Steelers Broncos Divisional Playoff Finds Both Franchises at Crossroads

You want to know one of the nice things about the NFL? There are very few one way streets. All roads in the NFL might not lead to Rome, ask the Cleveland Browns, but roads double back  to intersect again.

  • And so it is with the Steelers Broncos Divisional Playoff matchup.

Looking at the X’s and O’s, the Steelers December victory over the Broncos probably offers the best clue to understanding today’s AFC divisional playoff matchup.

It’s a given the Ben Roethlisberger needs to show something and that Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Heath Miller and, yes, Sammie Coates must step up their games in Antonio Brown’s absence. Ditto Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman with DeAngelo Williams out.

  • But you knew that already.

An analysis of the X’s and O’s says that the key to this game will depend on which Steelers defense shows up. If the Steelers defense of the first half of the Broncos game makes even a brief appearance, the Steelers 2016 off season will begin in earnest. However, if the Steelers defense of the second half of that game shows up in full force, the Steelers have a shot at going to Foxborough.

  • But that tells us very little about the story underlying today’s game.

For that you must look back further.

Steelers Getting Tebowed Leads to Transition

The date was January 8th 2012, the site was the same as today, Denver’s Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Steelers had opened the 4th quarter trailing by 10 points, but a Ben Roethlisberger to Jerricho Cotchery connection and a Shaun Shuisham field goal had tied it in regulation.

The Denver Broncos got the ball to start ove time. Tim Tebow hit Demaryius Thomas over the middle. Ike Taylor missed the tackle. Ryan Mundy couldn’t get into position to take a shot. 80 yards later and Demaryius Thomas ended it all in the end zone.

  • Steelers Nation suffered the ultimate buzz kill.

2011 Pittsburgh Steelers failed at a chance to defend their AFC Championship and atone for the defeat of Super Bowl XLV. But it went beyond that. That loss marked a fundamental shift for the franchise. Shortly afterwards, I remarked to Tony Defeo that I felt I had the feeling that Steelers fans must have had in 1980, when the Super Steelers run can to a sobering end as the Houston Oilers ended their playoff chances.

  • But this thread doesn’t just involve the Steelers, it involves the Denver Broncos too.

Tim Tebow was a terrible quarterback blessed with an uncanny ability for finding a way to win when all appeared lost. That made for some dramatic finishes to football games, but John Elway was smart enough to know that he shouldn’t stake his franchise’s future on an intangible quality.

So he did something about it. He went out and got Peyton Manning, convincing Manning that, like Elway, he still had enough to win Super Bowls in his late 30’s.

  • Elway’s first test of that ability came next season, on Sunday Night Football, against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

If Steelers Nation has blotted that game out of their collective memory, we’ll forgive them. Much screamed to be forgotten. Its synthesis, however, is rather simple. All night long, Peyton Manning engaged in a chess match with Dick LeBeau and Troy Polamalu, while James Harrison watched in street clothes from the sideline.

  • And at each and every critical juncture, Peyton Manning outfoxed LeBeau and Polamalu.

In a word, Peyton Manning schooled the Steelers defense. Yes, the Steelers 2012 defense would finish the season as the NFL’s number one overall in terms of total yards. Yes, the defense would keep the Steelers in games they had no business being in late in the season (see the 2012 7 turnover fiasco vs. the Browns).

  • But Petyon Manning revealed that “Coach Dad” had no clothes.

It may have difficult for some of us (read: Steel Curtain Rising) to see at the time, but with 20/20 hindsight, Peyton Manning revealed the bitter truth that Sunday Night opening day loss.

Steelers and Broncos Two Teams at Diverging Crossroads

Now the Steelers and Broncos meet and again the venue is Mile High, and again it is the playoffs. But this time the backstory is decidedly different.

Peyton Manning is in the twilight of his career. One would have to be a fool to discard the possibility that number 18 would be able to find a way to move the needle in dramatic fashion just one more time. And he might.

But the number of quality football games Peyton Manning has left in him are measured in single digits –at best. Objectively speaking, Steel Curtain Rising is already on the record saying that Pittsburgh’s best plan for success is to dare Peyton Manning to beat the Steelers defense.

  • And this is a very different Steelers defense and, for that matter, offense, than the one that lost to Tim Tebow.

On defense, Cameron Heyward, Steve McLendon, Lawrence Timmons, James Harrison and Will Allen are (about) all that remain. In terms of personnel, the Steelers offense hasn’t seen as much turnover since 2011, but the backfield is completely new, Matt Spaeth is back, and the offensive line presents a mix of old and new.

Regardless of the outcome, assuming that Ben Roethlisberger neither risks nor suffers greater long term injury as a result of playing today, the Steelers Broncos Divisional Playoff marks as much of a new beginning for the Pittsburgh Steelers franchise as it does an ending for the Peyton Manning era of the Denver Broncos.

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Key to Victory over Broncos? Dare Peyton Manning to Beat the Steelers Defense

The Pittsburgh Steelers issued a bleak final injury report before their divisional playoff game against the Denver Broncos. Ben Roethlisberger is injured but expected to play. Antonio Brown is out. So too is top running back DeAngelo Williams.

  • The Steelers offense will miss these men vs. Denver, but it is the other men on the injured list who must make a difference.

Will Allen, Robert Golden, James Harrison, Ryan Shazier, Vince Williams and Cameron Heyward were all listed as probable. These men will play. And if the Steelers are to defeat the Denver Broncos at Mile High for the first time since 2009, Allen, Golden, Harrison, Shazier, Williams, Heyward and the rest of their defensive brethren must play the game of their lives.

