Down, but Not Out
The Steelers leave Denver with questions, but will find the answers.
Aaron Rodgers said it best in a post game interview in 2014, "R-E-L-A-X." The Steelers and their fans need to take that message and apply it. The Steelers did suffer a brutal loss to the Denver Broncos Sunday. Does that make the Steelers a fluke? The answer is no. Let's break down what happened and see what this loss might mean for the Steelers and the rest of the league down the rode.
The Steelers historically have a tough time in Denver. They are 5-13-1 all-time against the Broncos in Denver. The Steelers heading into this game were 16-4-1 on the road the last three seasons. Their last road loss was week 3 in Chicago last season in overtime. The Broncos had different plans. Case Keenum went 15-28, 197 yards with 2 touchdowns. Ben Roethlisberger went 41-56, 462 yards with 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions. His great game was ignored by his game ending interception in the end zone. The entire offense seemed out of sync on the play. I have to give an honorable mention to Chris Boswell—he had a touchdown pass to Alejandro Villanueva... yes, an offensive lineman, to end the half. His first field goal was blocked by Justin Simmons. JuJu Smith-Schuster stole the show with 189 receiving yards and Broncos running back Patrick Lindsay had 110 rushing yards and a touchdown. Off of turnovers, the Steelers gave up 17 points. There were a lot of issues in this game that the Steelers need to overcome.
Turnovers are and have been a problem. A blocked field goal led to the Broncos scoring 3 points. Xavier Grimble may have one of the most embarrassing turnovers ever. He fumbled right before the goal line and the ball went into the end zone for a touchback. If Grimble scored that touchdown, that turnover did not end up becoming points, but it took away 7 points that the Steelers needed at the end of the game. Ben's first interception gave the Steelers defense a short field to work with. Two plays later, Emmanuel Sanders scores a touchdown. Two drives later, James Conner receives a short pass from Ben and fumbles. The Broncos recovered and later scored. Lastly, The Steelers were still somehow in the game and Ben threw a game ending interception. If you take away the Grimble fumble which was inches away from the goal line and the blocked field goal, the Steelers win. Turnovers have killed this team. Defensively, the Steelers had no turnovers. The Steelers defense needs to improve by turning the ball over. The defense played great I am not blaming them for this loss. The Steelers offense is too good to be giving up these turnovers. Out of all the issues they have, turnovers are their main problem.
Ben had to use two timeouts in the 3rd quarter because of personnel. At the end of the day, the Steelers really did not need those timeouts. They put themselves in position to tie the game up. My point is you cannot have personnel issues. Every player needs to pay attention and know their assignments and when they need to be on the field. Never have one timeout going into the final two minutes of the game. It was unfortunate because the interception would not have been the end of the game if they had all three. Denver would have likely run the ball and killed some clock. The Steelers wouldn't have had much time left, but they would have had a chance. This game is proof of how crucial timeouts are.
As I stated before, the defense really played a good game overall. They held the Broncos to under 200 passing yards, 308 total yards. They struggled a little in the run game and they will fix that. They are 10th in rushing yards allowed this season so I have no doubt they will patch it up. If it wasn't for the turnovers the Broncos probably wouldn't have had 110 rushing yards. It is hard to start on a short field, but the Broncos started with the ball on Pittsburgh's end once. They need to limit touchdowns. If they limit the Broncos to field goals, that is 9 points instead of 17 on the board. Hopefully with Stephon Tuitt coming back that will help add some pressure to opposing QBs. The Broncos were 3-4 in the red zone—red zone defense needs to be better. I am willing to cut them some slack. They were on the field more than expected because of the four turnovers. If they can play better in the red zone, they will limit touchdowns and put themselves in a position to win games if the offense isn't performing the way they should.
Run the ball.
Some of the play calling was suspect, but the thing that bugged me the most was abandoning the run game. James Conner was averaging 4 yards per carry. You are not playing conservative if your back can average a first down every three plays. The passing game was working, but making Ben throw 50 times is not ideal. You have to expect a turnover or two. Like I mentioned, Lindsay (Broncos) had 14 carries for 110 yards. James Conner had 13 carries, 53 yards. Lindsay had more yards because he had four extra possessions. The Steelers were not out of it until the last interception Ben threw. The Steelers coaching staff needs to use James Conner and give him more carries. Using the run game opens up the passing game. I will never understand why they did not run the ball instead of throwing when they were inside the five on their final drive. I know he fumbled, but he was a receiver anyway. Catching the ball on the run doesn't give you as much time to secure the ball compared to receiving a handoff. They have played great football because of their run game the last six games. The Steelers are 6-0-1 when Conner has 15 carries or more. They're 1-3 this season when Conner has less than 15 carries. The Broncos had the 27th best rushing defense and Conner was averaging 4 yards per carry—why weren't you running the football? Trust your running backs and your offense will do great things and you will win games.
What does this mean for the Steelers and the league down the road?
The Steelers will bounce back.
