Talk about a tale of two halves.
In a game where the Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5) would stage their biggest comeback since 1997, a 27-10 deficit to the Denver Broncos (10-4) would evaporate courtesy of an inspired second-half defensive effort and another amazing performance by the best wide receiver in the NFL.
The 34-27 victory now puts the Steelers are the right side of the playoff fence with two games remaining in Baltimore and Cleveland.
Let’s look at the highs and lows from yesterday’s crucial win.
*Antonio Brown is the best receiver in the NFL, and he proved it last night in an epic performance catching 16 passes for 189 yards and two touchdowns. Brown dominated Chris Harris Jr, who many consider to be the best cornerback in the game in a one-on-one match up worth the price of admission. Brown’s 23-yard touchdown grab to give the Steelers a late fourth-quarter lead was picture-perfect.
Brown’s performance overshadowed Martavis Bryant’s 10-catch night as he was also able to routinely beat another top corner in Aqib Talib one on one. Slot receiver Markus Wheaton’s six catches included a nine-yard TD grab that tied the game at 27 early in the fourth quarter.
Of course, let’s not forget about Ben Roethlisberger. It’s easy to take for granted all that he does, but after going 40-for-55 for 380 yards and three touchdowns against the best pass defense in the NFL, he reminded those lucky enough to be at Heinz Field that he’s as good as any quarterback in the game today.
*Credit the second half effort of the Steelers defense. Maybe it was Joey Porter’s “pep talk” at halftime that helped but regardless, it was a totally different unit from the one that looked lost in the first half and allowed Brock Osweiler to lead the Broncos offense to four touchdowns in four possessions.
Ryan Shazier was selected in the first round to make plays like the fourth-quarter interception of Osweiler that would set up the Steelers winning score. Shazier’s injury struggles have been a hot topic over the course of his two seasons, but that play gives you a glimpse of what Shazier can be; a dynamic playmaker who could make a significant impact down the stretch.
The Steelers secondary continues to have their issues (more on that below) but credit their second half performance where they tightened up their coverage and limited Osweiler’s effectiveness in a big way.
*Considering Roethlisberger dropped back to pass nearly 60 times and attempted 55 passes, credit the Steelers offensive line for doing quality work against a Broncos pass rush that came into the game leading the league with 44 sacks. Although the Broncos would add three more sacks to that total, both Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware were shut out. Much of that credit goes to tackles Alejandro Villanueva and Marcus Gilbert.
*One would think 15 weeks into the season the Steelers defense would know where to line up and know their assignments. Yet once again this group looks completely lost at times and that was the case much of the first half against the Broncos. Former Steelers receiver Emmanuel Sanders was not even covered on his 61-yard touchdown grab in the first quarter.
At a certain point you are what you are, but these missed assignments and gaffes in coverage can’t happen. We’ve seen it in losses to the Patriots and Seahawks earlier in the year and these will be fatal in the playoffs against those caliber of teams.
*Two of the biggest culprits once again were Antwon Blake and Will Allen. Will somebody tell Blake you need to wrap up opponents when you attempt to make a tackle? I counted several missed tackles again this week for Blake and if he can’t do this simple task, can you have him out there?
This is a bold statement, but there may not be a worse safety in pass coverage than Allen, he’s that bad. Keith Butler finally started using Robert Golden in the second half and he dropped a sure interception. I remember that when the Steelers traded up to draft Shamarko Thomas one of his biggest perceived strengths was his coverage skills, yet he can’t even sniff the field?
Pretty alarming if you ask me.
*Another week, more terrible play by the special teams coverage unit. What in the world is going on with this group? Talk about lucking out on a gift penalty call that nullified a touchdown by punt returner Jordan Norwood when the Steelers inexplicably allowed Norword to pick up a live ball and take it 71 yards down the sideline untouched.
The kickoff return group was also fooled on a fourth-quarter reverse call to Cody Latimer that went for 27 yards but was agonizingly close to breaking loose for a touchdown.
Much like the issues with pass coverage, the poor play of the return coverage units for the Steelers special teams group are a serious weakness. Something has to give and whether it’s the personnel or coaching, changes must be made before it costs the team in a win-or-go-home scenario.