Which Steelers Defense Will Show Up vs. Denver?

When Mike Tomlin let Dick LeBeau go and tabbed Keith Butler as Steelers defensive coordinator, Butler was charged with reviving a unit that at lost its luster. Make no mistake about it. Credit Dick LeBeau fielding competitive defenses during 2011 and 2012 as he fought off the toll Father Time exacted his playmakers.

  • But those number one Steelers defense in 2011 and 2012 (in total yards allowed) masked multiple deficiencies.

Those Steelers defenses couldn’t pressure the passer, and suffered from a chronic failure in securing turnovers. The first thing the Butler needed to do was to change that. How did he do? The numbers are interesting as the 2015 Steelers defense:

  • Dropped from 18th in yards allowed to 21st
  • Improved from 18th to 11th in points scored
  • Jumped from 25th to 6th in interceptions
  • It also forced 3 more fumbles and recovered 5 more fumbles than the 2014 Steelers defense

Those are impressive improvements numbers, but they too mask inconsistency. There’s no secret black magic behind the 2015 Steelers defense success – they secure turnovers. There’s a common thread to the Steelers 3 worst losses of the season – they could not force a turnover against the Patriots, Chiefs, and Ravens.

  • NFL coaches normally focus on the turnover differential, but the Steelers are only 2 ahead on the season.

And true to form, in the Steelers losses to the Bengals and the Seahawks they came out on the wrong side of the turnover differential. It was only in the Monday Night loss to the Ravens that the Steelers won the turnover differential and lost the game. Overall, the Steelers are 11-2 when they simply force a turnover.

So what does all of this mean for the Steelers divisional playoff game against Denver?

Steelers Defense Must Dare Peyton Manning Beat Them

No, Steel Curtain Rising has not suffered a bout of momentary insanity, although readers can be forgiven for thinking so based on the sub headline above. Peyton Manning is a first ballot Hall of Famer and considered by many to be the best quarterback in NFL history. And true greats often have a way of digging deep to find one final turnkey performance.

  • But the smart money for the Steelers defense vs. the Broncos will be to dare Peyton Manning beat them.

Seriously. Think it through logically and it makes sense:

Even in his prime, the phenomena of “Regular season Peyton Manning vs. Postseason Playoff Peyton Manning” haunted Manning. And Peyton Manning’s prime is long past. Numbers don’t lie:

  • This season, Peyton Manning has thrown 9 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions
  • At home Peyton Manning has been worse, throwing 1 touchdown and 8 picks
  • Peyton Manning is 0-4 in post season games with a temperature below 40 degrees

They’re forecasting temperatures in the 30’s in Denver for the AFC Divisional Playoff Game.

But while Manning has been injured, the Denver Broncos have revitalized their running game. The Denver rushing offense is only ranked 17th, but it has improved over the later part of the season. Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson rushing averages trend up as the season goes on, and they combined for over 200 yards in the Broncos season finale vs. San Diego.

  • The 2015 Steelers defense ranked 5th against the run.

On paper, Keith Butler’s game plan against the Broncos is simple: Keep Steve McLendon in the game, use whatever combination of Jarvis Jones, Bud Dupree, Arthur Moats, Stephon Tuitt along with Heyward and Harrison to get in Manning’s face. And it does without saying that the Steelers defenders must finish tackles.

  • And yes, Ross Cockrell, William Gay, Michael Mitchell, and Antwon Blake must come down with a few turnovers.

At the beginning of 2015 season, it was said that the Pittsburgh Steelers would go as far as their offense could take them. Going into the Pittsburgh’s playoff game against Denver, the Steelers will depend on Keith Butler’s defense to carry it to victory.

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Forget Sammie Coates, Darrius Heyward-Bey Must Step Up in Playoffs with Antoino Brown Out vs. Broncos

The Pittsburgh Steelers injury report for the Divisional playoff showdown vs. the Denver Broncos is in, and the news is grim for Steelers Nation: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is listed as questionable, Antonio Brown and DeAngelo Williams are listed as out.

  • Gotta love going up against the NFL’s number 1 defense without at least 2 of your 3 top offensive weapons.

Antonio Brown’s absence is not much of a surprise. While Pittsburgh reports indicated that he was likely to play, several national outlets predicted he would not. Score one for the national media over the Pittsburgh media. However, those are issues for the Watch Tower to sort out.

Now the focus falls on beating the Denver Broncos without the Steelers 2015 team MVP.

Who Steps Up with Antonio Brown Down?

With Antonio Brown out vs. the Broncos, the Steelers need someone to step up. Just how badly will the Steelers miss Antonio Brown? In 2015 Brown:

  • Accounted for 29% of the Steelers offensive yardage
  • Caught 34% of completed passes and 23% of passes thrown
  • Was the target of 32% of all passes thrown
  • Scored 31% of the Steelers offensive touchdowns

Replacing a man who has accounted for about a third of your offense is no simple task. With Brown gone, most people are looking to 4th round draft pick Sammie Coates as “The Next Man Up.”

That’s logical, because with Brown out Coates will not only get a helmet, he get playing time. And the Steelers are going to need him to catch whatever comes his way, regardless of whether that comes from Ben Roethlisberger’s hands, Landry Jones‘ or Michael Vick‘s.

  • But to expect a rookie with one catch to his name to fill the void left by Antonio Brown borders on ridiculous.

The Steelers first line of defense in Brown’s absence are Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton. Both men have had their ups and downs during the season, but both have shown they’re capable of making plays. But to some degree or another, both men have benefitted from opposing defenses focusing on Brown. It says here that both men will probably rise to the challenge, but saying it and doing it are different things.

