Taken from the grade book of a teacher who remains proud of his star student, even if that student fell short of expectations, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the AFC Divisional Playoff loss to the Denver Broncos.
Word on the street is that Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t affected by the shoulder injury. This teacher isn’t quite so sure, as Todd Haley seemed to call fewer downfield plays than usual. Still Roethlisberger 24-37-0-0 for 339 yards is impressive and he had at least one touchdown pass dropped and suffered from another non-pass interference call in the end zone. Most importantly, Roethlisberger did not turnover the ball. Grade: B
What a difference a week makes. After the Bengals game, Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman played so well fans could be forgiven for wondering where the coaching staff had been hiding them. The Broncos running defense provided a much stiffer test. Toussaint had difficulty running the ball, and Todman was completely ineffective. And while the Steelers have rightly refused to scapegoat Toussaint, his fumble was the turning point in the game. Grade: F
Heath Miller had one catch for 5 yards and a very visible “drop” that was quite frankly more of a excellent play by the Broncos defense than anything done wrong by Heath. Jesse James posted an excellent 22 yard catch and run that really appeared to position the Steelers to deal Denver the death blow. Matt Spaeth had one catch for one yard. Grade: C+
With Antonio Brown out Martavis Bryant was going to have to step up with a monster game, and step up Bryant did. Yes, he dropped the first pass thrown to him, but Bryant excelled after that catching 9 passes for 154 yards. Darrius Heyward-Bey also played well and helped set up the Steelers second score. Sammie Coates had two targets and made good on both of him, and was quite impressive. Markus Wheaton was well defended in the end zone, but the pass hit him right in the numbers and he should have caught it. He had a decent day as a receiver beyond that, but the Steelers needed that catch. Grade: B
Ben Roethlsiberger only gave up 3 sacks, a number that seems low, although that is in part a measure of how his sack totals have dropped on Todd Haley’s watch. Still, those sacks came when the Steelers could least afford it. Denver has a stout run defense that shut DeAngelo Williams down last time around, and this time they did it again. Like they did in a number of other areas, the Steelers needed a little more from their line. Grade: C
If you throw out the CJ Anderson’s one long run, the Denver rushing stats look almost as anemic as the Steelers do. One problem, that 34 yard scamper came with Denver backed up on its own 5 yard line. Stephon Tuitt led the defensive line with 4 tackles one for a loss and one quarterback hit. Steve McLendon had 3 tackles, although he got blocked on the 34 yard scamper. Cameron Heyward did not record a tackle. The Steelers needed to get just a little more pressure on Peyton Manning, and those contributions could have come from the line. They didn’t. Grade: C+
James Harrison was an absolute monster out there, leading the linebackers in tackles, registering a sack, a quarterback hit and tackling three ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage. Ryan Shazier was second in tackles for Steelers defensive lineman, and although he did not have any splash plays of the week before, he played a solid game. Lawrence Timmons also played a very sold game. Jarvis Jones helped deflect a pass and has now logged to quality playoff performances in a row. Bud Dupree had 3 tackles, one of which went for a loss. Grade: B
A couple of stats stand out here. First, Denver found itself in 3rd and long until late in the game, and Denver was 3-15 on third downs (although those three conversions did come on their last drive.) Both of those stats show that the secondary is doing its job. William Gay led all Steelers defenders in tackles, including one behind the line of scrimmage and had another pass defensed (that, had it been intercepted, could have ended the game.) Mike Mitchell had 3 tackles and a pass defensed. Antwon Blake had a quiet game, and that’s generally good for him. The secondary had a solid day, but given how poorly Manning was throwing the ball, it might not be too much to expect the Steelers defensive backs to come down with one. Grade: B-
Chris Boswell was 3-3 on field goals and knocked kickoffs through the end zone, although it did look like his on sides kick hadn’t gone 10 yards. Outside of that, the Steelers special teams were atrocious vs. the Denver Broncos. A long punt return set up Denver’s first score. Markus Wheaton looked clueless on punt returns and two costly turnovers were narrowly avoided. Jordan Berry’s punts were erratic and otherwise short. The Steelers special teams were a liability in the playoffs vs. Denver, and only Boswell’s kicking keeps this grade from being lower. Grade: D
The Pittsburgh Steelers went into Denver without its top running back, its top wide receiver and with quarterback at less than 100%, yet led the game from the middle of the 1st quarter until the middle of the 4th quarter.
Sure, there are things you can find fault with – why didn’t the Steelers figure out a way to run the ball better? Tomlin’s clock management critics will no doubt insist that he be fired for taking a time out with 2:22 remaining. Why didn’t Tomlin allow Chris Boswell to attempt a 52 yard field goal? Of course going for the deep ball on 4th and 1 will be seen as a mistake.
- Really, all of that is missing the point.
The Steelers coaches didn’t fumble the ball away in the 4th quarter, not did they muff the punt returns, nor did they not pickoff one of those wounded ducks Petyon manning was slinging.
The Steelers game plan was solid, and the player executed it well. Moreover, after such an emotional win as the one that came over the Bengals, there was no sign of a let down. Grade: B+
Maybe it is because he is 33 and realizes his chances for a Super Bowl are dwindling. Maybe it’s because he’s at a point where his experience can make up for any steps he’s lost. Perhaps he simply wanted it more and went out determined to make it happen, but for the second straight week Steelers Will Allen safety put himself at the center of almost every key defense stop, clocking in with 6 tackles, 2 tackles for a loss, 1 pass defensed and another quarterback hit, and for that Will Allen wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers Playoff loss to the Denver Broncos.