburgh.

    After all, the weakness with Tebow’s game has been the ability to make tight, accurate throws into coverage.  Any huge plays picking up bulk yardage against man coverages were going to be accepted by Denver with open arms.

    Going back to Tebow’s struggles in a 40-14 loss to Buffalo as one exhibit of these struggles, a fourth quarter interception to Jairus Byrd reflected his lack of comfort with going through progressions. With man coverage on either side against his receivers, Tebow was unable to freeze the Bills safety, who read Tebow’s intentions and made the key pick.

    In other words, the safety presence caused Tebow to make a mistake in the passing game. Earlier, it caused him to hesitate with the ball, and the Bills got late pressure and forced a fumble.

    None of this would result from Pittsburgh’s questionable strategy. By stacking the box as frequently as they did, the Steelers secondary did not force Tebow to do the things that he—among many other young passers—has struggled to do: a) go through a progression and make the “smart” throw, b) make tight throws into narrow passing lanes, c) disguise his intentions from one of the best safeties in football.

    Not only were Tebow’s alleged deficiencies not tested, the Steelers also failed to get ample pressure.  Furthermore, their approach seemed in contrast with the main strength that many argue for in favor of the 3-4 defense, which is forcing offenses to work their way down the field in a methodical fashion and simply waiting for the inevitable mistake.

    Instead, against a defense that prides itself on the 3-4 philosophy, Tebow had his receivers open downfield in man coverage for the types of big plays that defined his miraculous winning stretch during midseason.

    Most egregiously, the only way Denver could have ended overtime on the opening possession was via touchdown.  As such, if there was ever a situation that called for an abundance of caution, that was it.

Ike Taylor: A Bad Ending to a Superb Season

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    An article on-line that I just saw in a search is titled, “Why We Can’t Put the Blame on Ike.”

    My internal response was, "why would we, anyway?"

    His season ended in contrast to his play—with a stiff arm from Demaryius Thomas, a shame considering the body of work that preceded that final play.

    The notion that Ike should shoulder the blame speaks to the nature of the quick-responding sports fans, desperate for scapegoats amidst bad team play and unable to decipher the x's and o’s short of which player was on the screen at the time that the “bad stuff happened.”

    Demaryius Thomas finished with four catches for 204 yards.  For those calculating at home, I’ll intervene with the mathematics: he averaged 51 yards per catch.

    Ugly, nasty and brutal for sure. 

    Many of these yards, starting with a critical reception on a 3rd-and-12 in the first quarter and ending on an 80-yard touchdown strike in overtime, came at the expense of heralded cover corner Ike Taylor.  To be sure, it was not Taylor’s finest outing, but the team’s over-reliance on Tebow’s inaccuracy, getting pressure and/or their best cover corner didn’t do Ike any favors.

    Beyond looking to the skies in frustration after a number of key catches by Thomas, Taylor was also exasperated by a pass interference penalty in the second half that gave Denver the ball past midfield.  The Broncos ended the drive with key points.

    As a whole, the evening was an inglorious ending to a fantastic season for Ike.  With time to throw and no safety support, NFL receivers will get open, and the evidence was no more plain than when Tebow and Thomas combined for an aerial circus over a defender whose normal dominance became an element of the weekly game plan Steelers fans took for granted.

    Critics of Ike are likely to slam the phone line of local radio and place blame, but such complaints are truly skewed and only serve to belittle a body of work that was exceptional for No. 24 in 2011.  With so much stress on the cornerback combined with such clear underestimation of Tebow by the Steelers, the end result was doomed to be failure for Ike right from the start.

The Pass Rush Gap

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    Last night's defensive strategy may have worked with perfect execution, but more than anything, the element that caused the defensive failures that plagued Pittsburgh was a lack of pressure.

    On their third drive of the game, the Broncos faced 3rd-and-12, having not achieved a first down on offense.  It appeared the Steelers would dominate the game.  In their first two series, the Broncos saw a quick Steelers presence in the backfield, and the result was losses in the run game and quick throws forced from the hand of Tebow that fell incomplete.

    The Broncos finished with eight total offensive yards in the first quarter.  How things would change...

    As the game progressed into the latter stages of the first quarter, Denver's offensive line began to block the Pittsburgh pursuit.  On that fateful 3rd-and-12 that served as the first play in the extreme momentum shift, Tim Tebow had not one...

    not two...

    or three...

    and not four or five either...

    Tebow had SIX seconds to throw the football.  Isolated in coverage on Thomas, who in his right mind could ask any corner to maintain that level of blanketing on an NFL receiver?

    Oddly, the coverage by Ike Taylor was air tight, but Tebow was able to step into the throw without any challenge.  The accurate pass went for over 50 yards, setting the Broncos up in Steelers territory.

    From there, the rest of the night was a cyclical frustration for Steelers Country. 

    The Steelers would stack the box, getting no pressure.  Even when the defensive front didn't feature nine defenders presnap, the safeties played partial to the line all night long.  And, one way or another, Tebow would eventually make the Steelers pay.