There are several reasons for this. First, distribution of targets and catches shows that it is the top three and not top four recievers that are the focus of the Steelers offense. That means Heyward-Bey automatically gets in the game more frequently. Second, with defenses focusing on Wheaton and Byrant, Bey should have more opportunities to get open.

The Steelers signed Darrius Heyward-Bey during the 2014 off season, and projected him as a special teams player. In fact, he only had 5 targets in all of 2014. But since then he’s earned a spot in the offense, and played well while Martavis Bryant served his substance abuse suspension.

  • Heyward-Bey’s role declined with Bryant’s return, but he has seen action, as recently as the Cleveland game.

Heyward-Bey still has the breakaway speed that made him a 7th overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. Early in the season his hands were solid but, while he made a spectacular 66 yard catch vs. Cleveland, he also dropped a ball that could have been a game changer.

If Heyward-Bey is to be effective, he not only needs to gain separation from receivers, but catch the ball down field. With the Denver Broncos defense free to focus on stopping Wheaton and Bryant, Heyward-Bey must make defenses pay with his hands, and use his speed to open up underneath routes for Heath Miller and Fitzgerald Toussaint.

Other Injured Steelers Not Named Ben, Brown or Williams

In addition to Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers fullback Will Johnson is listed as questionable with a hamstring.

Safeties Will Allen and Robert Golden, linebackers James Harrison, Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams, defensive end Cameron Heyward and tight end Matt Spaeth are listed as probable on the Steelers injury report, although Spaeth, Harrison and Allen are listed as not injury related.

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A Primer on Steelers Broncos Playoff History

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Denver Broncos are not playoff “rivals” the way the Oakland Raiders, Dallas Cowboys, Houston Oilers, Baltimore Ravens, and New England Patriots are, but the Steelers and Broncos have a rich playoff history.

Sunday’s divisional playoff game between the Broncos and the Steelers marks the 8th time Pittsburgh and Denver have squared off in the NFL post season. For the record, the Broncos enter this Sunday’s game with a 4-3 edge in playoff games.

Scroll down or click on the gold links below to relive a key moment in Steelers Broncos playoff history.

1977 – Distractions Detour Super Steelers

1977 AFC Divisional Playoffs
December 24, 1977, @ Mile High Stadium
Denver Broncos 34, Pittsburgh Steelers 21

Steelers Broncos Playoff History Backstory:  Histories of the 1970’s “Super Steelers” regard the 1977 season as “The Lost One.” Unlike 1976, which saw the Steelers open and close the season with devastating injuries while playing with absolute domination in between, distractions defined the Steelers 1977 season. Al Davis sued Chuck Noll and the Steelers. Mel Blount took offense to Noll’s “Criminal element” comment. L.C. Greenwood temporarily signed with the World Football League. And this only begins the list….

Stats that StandoutTerry Bradshaw’s three interception game is a biggie, and Lynn Swann going 1-6 is another.  The Steelers tied the game twice, but never led.
Steelers Broncos Playoff History Takeaway: The Denver Broncos scored 34 points on the Steel Curtain defense, the most that unit ever gave up in the post-season.
Aftermath:  The 1977 Denver Broncos went on to win the AFC Championship, but lost in Super Bowl XII to the Dallas Cowboys. The 1977 Steelers early playoff exit loss prompted Noll to make a number of roster changes and update his offensive philosophy.…

1978 – Steelers Offense Unleashed

1978 Divisional Playoffs
December 30th, 1978 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh Steelers 33, Denver Broncos 10

Steelers-Broncos Playoff History Backstory:  Of all of Chuck Noll’s teams, the 1978 Steelers are regarded as the best. The defense was still excellent while the offense was exploding. The 1978 Steelers took the NFL by storm, going 14-2 in the regular season, only dropping games to the LA Rams and the Houston Oilers.

Stats that StandoutRobin Cole, Steve Furness, Donnie Shell, Dwight White and Joe Greene combined for 6 sacks of Craig Morton. John Stallworth also caught 10 passes for 156 yards, his first 100+ post season effort.
Steelers Broncos Playoff History Takeaway:  Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, and Franco Harris all scored touchdowns, a post season first for a trio that would go on to terrorize opposing defenses over the next 20 games or so.
Aftermath:  The Steelers crushed the Houston Oilers in the AFC Championship game the following week to the tune of 35-5 in a sleet-filled fest at Three Rivers Stadium. Shortly thereafter, in only the Super Bowl matchup between multiple Super Bowl winners, the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII. Red Miller’s Broncos faded in the seasons to come.

1984 – Steel Curtain Crushes the Orange Crush

1984 AFC Divisional Playoffs
December 30, 1984 @ Mile High Stadium
Pittsburgh Steelers 24, Denver Broncos 17

Steelers-Broncos Playoff History Backstory:  After missing the playoffs in 1980 and 1981, 1984 marked Pittsburgh Steelers third straight playoff appearance. But this one carried a big difference. Terry Bradshaw had retired, giving way to Mark Malone. Most had expected the 1984 Steelers to sink, but they flew winning the AFC Central Division Championship and ruining the San Francisco 49ers almost-perfect season along the way. In his second season, John Elway led Denver to a 13-3 regular season record.

Stat that Stands OutMark Malone threw no interceptions, John Elway threw two.
Steelers Broncos Playoff History Take Away:  This was the last playoff win for John Stallworth, Mike Webster, Bennie Cunningham and Jack Lambert (although Lambert was injured, and did not play).
The Aftermath:  A week later in the AFC Championship game vs. Miami, Dan Marino made the Steelers sorely regret not drafting him. The 1984 Steelers were a surprise, and one could be forgiven for thinking the Steelers reloading process following the first Super Bowl era was gaining momentum.

