All playoff losses are painful, but the Pittsburgh Steelers 23-16 loss to the Denver Broncos feels all the more poignant for one simple reason – the Steelers could have won the game. One year ago at Heinz Field the Baltimore Ravens clearly classed the Steelers out of the playoffs. The Steelers, even in their weakened state not only could have won in Denver, but would have had a shot at taking out New England.
- Alas, none of that was to be.
In strict analytical terms, the Steelers had a half-full/half-empty performance against the Broncos in Denver, but at the end of the day their defeat can be traced to 3 elements: Piss poor special teams, missed opportunities, and one mortal mistake.
Steelers Special Teams Struggle in Denver
This is one time when you wish you were wrong. When Pittsburgh qualified for the playoffs Steel Curtain Rising called out the Steelers special teams a unit that needed to step up if the Steelers were to climb the Stairway to Seven. By definition, you can’t step up if you’re a liability.
- The Steelers special teams were a liability against the Broncos.
Things got off to a bad start for the Steelers special teams when Omar Bolden returned the opening punt 42 yards. You don’t win playoff games by spotting Peyton Manning, even an ailing 39 year old Peyton Manning, the ball on your own 30 yard line. The Steelers defense forced a field goal, but points were precious in a game that promised to be close.
Markus Wheaton was a disaster as a punt returner. Not only did he not seem to know when to signal fair catch, he wasn’t able to catch it. On one occasion pure luck prevented a turnover, and on another it was Ross Cockrell’s alert play. That inaugurated the drive that saw Fitzgerald Toussaint fumble – no one should blame Wheaton for the fumble, but it was not the way to start a game-sealing drive.
- Jordan Berry boomed off a couple of pretty punts.
He also had two 27 yard punts, one of which allowed Denver to kick a field goal, and he had another touchback when the Steelers sorely needed to pin the Broncos down near their own end zone.
Chris Boswell played well with his 3-3 effort on field goals and making the touchback automatic on kickoffs, but Boswell’s game had its faults as his on sides kick was poorly executed.
If you remove the long return, the turnover on downs, and the fumble recovery, the Denver Broncos average starting field position was at their own 27. The Steelers average starting field position was at their own 20. In a game decided by field goal kickers those seven yards make a big difference.
Steelers Missed Opportunities vs. the Broncos
Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell chose to make missed opportunities the focus of his post-game analysis and so he should. In general, the Steelers played smart football vs. the Broncos, but they still left a couple too many plays on the field.
- Markus Wheaton dropped a touchdown pass that would have dramatically altered the game’s dynamic
- On 1st down with Denver at their own 5, Steve McLendon and Lawrence Timmons missed shots on CJ Anderson’s 34 yard scramble, setting up an eventual Denver field goal
- William Gay missed an interception on Denver’s game willing drive (credit Emmanuel Sanders with a great pass defense)
You can expand or modify this list in any number of ways. But the bottom line is simple: if the Steelers make plays in those situations, they likely win the game. Even though they left those plays on the field, the Steelers controlled the game and were closing in on the kill with 11 minutes left to play….
One Mortal Mistake Dramatically Shifts Momentum to Denver
Webster’s on-line dictionary defines “Fumble” as “To fail to catch or hold the ball.” That’s a rather mundane definition for a play that transforms a football field into a scene of pure chaos in a millisecond. Fumbles differ from interceptions because, even when they’re forced, they bounce in unpredictable ways, offering an unexpected opportunity to whoever can recover it.
- 4th quarter fumbles in playoff games often take on a life of their own.
Twice in the 1980’s, Denver went to the Super Bowl in part because of fourth quarter fumbles, if you count the 1989 Steelers failed exchange between Bubby Brister and Chuck Lanza.
In the 21st century, the Pittsburgh Steelers have an uncanny relationship with 4th quarter fumbles. Jerome Bettis opened the 4th quarter of the Steelers 2004 divisional playoff game vs. the Jets by fumbling to the Jets, but the Steelers defense forced a punt. A year later against the Colts, a late 4th quarter fumble by Bettis was negated by a Ben Roethlisberger shoe string tackle, Bryant McFadden’s career play, and Mike Vanderjet’s missed field goal.
From Ben Roethlisberger, to Mike Tomlin, to Art Rooney II, the Pittsburgh Steelers have acted with class and refused to use Fitzgerald Toussaint’s fumble as a scapegoat for this loss. And, as indicated here, had the Steelers made plays in other areas that fumble could have been little more than a footnote. (And for the record, Toussaint wasn’t being careless with the ball, Bradley Roby made a heck of a play.)
Commentators overuse the concept “momentum changer” in football, but the simple reality is that Toussiant’s fumble dramatically shifted momentum in Denver’s favor.
- Prior to that play, Denver’s offense didn’t so much move down the field, as it muddled down it.
But the fumble breathed new life into Denver. Perhaps Peyton Manning is only an average passer at this point in this career, but he remains a master on-the-field tactician, and the fumble gave him a much needed second wind. As he did in his first game against the Steelers, Peyton Manning outfoxed the Steelers defense, adding insult to injury by burning close to 7 minutes off the clock in doing so.
The Steelers had 3 minutes to make a go of it, but ultimately they could not.
Going Where Mike Tomlin Will Not
Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin walks the walk. The Pittsburgh Steelers define “success” with Lombardi Trophies. Chuck Noll set that standard in the ‘70’s and Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin unflinchingly accepted it.
- But if there was ever a season where a Steelers coach could be granted a dispensation and allowed to accept a moral victory it was the Steelers 2015 season.
Reporters asked Mike Tomlin on the impact of injuries on the game and the season. He stopped them cold. “We’re not into that” – End that entire line of questioning. A big part of the 2015 Steelers success is the locker room’s embrace of the “Next Man Up” philosophy.
- Mike Tomlin doesn’t mouth those words: He lives them.
But bloggers don’t face those constraints. While Steelers felt Antonio Brown’s absence and probably would have won with him in the game, Martavis Bryant, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Sammie Coates stepped up admirably.
On defense James Harrison made plays that a man of his age should be able to do. Ryan Shazier, Jarvis Jones and Stephon Tuitt all put in strong efforts.
In the end, these efforts weren’t quite enough, but the 2015 Steelers have every reason to be proud.