All loses hurt, but probably even more in the postseason. Especially when you have a fourth quarter lead as the Pittsburgh Steelers did before losing 23-16 to the Denver Broncos in the AFC Divisional round.
But it’s difficult to be upset or place blame on anyone after this Steelers performance being short handed and banged up. If anything, there has to be a high level of pride from Steelers Nation with how their beloved heroes fought.
The Steelers are the first team in the Super Bowl era to play a playoff game without their leading rusher and receiver from the regular season. Essentially, Ben Roethlisberger and the offense were playing with house money because no one gave them a chance to advance to the AFC Championship game.
For the first 45 to 50 minutes of this game, the Pittsburgh D played out of its mind and had control. They held the Broncos to 3/16 on 3rd & 4th downs for the game. In the first half, Denver was able to only gain 164 yards (99 passing,65 rushing) resulting in 3 field goals. The Broncos receivers also helped by dropping 6 passes in the game.
But like most of the Steelers season, the defense was left on the field too long as the offense was not able to sustain any long drives to give them a rest. In that altitude, that is a recipe for a loss. Denver won the time of possession battle 31:33 to 28:27, even though it was 16:10 to 13:50 in favor of the Steelers in the first half. The result, the Broncos went on to score 14 second half points.
Pittsburgh’s shorthanded offense surprisingly handled it’s own for a majority of the game against the number one ranked total defense. Ben Roethlisberger never showed any ill affects of his sprained throwing shoulder that kept him out of practice for most of the week. #7 was 24/37 for 339 yards, and is the only QB to throw for more than 300 yards on the vaunted Denver D. He also did it back in the Week 15 34-27 victory over the Broncos.
As much talk as there was coming into the game about who could replace wide receiver Antonio Brown in his absence with a concussion, it didn’t appear they missed him. Martavis Bryant caught 9 passes for a 154 yards to go along with 2 carries for 40 yards. The Steelers had 133 yards in the 1st quarter alone which was the most allowed by the Broncos in a 1st quarter all season. Pittsburgh had more total yards in the first 3 quarters (312) than Denver allowed per game in the regular season (283.1).
But just like in Cincinnati against the Bengals last week, and most of the regular season, the offense had to settle too many times for field goals. They were 1-3 in the red zone on the afternoon.
Most fans and analyst will point the finger at running back Fitzgerald Toussaint for fumbling at the Denver 35 yard line with 10 minutes remaining in the game, as the Steelers driving for a potential knockout shot. Yes, that was the turning point. But special teams was atrocious all game. Jordan Berry shanked two punts for 27 yard that gave the Broncos great field position, as well as his first punt of 52 yards that Omar Bolden returned 42 yards to set up the first of three Denver field goals.
Markus Wheaton was a nightmare as a punt returner with two muffed punts that thankfully were recovered by the Steelers. If there is anywhere the Steelers clearly missed Brown, it was as a punt returner. Wheaton’s longest return of the day was 12 yards.
Even with the injuries and inconsistent play, Pittsburgh was in control of this game for 50 minutes. It’s a shame they loss, but this game was a microcosm of the season: injuries, defense unable to hold on, and settling for field goals. That’s the story of the 2015 Steelers.
Ben Roethlisberger passed Terry Bradshaw for most passing yards in Steelers postseason history with his 132 in the first half. He now has 4,052 for his career. Roethlisberger is now 4-2 in road playoff games. Both losses were at Denver, the other was the 2011 Wild Card game versus Tim Tebow that ended on the first play of overtime.