Alas, the opposite was true. It would be five years before Chuck Noll would return to the playoffs, and he’d post losing records in 3 of the 4 seasons in between, causing Dan Rooney to fire his brother Art Rooney Jr. as the head of scouting.

1989 – ’89 Steelers (Barley) Miss a Mile High Miracle

1989 Divisional Playoffs
January 7, 1990 @ Mile High Stadium
Denver Broncos 24, Steelers 23

Steelers-Broncos Playoff History Backstory: The Denver Broncos bounced back from an 8-8 season in 1988 and were the odds-on favorite for the AFC Championship. In contrast, the 1989 Steelers started the season losing their first two games by a combined score of 92-10 and were shut out 3 times during the season. But Chuck Noll stood behind his team, and the 1989 Steelers made the playoffs, and then shocked the world by upsetting the Houston Oilers in the Astrodome.

Stat that Stands Out:  Heretofore unknown and/or horrendously underappreciated outside of Pittsburgh, Steelers fullback  Merril Hoge dominates Denver with 100 yards rushing by the first half, and 180 all-purpose yards from scrimmage, cementing his status as one of Steeler Nation’s first heroes of the post-Super Bowl era.
Plays You Wanna Have Back:  Trailing 24-23 with 2:20 left to play and needing 45 yards to get into Gary Anderson’s range, Bubby Brister fires a missile at rookie Mark Stock who drops it at the Steelers 41…
Plays You REALLY Wanna Have Back:  Two plays later, on 3rd down, Chuck Lanza, (who was drafted to be Mike Webster’s heir apparent) is in for future Hall of Famer Dermontti Dawson. A poor Lanza snap causes a Brister fumble and a Broncos recovery.
Aftermath:  The Denver Broncos go on to beat the Cleveland Browns in the 1989 AFC Championship, but get slaughtered in the Super Bowl by George Seifert’s San Francisco 49’s to the score of 55-10. Despite the 89 Steelers playoff loss to the Broncos, Chuck Noll remains convinced that, with players like Dawson, Rod Woodson, Carnell Lake, and Greg Lloyd, he has the talent to win big. However, he hires Joe Walton as his offensive coordinator, a decision that turns out to be a disaster for all parties involved.

1997 – 2 Goal Line Interceptions Is Too Many

1997 AFC Championship Game
January 11, 1998 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Denver Broncos 24, Pittsburgh Steelers 21

Steelers-Broncos Playoff History Backstory: Two years prior, the 1995 Pittsburgh Steelers had lost a heart breaker in Super Bowl XXX. Despite free agent turnover at quarterback, right tackle, outside linebacker, defensive end, safety and cornerback Bill Cowher’s Steelers seemed to defy gravity. Meanwhile at age 37, John Elway was facing “Now or never” time in his career, but for the first time he had a good defense and offensive weapons, not the least of which was Terrell Davis.

Stat that Stands Out:  Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart threw two interceptions in separate goal line situations as Chan Gailey chose to throw rather than pound it in with Jerome Bettis.
What IF Moment: Despite the picks, Kordell Stewart brought the Steelers to within three with just over 2 minutes left to play. Unfortunately, the Steelers defense could not get the ball back as the Broncos offense killed the clock. Carnell Lake, playing cornerback due to the ineffectiveness of Donell Wo0lford, said that he felt the Steelers would have won the game had Rod Woodson still been in Pittsburgh.
The Aftermath:  The Denver Broncos went on win the Super Bowl, the first of two for Elway. The Steelers lost more free agents that year John Jackson and Yancey Thigpen but, unlike in years past, the players the Steelers had drafted to replace them couldn’t cut the mustard.

2005 – Steel Curtain Begins to Rise

2005 AFC Championship Game
January 22, 2006 @ Invesco Field at Mile High
Pittsburgh Steelers 34, Denver Broncos 17

Steelers-Broncos Playoff History Backstory: At 7-5 and coming off a 3 game losing streak, the NFL had left the 2005 Steelers for dead. Bill Cowher challenged his team to run the table, and they complied. They beat the Bengals in the Wild Card game, shocked the Colts by upsetting them in the AFC Divisional Playoff round. The Broncos, for their part were number 2 seeds, and had just knocked off the defending Champion New England Patriots.

Stat that Sticks Out: How about Ben Roethlisberger going 21-29-275-2. True, Ben threw a couple of “Almost interceptions” but clearly a franchise quarterback was blossoming before our eyes.
Steelers Broncos Playoff History Take Away:  Shortly before the game ended, Dan Rooney and Art Rooney II arrived down on the field to accept the Lamar Hunt Trophy. Dan Rooney extended his hand to Bill Cowher. As Cowher put out his right hand, his left hand shot up with his index finger pointing upward and he could be lip read saying, “We still got ONE more game.”
The message and meaning was clear:  The Steelers 2005 AFC Championship victory represented a means, not a goal.
Aftermath:  The Steelers advanced and triumphed in Super Bowl XL, the Steel Curtain had Risen Again, and Pittsburgh’s Second Super Bowl era had begun.

2011 – Steelers Get Tebowed….