    Conversely, Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller each recorded one sack, and the Broncos ultimately took down the already hobbled Ben Roethlisberger five teams.

    The disproportion in ability to get pressure in the pocket was a key difference in the game. It served to further highlight the gap in health between the veteran Roethlisberger and young Tebow, whose strong frame helped him escaped a sack with a series of broken tackles in the backfield on a play in the second half.

Giving Credit Where It Is Due

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    Steelers fans and self-assured analysts, many of whom foretold of the downfall of Tebow this weekend to complete his fall from grace, will make excuses for the Pittsburgh loss.  Some of those explanations will have some merit, but none will tell the whole story.

    For example, who wouldn’t question the Steelers defensive strategy in hindsight?

    Others are the types of excuse-makers many of us have become accustomed to hating, the same type of controversy facilitators who would bench Ben Roethlisberger at complete health after every sack or interception.  They’ll bark and holler about Tebow’s “luck,” faulting the Steelers without giving any credit to arguably the greatest quarterback in college football history.

    This is where it’s time to not be that guy.  I’m going to give the credit where it is due.

    Tim Tebow, way to set up on the big stage, kid.

    When the downfield throws were there to be made, the ball was placed with precision to playmaking receivers; when the perfect route was run in overtime by Thomas against a stacked front and the receiver had running room until Kingdom Come over the middle, Tebow hit him in stride, rendering the Steelers’ best effort to make a play obsolete.

    The throw had velocity, it was put on the money, and it was one of any number of great plays downfield made by the arm of “college football’s golden boy.”

    Last night, the pride of Florida had his proudest professional moment.

A Great Ground Game Was Practically Wasted

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    The more…um, mature…Steelers fans will remember Merril Hoge’s beastly rushing effort in the 1989 Division Playoffs.  Pittsburgh took advantage of his legs, holding a 23-17 lead in the final minutes only for it to be erased by the heroic efforts of John Elway.

    Yesterday, Isaac Redman was a brute against Denver’s front.  However, in another of a series of questionable game strategies by Bruce Arians and Pittsburgh, they chose a pass-heavy approach.

    This time, it was John Elway on the sidelines watching Black and Gold hearts turn blue.

    Consider that the Steelers averaged nearly seven yards per carry, including a 117-yard effort from Isaac Redman, while the Broncos rushing attempts gained less than four yards each.  Additionally, Pittsburgh’s running game was complemented by a capable passing attack headed by an injured quarterback, while Denver’s rush was viewed as a necessary crutch on an offense led by a struggling passer.

    Who ended whose season with the play-action pass again?

    The Broncos continued to establish the run despite Pittsburgh’s refusal to stop stacking the box, a trend that paid off with unexpected big plays downfield off of play-action against single coverage.  

    Despite the apparent mismatches, Denver continued to stick to its game plan, knowing it could eventually take advantage of Pittsburgh’s aggressive defensive fronts. Meanwhile, the Steelers offense attempted 40 passes for the second straight week, drawing criticism from fans who felt Pittsburgh should have strategized to protect the franchise quarterback.

    At the end of the game, even if the Steelers had won, it was apparent that Ben had aggravated his ankle injury, his limp noticeable as he trudged off of the field on which he laid throughout the evening.

    While the Steelers did make some plays off of play-action, they did not allow their running game to dictate the pace, nor did they do even a serviceable job of protecting their most important player.

    Conversely, their dedication to the running game paid off in Denver. After running on 22 of 25 first down plays in regulation, the Broncos lined up in a similar formation to start overtime.  Pittsburgh’s Ryan Mundy approached the line of scrimmage prior to the snap, tipping Tebow off to the possibility of an opening in the middle of the secondary.

    Tebow’s protection held up, and the play-action pass ended the game.

Managing Big Ben

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    Every NFL athlete always wants to play.  Naturally, the Steelers optimistically hoped for a bye week followed by a win to open the postseason.  In this vain, they argued that starting Ben was necessary, giving the Steelers their best chance to win over opponents such as the 49ers and Browns.

    The quarterback wanted to help his team, playing at his own urging. The coaches had to know that it wasn’t Ben’s job to decide his own starting status.  Either way, they made the wrong decision not to give him more rest after a catastrophic, albeit not season ending, injury.

    In hindsight, the idea that Ben helped the Steelers win seems auspicious at best, and the result of the team’s management of its quarterback in the final weeks was his limp into the playoffs.

    Whether or not he would have been at 100 percent isn’t the main issue.

    Saving two games of wear and tear taken off of his injured ankle was the only way to salvage his vital mobility.  In a series of questionable coaching calls in the last few weeks, Tomlin seemed to ignore the common sense shown by most Steelers fans.

    Now, with a loss in the first game of the playoffs that saw a pass-heavy offense led by a largely immobile Big Ben, the evidence is complete.  Starting Ben, especially in the final week at Cleveland, was a bad idea.

    The most logistic fans are left to simply ask, “why?”

