Sorting Through the Steelers Opening Day Loss to the Broncos

Peyton Manning has dominated the NFL passing game for over a decade. During that time no defense has been as consistently dominant as the Pittsburgh Steelers. Manning sat out all of 2011 with an injury while the Steelers ranked up the NFL’s number 1 pass defense.

What better combination for the marquee match ups that the NFL reserves for Sunday Nights? Unfortunately for Steelers Nation, only one dominator showed up.

Tale of Two Halves

There is perhaps no one player to forces opponents to game plan from him more than Peyton Manning. He isn’t simply a playmaker, he’s an offense maker, and if you doubt that see how badly the Colts imploded in his absence.

The Steelers have faced off against Manning before.

Absent a strong pass defense in 2002, the Steelers quite simply took advantage of Manning’s mistakes, with Brett Alexander and Mike Logan picking him off three times, as the Steelers won 28-10.

During the 2005 regular season a Manning capitalized on Steelers miscues and turnovers to tune of a 26 to 7 drubbing.

In the playoffs however, the Steelers returned to Indy with a little different game plan. That plan  entailed unleashing their secret weapon, Ben Roethlisberger to jump to a quick lead and then sit on the ball. (The plan of course worked to perfection, until Jerome Bettis came within a shoe string tackle of his career ending in disaster.)

  • This time around Todd Haley and Mike Tomlin’s plan focused on one thing:  Ball Control.

Let the record reflect that the Steelers plan worked to perfection, during the first half.

The Steelers defense forced the Broncos offense to punt twice and forced and then recovered a fumble.

On the two drives where the Steelers forced Denver to punt, Larry Foote and Jason Worilds registered sacks

  • That’s no coincidence.

And unfortunately, Worild’s sack near the end of the first quarter was pretty much the last time a Steelers defender even breathed on Number 18.

The next time Manning touched the ball, he went 6-7 as he marched his team down the field 80 yards for a go ahead touchdown.

  • The Steelers answered with a touchdown of their own.

By the time Manning got the ball back, all had time for was to take a knee and head for the locker room. That would be his past passive act of the evening….

The Half Time Momentum Shift that Never Was…

All of that should have been a good thing.

As everyone knows, scoring a touchdown right before the half is all important as it gives you a momentum shift heading into the locker room. The momentum shift is amplified when you get the ball to start the next half.

Network commentators always remind viewers of this fact. What’s more they’re on to something when they say that such momentum shifts are decisive. Except for when they’re not.

Count Sunday Night in Denver as an occurrence of one of those “occasions when no decisive momentum  shift occurs” (try running that through your redundancy filter.)

  • One almost has to wonder if Steelers coaches saw Manning’s first touchdown drive and feared they’d awakened a sleeping giant.

Because Todd Haley and his offensive players seemed determined to ensure that Manning did not touch the ball again.

  • And they made a good run of it as the Steelers offense possessed the ball for all but 21 seconds of the second half’s first 16 minutes.

The plan might have worked, had the Steelers defense been able to stop Manning from throwing Demetrius Thomas, the accomplice to January’s Tebowing of the Steelers, a 71 yard touchdown pass in that brief span of 21 seconds.

That 21 second was pretty much characteristic of Peyton Manning on the entire second half. Ditto the a Steelers defense whose:

  • Defensive lineman couldn’t get penetration or control their gaps
  • Linebackers didn’t get pressure on the quarterback
  • Defensive backs who could neither cover nor threaten to create a turnover

Outside of that, Dick LeBeau’s defense looked every bit ready to take their place alongside some of his other legendary units.

Not Quite Like the Good Old Days

Its understandable that a good chunk of Steelers Nation is a mite bit taken aback by an opening day loss. Until the Debacle in Baltimore last year, there had not been one in Roethlisberger era.

Things were not always such, however.

Opening day losses were a staples of the Cowher years

These weren’t simple losses, but thrashings.

The attentive reader will note (and if you’re read this far, you must be attentive) that each of those was a winning season, all but one were playoff years, and three of those years ended in the AFC Championship.

  • Opening day wins in 1998, 1998 and 2003 turned out to be harbingers of doom, or at least mediocrity.

The moral of this history lesson is that it doesn’t pay to get too worked up over an opening day loss. With that said there’s something bothersome about the Denver loss.

Haley’s offense, while a work in progress, flashed signs of greatness, greatness that the Steelers might be able to realize if they can go a whole game without losing an offensive lineman.

Unlike the losses mentioned above, the Steelers defense didn’t get dominated physically so much as it got out foxed. Peyton Manning simultaneously checkmated Dick LeBeau off the field while playing a constant game of chicken with Troy Polamalu on the field and winning each time.

Now, one would think mental errors are more easily corrected that a lack of physicality. After all, its easier to teach guys to correct their mistakes than to grow them bigger and stronger.

But 48 hours plus after the game, it doesn’t feel that way, my gut is telling me the opposite.

Let’s hope that Mike Tomlin will prove me wrong.

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