2011 AFC Wild Card Game
January 8, 2012 @ Sports Authority Field at Mile High
Denver Broncos 29, Pittsburgh Steelers 23

Steelers-Broncos Playoff History Backstory:  The Pittsburgh Steelers were declared “Old, Slow and Done” after the Baltimore Ravens devastated them on opening day. Yet the 2011 Steelers fought back, and finished 12-4 including an incredible midseason upset over the New England Patriots. Tim Tebow was the story of the 2011 Denver Broncos. While his mechanics and the quality of his play left a lot to be desired, week after wee Tebow simply seemed to find new ways to win games.

Stat that Sticks Out:  Tim Tebow to Demaryius Thomas for 80 yards and a touchdown on the first play of overtime.
Steelers Broncos Playoff History Take Away:  Was this a lucky loss for the Steelers? Losing in overtime in such dramatic fashion demoralized Steelers Nation, but the Steelers, who entered the game with a long  injured list, lost Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton, and Max Starks during the game and likely would have not only been promoting players from the practice squad, but giving them snaps had they won.
Final Farewell:  This the last game for Super Bowl veterans James Farrior, Hines Ward, Bryant McFadden, Mewelde Moore and Chris Kemoeatu.
The Aftermath:  The Patriots slaughter the Broncos in the following week, and John Elway has seen enough, and brings Peyton Manning to Denver. The Steelers enter salary cap purgatory and Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin begin a rebuilding process over the course of two back-to-back 8-8 seasons.

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Michael Vick’s Playoff Record Proves He Deserves 2nd Look If Ben Roethlisberger Can’t Play

Pittsburgh’s injury report for the Steelers AFC Divisional Playoff game against the Denver Broncos offered a mixed bag. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will attempt to practice, but Mike Tomlin indicated Landry Jones will get extensive work in practice.

Antonio Brown remains in the NFL’s concussion protocols with a sharp contrast between local and national reports as to the likelihood of him playing. Running back DeAngelo Williams has been described as “On the outside looking in,” meaning that Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman would again have to carry the Steelers running game.

  • No NFL team wants to head to a playoff game with its top three offensive stars on the injury list.

But fortunately the Steelers have the luxury of knowing that some of their heavy hitters may not be able to go so they can plan ahead. As he’s indicated, Mike Tomlin’s contingency plans are already underway, but it says here that Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley might be wise to expand their thinking.

Should Landry Jones Enter Denver Game as QB Number 2?

Most observers expect Ben Roethlisberger to start for the Steelers in the playoffs against the Broncos.

In his video following Mike Tomlin’s press conference, Ed Bouchette all but alluded to Ben Roethlisberger’s history as a drama queen. Dale Lolley advised his readers that when Ben talks about an injury, as he’s doing now, he usually plays. But the Steelers are wise to prepare an understudy, as no one knows how effective Ben will be.

  • The question is, should Landry Jones be Steelers QB number 2 against the Broncos?

Prior to Pittsburgh’s playoff win over the Bengals, Landry Jones had been one of the more pleasant surprises of the Steelers 2015 season. The Steelers gave not one, but three other quarterbacks the chance to unseat him from the 3rd slot on the depth chart, and Jones fought them off.

When injuries forced him into the game against Arizona, it was Landry Jones to the rescue. While Jones did not play particularly well in his lone start vs. the Chiefs, he also closed out a competitive game vs. the Raiders.

  • Unfortunately, Jones was completely ineffective vs. the Bengals in the playoffs.

In his press conference, Mike Tomlin admitted that Landry Jones must improve if he plays vs. Denver, and indicated that extra preparation should help.

Fair enough. Mike Tomlin, Todd Haley and Randy Fichtner know a little more about preparing quarterbacks for games than I do the Steelers coaches would do well to remember that they do have another quarterback on their roster with playoff experience. His name is Michael Vick

Michael Vick Playoff Experience Means He Deserves a Second Look

If memory serves, it was Hines Ward who once said comparing the intensity to an NFL playoff game to an NFL regular season game is like comparing regular season to preseason. Indeed, the NFL playoffs seve as a crucible that separates the average from the good and the good from the truly great. Legendary Steelers linebacker Greg Lloyd holds cult hero status here on Steel Curtain Rising, but what were his signature playoff moments?

  • Bruce Gradkowski is no superstar, but the Steelers offense didn’t miss a beat when he went in for a few snaps in the Steelers 2014 playoff loss to the Ravens.

It is true that, save for a phenomenal 4th quarter vs. the Chargers, Mike Vick struggled as a starter. And while Steelers beat reporters cannot share what they see in practice, they’ve all but confirmed that Vick has struggled in practice. Fair enough.

  • But Mike Vick has six playoff starts and two playoff wins under his belt.

Vick’s playoff passer rating just a shade below his career passer rating and is below his rating for the Steelers this year. But Vick has started four playoff games on the road, and won in hostile environs such as Lambeau Field. Mike Vick has been tested by the NFL’s playoff crucible.

At this point, Landry Jones is almost certainly in the Steelers plans for 2016 and perhaps beyond. Given that, and given the positives from him earlier in the year, Mike Tomlin is wise to name him his QB number 2 for the divisional show down vs. Denver.

But if Roethlisberger can’t play and Jones falters, Tomlin should make sure that Michael Vick is ready to step in.

Other Steelers Injury Updates Prior to Denver Game

Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and DeAngelo Williams are not the only names on the Pittsburgh Steelers injury report heading into the playoff game Denver.
Fullback Will Johnson (hamstring), inside linebacker Vince Williams (hamstring) and safety Robert Golden (shoulder) are on the injured list but expected to play vs. the Broncos.

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Video Proof of Why the NFL Should Not Fine Joey Porter

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has declared discussion about the Steelers Wild Card win over the Bengals verboten, although in doing so he hit the entire Bengals organization in square in the face with a 2×4:

Cincinnati is afforded the opportunity to sit around days after the game and rehash what happened. We’re not afforded that opportunity. We have a challenge, a formidable one, waiting on us in Denver.

