On Further Review: Why Injuries Really Were the Story of the Steelers Postseason

photo: Pittsburgh Steelers

The site Man Games Lost, which attempts to rank the impact of injuries on each team throughout the season, based upon not just how many games are lost to injuries but how important the players are, said that while the Ravens and the Steelers did not end the season as the most-injured teams in 2015, they could argue they were most impacted nonetheless.

Obviously there is no perfect metric for such things, because there is no way to know how a team would have performed differently under different circumstances. But there is no way to write the story of the 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers without talking about injuries. But injuries were also a major storyline of the post-season.

An injury which got lost in the wash of the other big names last Sunday was to linebacker Arthur Moats, who left the game early in the first quarter with a pectoral injury and did not return. That meant there was one less player to rotate, to keep the guys fresh in the thin air. Perhaps it had caught up to them during that long fourth-quarter drive, when holding the Broncos to a field goal would have given the Steelers a puncher’s chance to recover.

An injury which was even less heralded was possibly even more of a problem, as punter Jordan Berry seriously hurt his shoulder early in the game. His first punt was a 52-yarder. After that came two 27-yard punts and a 19-yarder which went into the endzone. The Steelers weren’t even sure Berry could finish the game, or hold for Boswell. Perhaps this also went into the calculations on field goal tries. The injury will require surgery and a four-month recovery period.

And about that first 52-yard punt—poor tackling led to a 42 yard return. Perhaps the loss of Roosevelt Nix led to some of the problems on special teams late in the season. In fact, by the Denver game the Steelers were down both fullbacks, not to mention Nix’s importance on special teams.

But there was one injury the Steelers apparently couldn’t overcome last Sunday. You might have assumed before the game that it was the injury to Ben Roethlisberger

However, a few shots of whatever god-awful stuff they pump into these guys to make them do things their bodies tell them is a really bad idea took care of that, more or less. Ben may not have been 100% last Sunday, but whatever percentage he was at was pretty good.

But you can’t pump anything into a guy who’s got a concussion. In the bad old days, Brown would have been out on the field. We saw video of him on the sidelines in sweatpants at last week’s practices. His eyes were open and he was smiling.

In the old days, if he could stand and open his eyes it probably would have been enough. He didn’t even need to be able to remember his name, or which sideline was his. But we know too much now.

As a result, several nice pass plays which resulted in good gains may well have been touchdowns if AB had been on the field, either because he would have commanded the attention of more than one defender or because if the ball was in his hands he could have made more out of it. He’s considered the best in the league for a reason.

But perhaps what really killed the Steelers was not so much the loss of Brown’s services as a receiver but as a punt returner. Markus Wheaton gave it the old college try, but some combination of inexperience, nerves, and the wind led to a few near-disasters. A heads-up play that probably left rug burns on various bits of Ross Cockrell’s anatomy kept the Steelers from either turning over the ball perilously near their own end zone or starting a drive at the one-yard line. In the end you could say it didn’t matter, because three plays later Fitzgerald Toussaint fumbled the ball at the DEN 34.

There are lots of things you can blame for the loss to the Broncos. The Toussaint fumble was a killer, of course. But three plays into the ensuing drive William Gay dropped an interception, courtesy of Emmanuel Sanders’ punch-out of the ball intended for him. You could ask about the play where Manning gave himself up but changed his mind and the officials looked the other way. But ultimately the battle for field position may be what doomed the Steelers.

Had AB been returning punts maybe things wouldn’t have been better, although he would have at least made the correct fair-catch-or-not calls. But spotting the Broncos fifty yards on each of their first three drives (one because of a turnover on downs) while starting on your own three and your own 15 isn’t a recipe for success.

The loss of Le’Veon Bell and then of DeAngelo Williams was perhaps even more of a problem without AB and with Ben not at 100%. Toussaint and Todman ran well—very well—in the Wild Card game. But Bell would almost certainly have run better, even in the Bengals game. He certainly would have run better in the Broncos game.

I remember watching the previous Denver playoff game in a cold, soulless apartment building lobby somewhere in southern France. It was the infamous Tim Tebowing. I felt an actual sense of relief when they lost because the team was so decimated I couldn’t even imagine who they would have fielded had they made it to the next round.

Despite everything, despite all the injuries I’ve just detailed, this game didn’t feel that way to me. Had they managed, through some combination of willpower and a few more favorable bounces, to win the game, I felt they had one of the better chances in recent years to go into Foxboro and come out with a win.

It was, of course, predicated on the assumption that Antonio Brown would be back. I was unaware of the injury to Jordan Berry, which would have made for an interesting week for the brain trust over on the Southside. But it looks as if AB wouldn’t have been back. He’s already been ruled out for the Pro Bowl, which is another week away, and which he seems to take great delight in. Although perhaps this is strictly precautionary on the part of the doctors.

It certainly would have altered the equation to tot up the chances with a punter signed off the street (where can you even get them at this time of year?) and no Antonio Brown. It’s a bit, in fact, like Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski. He can win without him, but not as easily or as often. AB is just that special.

And spotting the Patriots fifty yards a pop is not something you can do and have any chance of success. Unlike The Great Peyton Manning, he still has an arm left.

So loath as I am to see this very special group of young men ride into the sunset, that’s the breaks. Maybe I’ll stop dreaming about that dang Denver game eventually…

 

2 comments

  • Did Berry’s injury happen very early in the game? There was one point in the 2nd or 3rd quarters, during the long punt return, where Berry made such a pathetic attempt at a tackle that I laughed when I saw it. Now knowing that he had an injury explained that poor attempt later in the game.

    Like

  • HawaiianSteeler86

    The number, type and timing of injuries to this team were just too much to overcome. The Broncos in Denver were beatable, yet injuries and losses to key special teams players directly impacted the play of the punt return and punt coverage teams. They failed to meet the standard and eventually cost the team a chance at victory on a day when the depleted-offense and defense both put forth gritty performances.

    I am proud of what this 2015 Steeler Team accomplished and believe 2016 will prove to be even better for our beloved Black & Gold!

    Liked by 1 person

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