    Whether you agree or disagree, a healthy Ben as a wild card was always going to increase Pittsburgh’s playoff chances over an injured Ben, bye week or not.

Tough Decisions Ahead

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    Will James Farrior return?  How about Casey Hampton, long considered a fixture on the defensive line and whose career is on the obvious decline?

    The Steelers have always done the tough, but admirable, work of parting ways with talented players during the “backend peak” of their careers, just before their performance drops off.  By this line of thinking, one must believe that most of the veteran free agents on the Pittsburgh roster will not return in 2012.

    The team’s actions in the offseason will be far more reaching than mere roster decisions. For example, will the team continue to feature the 3-4 defense as its featured strategy?  Or, with this as the final year of his official contract, will the Dick LeBeau era come to its conclusion?

    On offense, Hines Ward established himself as a 1,000 yard receiver and eclipsed 12,000 career receiving yards, setting the two milestone markers that Steelers Country counted down toward all season.  With those markers set, the all-time Steelers great and franchise legend has to be viewed from the standpoint of production, and nobody can argue that his last few seasons have been a study in age.

    Would the team consider having Ward on the roster in 2012 for one last “hurrah?”  Or, is another key contributor to the second championship era in team history about to make his exit?

    With so many great players from the Bill Cowher era ending their careers, these are the times when Mike Tomlin will get to truly put his stamp on the franchise.  One thing is certain: not everyone can return.  With talented players ready to assume starting roles, from Ziggy Hood to Jason Worilds, and others preparing for a healthy return in 2012 (Lamarr Woodley), an offseason of change began in the first play of overtime.

Steelers Receivers Were Outplayed for the First Time All Season

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    The Steelers were one of only three teams to ever throw for more yardage than their opponents in every game of the regular season, largely attributable to their playmaking quarterback.  

    In addition, their depth at receiver and ability to make big plays at any given moment made the passing game Pittsburgh’s primary weapon.  Lastly, having the league’s top rated pass defense meant that the Steelers entered every game with a huge matchup advantage.

    For the most part, Pittsburgh’s passing game worked like a charm. Mike Wallace, who set his goal at 2,000 receiving yards prior to 2011, developed into a better all-around receiver, and his torrid start had fans discussing Jerry Rice’s record.  

    When defenses shifted more of their coverage focus to the playmaking Wallace, Antonio Brown flourished in the offense, making key catches all season that ranged from standard to uncanny.   On any down or distance, Brown could make the drive-extending catch.

    Beyond the top two receivers, Heath Miller, Emmanuel Sanders, Jericho Cotchery and Hines Ward all made contributions at various points of the season.  Even Wesley Saunders got into the clutch receiving act with a spectacular touchdown reception in Kansas City.

    Then, Big Ben fell to injury, and the chemistry between the quarterback and his receivers suffered.

    Subsequently, the receivers began to come up short.  Much like in the game at San Francisco, Antonio Brown dropped a quick pass from Big Ben while behind coverage, sacrificing substantial yardage, if not points.

    Likewise, Mike Wallace—typically reliable with the ball anywhere near his hands downfield—used his arms to haul in a long pass from Big Ben.  The bomb could have helped stop the sudden momentum shift that ended with Denver leading 20-6.  Instead, the football hit the ground, and an apparent deep catch was overturned.

    With Ben’s mobility hindered, the rocket-fueled retrievers were unable to get off of their coverage and make the big plays Steelers fans have become so accustomed to witnessing.  

    Undaunted, as the game progressed, the Steelers rallied, and Jericho Cotchery made a sensational scoring catch in the fourth quarter.

    However, minus this one play, Pittsburgh’s wideouts were kept relatively quiet in the Mile High City, while Denver’s receivers went above and beyond to give Tim Tebow the biggest signature win of his career to date.

    It marked the first time all season that the Steelers’ receivers were out-produced, but worse than sheer statistics was that they were also outplayed.

Tebow Outgunned the 'Burgh in More Ways Than One

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    For all of the oddities in the wild, wild Wild Card Game, one bit of trivia is particularly surprising. 

    Not only did Tim Tebow set the postseason record for passing yards per attempt in a game by a qualifying player (based on min. attempts), he also took the record from a member of the Black and Gold.

    Believe it or not, Tebow averaged over 15 yards per pass attempt in the overtime win over Pittsburgh.  Not surprisingly, this marks the worst average yards surrendered by a Steelers secondary in playoff history dating back to 1940.

    That’s right!  Tim Tebow set an NFL playoff RECORD with his 15.05 real yards per pass attempt, breaking a former record that Steelers fans will remember quite intimately.

    As the title indicates, Tebow outgunned the ‘Burgh in more ways than one.  The record he broke belonged to Terry Bradshaw, who averaged 14.71 RPYPA in Super Bowl XIV.

    So, that's the reality, Steelers fans.  Yesterday, against the Steelers, Tim Tebow had the most dominant playoff passing day in history. 

    Doesn't it just leave you with the most warm, fuzzy feeling for the offseason?

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