Tomlin’s attitude is right. Cincinnati has all winter, spring and summer to fret over what went wrong. The Steelers, in contrast, only have 3-4 days to prepare for their AFC Divisional Playoff game against the Denver Broncos.

What Steelers Can’t Discuss, Steelers Nation Can

Tomlin’s view has been seconded by Steelers management, as the Pittsburgh Steelers have banned the media from talking with outside linebackers coach Joey Porter. It was of course during an altercation with Adam “Pacman” Jones that drew a second unsportsman like conduct flag on the Bengals after an illegal hit by Vontaze Burfict on Antonio Brown who’d just been overthrown by Ben Roethlisberger.

In the immediate aftermath of the game, speculation swirled as to what Porter was doing on the field, and whether his intent was to goad the Bengals into committing a penalty.

Behind the Steel Curtain’s Tony Defeo first suggested it Porter may have stirred the pot, Joe Starkey of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review went a step further and getting Jeff Hartings, Ike Taylor and James Farrior on the record about Porter’s role. MMQB’s Peter King also implied that he thought Porter had an ulterior motive.

  • Speculation has mounted regarding whether the NFL will fine Joey Porter or not.

Assistant coaches generally are not allowed on the field, although they can take to the field to help attend to an injured player. Given Joey Porter’s reputation for proactive behavior – James Harrison got his first start because Porter got thrown out of a game before the kickoff – the assumption that Porter went out on the field with an agenda is an easy one to make.

Fortunately for Porter, the video evidence suggests something else.

As you can see, Joey Porter really was out on the field minding his own business, and it wasn’t until the Bengals attempted to interfere the trainers attending to Antonio Brown that Porter got involved with one of the Bengals. Moreover, Porter is clearly not acting as an aggressor nor is it even clear that he says anything.

The NFL could very well fine Joey Porter for entering the field of play. However, the evidence is clear, the NFL should not fine Joey Porter for his actions at the end of the Steelers-Bengals playoff game.

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7 Steelers Milestones Passed in Pittsburgh’s Win Over Denver

The Pittsburgh Steelers win over the Denver Broncos was dramatic. Was it one of the turnkey moments that defines a season – think Jerome Bettis shucking off Brian Urlacher in 2005 or Ben Roethlisberger‘s last minute drive on the road in Baltimore in 2008? Right now, Steelers Nation hopes so, but time will tell.

  • Those moments were what December football is about….

…But as Mike Tomlin would surely say, the point of December football is to get to January football. Because January (and now at times February) football is when trophies are passed out. 7 Steelers milestones were passed during Pittsburgh’s win over Denver.

Here is a look at  them:

1 Player since 1970 has had two 15 game catches since 1970. That man is none other than Antonio Brown.

1st Steelers player, to post back-to-back 1500 yard seasons. In fact Antonio Brown is only the second player in NFL history to pull off such a feat. With respect to franchise history, two closest players on the receiving yards per season list, Yancey Thigpen and John Stallworth didn’t even sniff 1500 yards.
2 straight 110 catch seasons by Antonio Brown.
2 Years all for naught. Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris had not given up a touchdown pass in two years. However Antonio Brown torched him for two separate touchdown grabs.
5 x 50  Heath Miller many have only had three catches, but those were enough to put him over 50 for the fifth straight year.
10 consecutive 3,000 yard passing seasons for Ben Roethlisberger. Other NFL quarterbacks who have accomplished similar feats include: Brett Favre (18), Peyton Manning (13), Drew Brees (13), Eli Manning (11), and Philip Rivers

40 Completions. Ben Roethlisberger tied the personal record for completions he set in 2014 vs. the Colts at 40.

These numbers are impressive, but the Steelers need to take care of business on the road vs. their AFC North rivals the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens.

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Épico triunfo de los Steelers contra los Broncos en Heinz Field

Todo parecía una maldita broma.

Los Pittsburgh Steelers llegaban a este domingo ubicados en el puesto 7 para 6 vacantes a la postemporada y al último juego como local en temporada regular.
Delante de ellos se alzaba la primera defensiva de la liga en puntos y yardas totales permitidas y en yardas por aire, y tercera defensiva contra el acarreo.

Los Denver Broncos eran el último gran escollo, que “en teoría”, separaba a los Steelers de la postemporada. Los otros contendientes directos, New York Jets y Kansas City Chiefs, habían ya ganado sus partidos de manera relativamente sencilla y esperaban.

El inicio del partido no podía ser más auspicioso. Luego de la primera serie fallida de los locales, Denver cedía el ovoide por fumble alrededor de su propia yarda 20.
La ofensiva de Ben Roethlisberger no dejó pasar la oportunidad y se llevó 7 puntos.
Luego de eso… todo fue cuesta abajo para nuestra defensiva.

La rotación de la tierra

Comencemos por decir que en 5 series ofensivas, Denver anotó TD en 4 (en la primera cedió el fumble ya mencionado):

  • La 31° defensiva en yardas aéreas estaba justificando con creces el lugar que ocupaba.
  • Era un festival para el juego aéreo.
  • Brock Osweiler, pasaba y anotaba TD acarreando, lucía más como John Elway que como el QB que realmente es.

El ex acerero WR Emmanuel Sanders recibió un pase en la más absoluta soledad del backfield producto de la confusión entre LBs y profundos, y luego de 61 yardas anotó el segundo TD de su equipo. Antes de finalizar el 1er cuarto Sanders tenía 8 recepciones, 100 yds y 1 TD.

