On Further Review: Some Random Thoughts About Broncos at Steelers

via fansided

As I noted on Homer J.’s game review, I had not yet had a chance to watch the game. I finally managed to finish it this afternoon. I watched more with an eye to see what (if anything) could be learned from the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde nature of the game than anything else, since I was already well aware of the outcome and even of most of the trajectory of the game. What I saw was really interesting.

The first Denver series made it look like the game was going to be a good deal easier than we expected. The Steelers held them to a one-yard gain on first down, and then Will Allen stripped the ball and Mike Mitchell recovered it. DeAngelo Williams took it 19 yards on first down and two yards on the next play for a touchdown. 7-0, Steelers.

So much of football seems to me to be psychological, and you would think that at this point the Steelers defense would be brimming with confidence and the Broncos offense shaken. As we all know, the four ensuing Denver possessions ended in four touchdowns. So much for that theory.

And speaking of theories, earlier in the season it was noted by someone or other that the number of recovered fumbles for the Steelers has been extraordinarily high this season, and that there would likely be regression to the mean. But at some point don’t we just need to say that perhaps the Steelers defense is just really good at being conscious of where the ball is going?

After the first Steelers touchdown, Steeler Nation had to have been feeling pretty dang good. But then the ominous music began in the background, and everyone gradually realized this game was more like a slasher movie than a rom-com.

The Broncos offense took off the masks of incompetency meant, perhaps, to lull the Steelers into complacency and turned on Full Killer Mode.

It began innocently enough with special teams standout Darrius Heyward-Bey taking down their returner on the 15 yard line. And then, out comes Super-Brock, who apparently has drunk a potion giving him the use of Peyton Manning’s old form. He was unstoppable, at least by the Steelers defense. 8 for 8 on third down.

I sort of expected to see a bunch of missed tackles and so on, and while there were a few, most everyone was tackling the catch, at least in the beginning, including Antwan Blake. It’s just that the catch was good for a first down, just about every time.  Oh, there was the occasional sack or stop sprinkled in there, but after the Broncos got their first offensive touchdown in 25 offensive series, the floodgates burst open.

I’m actually really glad I knew the outcome before I watched the game, because I’m not sure I could have sat through the first half and the first portion of the second half without the aid of antidepressants. My confident prediction that “20 points from the Steelers offense would probably do it” obviously didn’t take into account SuperBrock…

And on the offensive side, I hear rumors that Dr. Wallace is fond of obscure anatomical explorations at the bottoms of piles, but that flying layout of a defender was not cool. I get that he hit your guy, but you can’t hurt your team like that, even if they try to hurt your teammate. I expect a FedEx envelope will be coming for him later this week.

The question I had was, how it was that the Denver offensive line who has been so unimpressive managed to largely give Osweiler the time he needed?

Conversely, by the second quarter the “pocket” for Ben lasted about a half a second, if that. Denver’s rushers were all they were advertised to be.

The field goal that almost wasn’t by Chris Boswell had a couple of interesting features. First was the look on his face. I’m not sure if it would have been any different if he had made a 57-yard kick, or conversely missed a 30-yard chip shot. They say he’s imperturbable, and that certainly seems to be the case. Of course, he was probably just surprised, and of course the trajectory of the ball was messed up when it was touched by a defender.

After halftime it looked to be more of the same as the Broncos got 9 yards on their first play from scrimmage and converted the down on the second play. The astonishing thing is to realize this would be one of only five first downs they would convert in the entire second half, one of which was due to a holding penalty on Bud Dupree. Another was negated on a Denver penalty. That was almost inconceivably different than the first half, when, other than the first series, they converted every single one—15 in all.

After the first Denver punt Antonio Brown had a nice little return.  With all the injuries this season I’ve been obsessing about what would happen if Brown got injured. But in the past few weeks I’ve starting noticing how AB finishes plays. He seems to have a real knack for figuring out where the hits are coming from and getting around or under them. This doesn’t mean something won’t go really wrong, of course, but I have to admit I’m a bit less worried, even about the punt returning. It makes me wonder whether this ability to avoid tacklers and avoid hits at the end is learned or innate.

Back to the game. There has been a great deal of discussion about the “half-time adjustments,” or lack thereof. Tomlin says there weren’t really any—they just started executing the plan. Joey Porter famously gave a motivational speech. Mike Mitchell famously pulled Cameron Heyward, Will Allen, and William Gay aside and said “No screaming—the guys are down. They don’t need to be yelled at.”

