Agonizingly close to earning a trip to New England to play in the AFC Championship game, the Pittsburgh Steelers were unable to hold a one-point fourth-quarter lead and would eventually falter to the Denver Broncos, 23-16. It was a gutty peformance by a Steelers team ravaged by injuries, but ultimately their efforts came up just short and will leave everyone to wonder what could have been with healthy group playing in Denver.
In our final installment of Three up three down, let’s take a look at the best and worst in yesterday’s loss.
*Even in a loss, the play of Ben Roethlisberger will go down as one of the greatest performances of his career. Roethlisberger torched the league’s top pass defense for more than 300 yards passing and was able to stay away from throwing the costly interceptions that had dogged him late in the season.
Roethlisberger ended the game going 24 for 37 for 339 yards and despite of a significant injury to his throwing shoulder, completed four passes for 37 yards or more. He did this against a healthy Broncos secondary considered by many to be the best in the league and without All-Pro Antonio Brown and starting tailback DeAngelo Williams.
Give a ton of credit to Martavis Bryant for stepping up in the absence of Brown. His nine-catch, 154-yard effort also included a dazzling 40-yard run on a reverse in the first half. If you are looking for a player that could be the difference maker next season, look no further than Bryant. His growth on and off the field will be critical.
*Considering the Steelers defense only had a one sack and did not force a turnover, some might think the unit struggled. In some ways, they did, and the lack of pressure and turnovers were a key reason for the loss. However the group played like a team with their backs against the wall and held the Broncos offense to four field goals until late in the fourth quarter.
James Harrison played like a man possessed and tallied the Steelers lone sack while adding seven tackles. Signed through next season, it will be interesting to see if Harrison comes back for a final year. William Gay played outstanding and quietly had his second straight season of fine play. Lawrence Timmons and Stephon Tuitt also had strong games and were all over the field all game long.
*Finally, credit Mike Tomlin and the rest of the Steelers coaching staff for not allowing this team to fold despite of a season-long wave of injuries to key players that ultimately doomed this team that was very much capable of challenging New England for AFC supremacy. The team played hard for four quarters and despite of their heroic efforts, probably did not get the results they deserved.
*Jordan Berry is easily the LVP of last night’s loss. Two shanked punts in the first quarter led to two Denver field goals and his inability to pin the Broncos deep in their own territory with the Steelers clinging to a 13-12 lead in the fourth quarter was inexcusable. Tomlin made the right call there, folks. A 52-yard field goal into the wind is risky at best and would have given the Broncos the ball near midfield only down a point.
You want to blame someone in that sequence? Look no further than Berry, who is expected to make that kick. Berry could have learned from Broncos punter Britton Colquitt, who spent much of the night pinning the Steelers deep with outstanding, coffin-corner kicks.
*Markus Wheaton did not have a good day at the office. Filling in for Brown in punt returns, Wheaton had two muffs and was lucky his second did not cost the Steelers a touchdown or safety. A third return should have been a fair catch, but Wheaton instead fielded the punt and took a bone crunching hit that could have easily forced another fumble.
Wheaton was not much better as a receiver and had a key drop that could have resulted in a Steelers touchdown in the first half. Heading into his final season under contract with the Steelers, Wheaton must be a more consistent contributor, especially with rookie Sammie Coates breathing down his neck.
*Yes, the late fumble by Fitzgerald Toussaint will be the play everyone remembers, but it was not as crucial as the Steelers inability to convert third downs. The Steelers offense would end the game 2 for 12 on third downs and couple that with going 0 for 2 on fourth down and this left way too many points on the board.
In the Steelers crucial possession down 20-13 with just over two minutes remaining, the Steelers could not protect Roethlisberger on back to back plays as Von Miller and Demarcus Ware would get sacks on third and fourth down, effectively ending hopes of a comeback. The inability to convert on these third- and fourth-down conversions would doom the Steelers and likely cost the Steelers a trip to Foxboro to play for an AFC Championship.