Todo en la defensiva era un caos. Conversaciones presurosas antes de cada snap, movimientos de idas y vueltas de los profundos, cambios de posiciones, marcación en zona con mucho espacio de colchón para los receptores, cargas infructuosas…
Y todo para nada. Osweiler distribuía el ovoide a discreción.

  • 295 yardas totales permitidas por la defensiva en la primera mitad, 88 de ellas por tierra.
  • Ocho de ocho conversiones de 3er down.

Todo era lisérgico.
El marcador estaba en 27 a 13 para Denver.

Si bien se mira era un juego de 2 anotaciones, no parecía tan terrible…
A menos que uno haya estado mirando el partido: una cosa era el marcador y otra muy distinta las alternativas del juego.

Big Ben y su ofensiva habían logrado mantener a distancia de tiro el marcador.
Pero se sabía que si Denver poseía el ovoide anotaría TD. Era una verdad natural: como la rotación de la tierra.

Steelers Contra los Broncos: Noche y día

Lo que sucedió y se dijo dentro de ese vestidor es para nosotros un misterio y sólo pertenece al equipo.

  • La cuestión es que que Osweiler tenía la posesión del ovoide al comenzar el tercer cuarto. Había que pararlos YA!
  • Y la marea cambió.

Primer pase desviado en 2do y 20 por Ross Cockrell, y primer punt del partido para Denver.

  • Los profundos se pegaron a sus marcas, ya no había receptores libres.
  • Sanders desapareció del juego. La ofensiva visitante se vio obligada a despejar una y otra vez.

Denver terminó el 3er cuarto con un sólo 1er down en 4 series. No convertiría ni uno sólo más en todo el partido ya que finalizaría con 9 de 17 intentos
Ryan Shazier tuvo su primer INT de su carrera, en un momento clave que valdría 7 puntos más en el marcador.

Big Ben siendo Big Ben, Antonio Brown siendo Antonio Brown.

 

Enorme. Pero, para mí, aún con sus más de 180 yardas y sus 2 TD, su logro quedó opacado por la resurrección de la defensiva.

 

Cuando el partido se moría y parecía que al final teníamos amarrada la victoria, para terminar de destrozar nuestras coronarias, Ben lanzó una impensada intercepción que dió nueva vida a Denver que ya había fracasado en convertir un 4to down.

Menos de 2 minutos en la yarda 42 de Pittsburgh y perdiendo por 7, Osweiler tenía la oportunidad de empatar, transformarse en héroe e ir a OT.
Pero esa defensiva no estaba dispuesta a entregarse y cortó toda posibilidad de avance. Otro 4to down y fuera.

Increíblemente, los Steelers ganaron el juego más impensado de la temporada y de mucho tiempo:

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Los Pittsburgh Steelers remontaron un déficit de 17 puntos por primera vez desde 1997 contra los Colts.

Frases como “somos los Steelers y podemos ganar este juego y mucho más” dichas a medio tiempo, me parecían más bravuconadas de fans inflamados por el deseo que una posibilidad real.

  • No había sustento en la realidad para tal epopeya.

Se han cargado las tintas sobre Antwon Blake. Pero, si bien es cierto su bajo rendimiento y que no creo que deba ser titular, de alguna manera mantiene el favor del Coach Mike Tomlin. Es injusto, sin embargo, culpar sólo a él cuando lo que falló fue la defensiva entera.

Uno de los datos más llamativo, a mi juicio, es el número de pases defendidos. Los Steelers promediaban 4.23 pases desviados por partido. Así por ejemplo, contra los Bengals la semana pasada defendieron 5 pases, contra los Colts 8 y vs Seattle sólo 1.
En la primera mitad del partido no pudieron desviar ni tan solo uno de los 18 pases que lanzó Osweiler. Pero luego defendieron 10 pases. Y todo en una sola mitad!! Ryan Shazier fue el defensor más prolífico en este rubro con 3 desvíos, seguido de Will Allen con 2.

Coach Mike Tomlin se refirió a la remontada de la segunda mitad: Dijo que en el vestidor sólo le pidió a los jugadores que “dejaran de patearse el trasero”.

La sugerencia tuvo su efecto.

Enhorabuena.

El Dr. de Acero

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Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for Win over Broncos

Taken from the grade book of a teacher whose now seen his pupil hit it on 3 out of 4 on a 6 party pass-fail final, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Denver Broncos at Heinz Field.steelers, report card, grades, Denver Broncos

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger completed a mind-boggling 40 passes on a day when he threw 55 and that included 3 touchdown strikes. Roethlisberger faced pressure from the Denver defense, perhaps more than he’s seen lately, but he protected the ball. Down 14 points at the half, Ben Roethlisberger could do better than a 3 & out on their first try in the second half, but with Ben leading them, the Steelers offense stayed on an even keel, and first grabbed, then added to the lead. His first interception, however set up a Broncos touchdown, and his second gave them a chance to get back in the game. Grade: B

Running Backs
DeAngelo Williams played sparingly against the Broncos, and his numbers do not look impressive. Still, his second effort got the Steelers on the board to start the game and caught 5 passes for 30 yards. Grade: B-

Tight Ends
It was a quiet day for Heath Miller and the rest of the Steelers tight ends, as Miller only caught 3 passes in very short yardage situations and was only targeted on 5 more. However, Miller was used more to help fend off the Broncos pass rush, and he had a role in keeping Ben upright. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Is Antonio Brown human? Chris Thomas is one of the best corners in the NFL and had not allowed a touchdown in two years. Yet Antoino Brown smoked him. Twice. Brown’s two touchdown 18 catch 189 yard performance was simply the stuff of legends and in fact overshadowed strong performances by Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton. Grade: A+