Who knows what the mysterious chemistry is that makes a team “flat” or amped up or whatever? It’s probably some sort of exercise in group psychology. One thing I’m pretty sure it isn’t is the old “they just wanted it more” canard. Maybe in the case of a team whose record is 3-11 and has nothing to play for, the guys are just trying not to get hurt. But you can’t persuade me that a team who is fighting for their playoff lives don’t “want it” badly enough.

It certainly seemed to be the case that the defense tightened up the coverage in the secondary. I assume the original game plan was predicated at least partially on the idea that the Denver offensive line wasn’t protecting well (which they certainly weren’t against the Raiders the previous week) and the idea that the pass rush was going to get to Osweiler once they stopped the run. I would assume that part of the difficulty of concocting game plans in the NFL is that you are working on information which was valid a week before, against different personnel. In the meantime the opposing team has presumably figured out a way to minimize the weaknesses of the previous game. So you’re aiming at a moving target.

I find myself thinking we may look back at this game as seminal, assuming the Steelers advance well into the post-season. The offense took on the undisputed No. 1 defense in the league and managed to find a way to deal with them, just as they had with what are, in many categories, the next best in Seattle and Cincinnati. The defense was picked apart by an offense they had presumably not taken sufficiently seriously and found a way to come back and shut them down.

Did the second half poor showing from the Denver offense have anything to do with the shoulder injury Brock Osweiler suffered in the first half? Maybe. But he didn’t look any different than he did in the first half when he was carving up the secondary. What looked different was the defense, who refused to be the sacrificial holiday turkey.

And special teams got a valuable lesson in the intricacies of what is or isn’t a live ball. I hope they figured it out, because it seems pretty obscure to me. I looked this up several different ways and was never entirely certain whether Thomas should have touched it, but made sure he was in bounds when he did so, or whether no one should have touched it. Very strange. It reminded me strangely of the defensive touchdown in the 2010 playoffs, when the Ravens’ Cory Redding picked up a ball everyone assumed was dead after what everyone assumed was an incompletion and sashayed into the end zone. Presumably all this says is, don’t make any assumptions about when a play is over until the officials make it clear it is over.

Well, all’s well that ends well. My husband and I flew to Denver yesterday, as we are spending Christmas with some of our kids and grandkids. On the way to the airport I got into a discussion with the cab driver, who was a female. We talked about the one bone-headed play Ben Roethlisberger seems to make almost every game. I pointed out that none of us are perfect (except perhaps Tom Brady, who I’ve decided is actually an android, which would explain a lot.)

As I thought about this, though, I realized that, given Ben’s style of play, it’s just something you have to accept as the price for the chances he is willing to take. Because when he is on they mostly work, big time. Alex Smith may be a more soothing guy to root for, but I’ll take Ben every time.

One final story before we focus on the Ravens game.  When we got on the connecting flight in Minneapolis I had a humorous exchange with the young couple in the other two seats. (Dr. Momma had been upgraded to first class, nobly offered it to me, and I turned it down.)

After cordial relations had been established with said seat mates, the man noticed my black and gold scarf and said “You aren’t a Steeler fan, are you?” I admitted that yes, I was. He then buried his head in his hands and said “How could they blow a 14-point lead?!!!”

We then had a great discussion about the game (I had by that point watched the first half). He strongly recommended I not wear the scarf in the airport, but given I was following several large Steeler fans off the plane I felt safe enough. And actually no one said a word to me.

On to Ravens week. It doesn’t have quite the same feel as usual, but I hope the Steelers don’t feel this way, as I imagine John Harbaugh and his minions would love nothing better than to knobble the Steelers’ playoff hopes.

I just hope they use the second half game plan during the first half on Sunday.


  • cold_old_steelers_fan

    A seminal game indeed. Although in theory they wouldn’t have been eliminated, I believe the Steelers entire season rested on this game. Like spring steel, the Steelers bent but didn’t break and the Yonkos took the rebound in the teeth (but with a bit of class I thought). The result is the Steelers look like the scariest team in the NFL while Denver is looking for a good denture maker (I would have used denturist but the spell checker didn’t like it and it wouldn’t give me an alternative).


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