The Steelers racked up 527 yards against the Broncos on Sunday yet finished with just 17 points (10 of which came via special teams). Theirs was an especially sloppy performance, characterized by inexplicable plays, missed opportunities, and questionable decisions near the goal line.
Let’s start with the good, though. The Steelers were, more or less, able to do what they wanted on offense. Ben Roethlisberger had tons of time and a clean pocket to throw from for most of the day. This is probably why they decided to pass as much as they did (59/75 offensive snaps – 78.7%).
The Broncos came into the game clearly trying to keep Antonio Brown from making a big play. They often played with safety help over the top to his side. Sometimes, it came in the form of 2-man (man-to-man with two deep safeties). Other times, they played with one safety deep and had him cheat to Brown’s side.
The Broncos weren’t trying to fool Roethlisberger. They were flat-out telling him to throw elsewhere. And throw elsewhere he did. This is exactly what happened on JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 97-yard touchdown reception.
Watch below as the safety begins moving to Brown’s side right before the snap (Brown is at the bottom of the screen and Smith-Schuster is at the top).
Roethlisberger took advantage of the 1-on-1 matchup with no safety help for what should have been a game-changing play.
There were plenty of other good moments for Pittsburgh’s offense. Unfortunately, not many of them yielded points. The Steelers’ mistakes thwarted most of their drives.
The below mistake was easily avoidable. The Steelers executed a beautiful play-action pass and ended up with tight end Xavier Grimble wide open in the middle of the field. This should have been an easy touchdown. But watch Grimble try to run over Broncos safety William Parks instead of using the 50 yards of real estate he had available to saunter across the goal line.
Okay, the 50 yards is an exaggeration, but you get the point. It’s almost comical that Grimble didn’t score there. He wanted to run Parks over instead of merely sidestepping him or using more of the field that he had available. For the record, you don’t get more points for running over a defender as you score a touchdown.
Pittsburgh’s next big mistake came on Ben Roethlisberger’s first interception. The Steelers were leading 17-10 in the 3rd quarter. Offensive Coordinator Randy Fichtner had a 3-level stretch route combination called to Big Ben’s right.
The design of the play broke down Denver’s defense as intended. The deep route knocked the top off of the coverage, and then the flat defender (Chris Harris) was put in a high-low conflict.
Harris was looking towards Antonio Brown’s shallow crossing route, and his body language indicated he was ready to pounce on it (it was 3rd-and-4 and Brown’s route was right at the sticks).
Roethlisberger tried to force the ball to Brown. The result was an interception.
Antonio Brown was definitely held on this play, and it should have been called. However, Roethlisberger missed a wide-open Ryan Switzer running an out-route because he locked onto Brown, who was tightly covered well before the alleged holding.
You could argue that Chris Harris was reading Roethlisberger’s eyes, and had Ben been looking towards the right side of the field, Harris would have dropped and taken away Switzer’s route. But Switzer did a great job of bringing his stem far enough inside that once he passed Harris, he was no longer a concern to him. The window to make the throw was there. Instead, the interception gave Denver great field position and led to the tying touchdown.
The Steelers ended the 3rd quarter with another turnover thwarting a productive drive. This time, it was running back James Conner, who ran for 23 yards on a screen pass before fumbling.
Despite all of their mistakes, the Steelers still had the chance to tie the game at the end of the 4th quarter. They had actually been pretty good in the red zone all season before Sunday. Against the Broncos, they simply were not.
The final interception of the game by Roethlisberger was obviously atrocious. Had it not been picked off by the dropping defensive lineman, it would have been picked off by the defensive back behind him. The Steelers did have opportunities on the previous two plays, though.
Antonio Brown was singled up to Roethlisberger’s’ left on both plays. Instead of giving the best player on the field a chance to tie the game, Ben threw a fade to JuJu Smith-Schuster on 1st down, and then the Steelers ran the ball on 2nd down.
Maybe Roethlisberger didn’t anticipate Brown actually getting a 1-on-1 post-snap since he received double coverage when the Steelers had the ball on the goal line to end the first half. Still, it seems criminal to not give Brown a chance to win a 1-on-1 matchup when the opportunity presents itself.
The same sloppy play on offense that has come back to bite the Steelers in each of the last four postseasons reared its ugly head again on Sunday. Pittsburgh’s talented offense needs to get its act together if the Steelers want to have any chance in a very competitive AFC.