Offensive Line
Cody Wallace got flagged twice for holding and once more for unnecessary roughness. Marcus Gilbert had 1 false stat penalty. Alejandro Villanueva got flagged once for holding. That’s probably a tad bit more in pre-snap penalties than you’d like to see, but none were drive-killing offenses. The offensive line “impose its will” in the running game but, more importantly, it kept Ben Roethlisberger clean on all but 3 of his 50 pass attempts, and their pass protection improved markedly in the second half. Grade: B+

Defensive Line
Although Denver had respectable rushing averages, they never attempted to use the rushing game to establish a rhythm. Stephon Tuitt led Steelers defensive lineman with 5 tackles and Cameron Heyward was simply a monster. He may have only had two tackles, but one of those was for a loss, and he had a key sack forcing the punt that led to the Steelers go ahead possession. Steve McLendon also had one tackle for a loss. Grade: B+

Linebackers
Lawrence Timmons sat out 17 of the Steelers 71 defensive snaps. What’s notable about this is that those are the only snaps he’s missed all season. Even taking those plays off, Timmons led the linebacking corps in tackles, and recorded the Steelers second sack. The real star of the show was Ryan Shazier, who pulled down an interception as the 2 minute warning approached and defended 3 more passes. Jarvis Jones had two tackles, Arthur Moats a passed defense and Bud Dupree 1 tackle. Grade: B+

Secondary
In the first half the Steelers secondary played some of its worst football of the season. In the second half, the Steelers secondary played some of its best football of the season. And let’s not forget that early in 1st quarter, Will Allen’s strip of Ronnie Hillman and Michael Mitchell’s recovery set up the Steelers 1st touchdown.

While the Report Card purist in me is tempted to upbraid the Steelers defensive backs for seemingly “forgetting” to cover Emmanuel Sanders (and Tim Tebow’s friend Demaryius Thomas), such a heavy hand is not warranted here.

On four critical third down situations in the 2nd half Will Allen, Mike Mitchell, Robert Golden and William Gay all ended drives by defensing passes. Brandon Boykin also had a pass defensed. Yes, it is true that some of those could and probably should have been interceptions, but as the saying goes “If defensive backs had hands, they’d be wide receivers.” The bottom line is the Denver Broncos didn’t score a point in the second half. After converting his first third down of the second half with 3:04 left to play Brock Osweiler threw 8 straight incompletions. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was 2-2 on field goals and 4-4 on extra points. Jordan Berry was 38.6 punting, and benefited from some long bounces. Markus Wheaton did a decent job with kick returns, as did Antonio Brown on punt returns. So far so good.

However, Danny Smith’s special teams almost got caught with their pants down when the Steelers special teams failed to properly down a punt. Worse yet, on Denver’s penultimate possession, Jordan Norwood and Cody Latimer tag teamed for a 41 yard kickoff return with 3:24 remaining.

The return ultimately did not cost the Steelers, but such lapses are unacceptable. Grade: C-

Coaching
Interestingly enough, the attention to the Steelers second half turnaround tended to focus on the Steelers defense, and while that’s understandable, the offense needed to make adjustments of its own. That primary adjustment was giving Ben Roethlisberger the time he needed to throw, something which had been a challenge in the first half, and Mike Munchuak and Todd Haley deserve credit.

When asked, Mike Tomlin denied that the Steelers had done much differently on defense between the first and second halves except for execute. Perhaps that’s true, or perhaps he doesn’t facilitate film study for his rivals. The truth is that whatever Tomlin, Keith Butler and Carnell Lake told their secondary at half time, the defensive backs took it to heart.

  • Beyond that, Mike Tomlin praised his team for their mental toughness in the face of adversity.

The players certainly do deserve that praise, but it is Tomlin who establishes the culture that fosters that mental toughness. And that was a huge difference vs. the Broncos. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
There are a lot of candidates who could take this award, but we’re going to opt for two men’s whose contributions are perhaps most at risk for being overlooked. The Denver defense brought the best the NFL has to offer to Pittsburgh, and both Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant made tough physical catches early and often putting the Broncos on notice that the Steelers would contest their dominance, and for that they win the Unsung Hero Award for the win against the Denver.

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Vote Steelers Game Ball Winners for Win Over Broncos

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Denver Broncos 34 to 27 to improve their record to 9-5 and grab a hold of one of the AFC’s Wild Card slots.

It was a tale of two halves at Heinz Field as the Steelers struggled for much of the first half, but dominated in the second. And as usual, we as Steelers Nation to vote on Steelers game ball winners for the victory over the Broncos.

steelers, broncos, steelers vs. broncos, game ball, game ball winners, steelers game ball winners

On offense, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and Martavis Bryant all get ballot slots. So does Markus Wheaton. We’re also giving the Steelers offensive line a ballot slot. Neither Heath Miller nor DeAngelo Williams get them, although you, citizen of Steelers Nation, is free to write their names in.

On defense, Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier, and Cameron Heyward get nods, thanks to their splash plays. Mike Mitchell, Robert Golden, Brandon Boykin, William Gay and Will Allen also had key passes defensed so they get ballot slots.

But remember, you’re not limited to these choices. If you think there’s another player who deserves to be one of the Steelers Game ball winners for the victory over the Denver Broncos, please by all means write their name in, and please take a moment to state your case in the comments section.

And please remember to check back later, as Steel Curtain Rising will have its full analysis up.

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