They beat themselves and that is something you can fix in the film room. Mike Tomlin is very good at rallying his guys and coming back the next week on a positive note. Under Tomlin, the Steelers win 70 percent of the time the week following a loss. The Steelers play a very good Chargers team next Sunday night. The Steelers and Chargers are ranked in the top ten both offensively and defensively. They are the only current playoff teams with both sides of the ball ranked in the top ten. Could this be an AFC Championship preview? The Steelers have the Chargers' number. The Steelers are 5-2 (including playoffs) in the Roethlisberger era against the Chargers. Big Ben is 41-15 in the month of December and undefeated in January. At home prime time, he has a record of 21-4, and overall he is 42-17. History is on the Steelers side next Sunday night.
The AFC top seeds are now open.
It is simple. If you're the top seed right now, all you have to do is win. The Steelers were in full control at the number two seed until their loss on Sunday. How did their loss impact the AFC?
The Chiefs are playing well... offensively. The Chiefs may need to work on their defense if they want to stay the number one seed. Their toughest games are home against the Ravens, Chargers, and on the road against the Seahawks who do not want to remain quiet in the NFC playoff hunt. The Chiefs are undefeated at home. They've beaten the Chargers once and the Ravens are not fun to play; with Lamar Jackson taking over for the moment, you know the birds aren't going to be friendly. His quickness and speed will propel the number 11 offense into the top ten by the time they meet the Chiefs. The Chargers are hot right now and are in the top ten on offense and defense. This will not be a cake walk the second time around. I believe the Chiefs can win out because they have more home than road games. If they can beat the Chargers and Ravens and let's just say they lose to the Seahawks on the road, they will be in a good spot as number one or number two seed. I believe in defense, but their offense is remarkable. Their schedule when it comes to location is on their side because of home field advantage. I think the Patriots will lose one or maybe two games simply because their schedule isn't as easy. The Chiefs will be in a good spot heading into the playoffs.
The Patriots were gifted the second seed after a win over the Jets and a Steelers loss. Can the Patriots stay on top? The Patriots do not have the easiest schedule. They face the Vikings at home and the Dolphins and Steelers on the road. New England has gone 1-4 their last five trips to Miami. Ryan Tannehill was the starter for most of those games. Last season it was Jay Cutler. It may not be so easy for New England—you have to expect they'll win out or go 12-4 to end the year out. Interestingly, the Vikings and Steelers have a top ten defense. Two of the Patriots' three losses came from teams with a top ten defense and both were on the road. If this trend continues, the Steelers or Vikings may be the team to give the Pats their fourth loss. At the end of the day, when New England has home field, they do not lose. Since 2001, the Patriots are 19-3 at home in the postseason. In that same span they're 4-4 on the road in the postseason (2-3 in road conference championship games). No matter what the stats say, if you're heading to Foxborough you have a tough task ahead of you. If you're an AFC team you are definitely rooting for the Dolphins, Steelers, and Vikings.
The Texans are one of the hottest teams in football. They have won 8 straight since their 0-3 start. The only opponent they have left to play with a winning record is the Indianapolis Colts. However, they play the Browns next week and the Browns are not a team to sleep on. They also have matchups with Philly and Jacksonville to end the year out. Both teams may offer some struggles, but I think if they lose to Indy, they'll still run away with the AFC South. They have one of the easiest schedules going forward. The top two seeds currently have some tough matchups. The Texans have a legitimate shot at getting a first round bye if they can win out.
The Steelers dropped to fourth seed and the Patriots and Texans moved to second and third seed. If the Steelers want a top seed they need to win out, hope the Texans lose at least one, Steelers need to beat the Patriots, and hope the Chiefs lose two because they beat the Steelers in week 2. Their game against the Chargers is maybe their toughest game to end the year out based off the stats on paper. They still have a date with the Saints in New Orleans. If the Steelers can fix their offensive woes, they will be a scary team. I still like them on the road this year... They have struggled on the road, but they seem to pull out a win. I think this loss in Denver was a wake up call and they will get better. The Steelers are always hot in December and January. This team has somewhat of an uphill battle they will take the AFC North, but the question is where will they land in the top 4?
This Chargers-Steelers matchup next Sunday night makes it even more intriguing knowing the Steelers lost to Denver on Sunday. Both teams have suffered a loss to Denver, but both teams on paper look like they can beat anyone. The Chargers probably won't take the division, but the Chargers are good on the road this year. They are 4-1 on the road. Their one loss came from the cross town rival LA Rams. The Chargers have outscored their opponents 137-80 on the road this year and defensively they're only giving up an average of 16 points per game on the road. They have three tough road games to end the year out: Pittsburgh, Kansas City, and Denver. They also play at home against Lamar Jackson's Ravens. This will truly test how great they really are. I think Pittsburgh comes out on top next week, but the Chargers as a wild card team is a scary thought going into the postseason. They are road warriors.
The Ravens are not a team to sleep on. They have the best defense in the league and offensively they are ranked 11th. When the Ravens struggle and are counted out, they will punch you in the mouth and make you eat your words. They have two tough battles—they play Kansas City and Los Angeles (Chargers) on the road. They also have a date with Cleveland at home week 17. They lost to Cleveland last time on an ugly overtime field goal. I think Baltimore needs to win at least one of those two tough ones. What makes me nervous for them is they're 2-3 on the road. They lose by an average of roughly 10 points on the road. The Chargers have two losses at home and the Chiefs have yet to lose at home. When the Chargers win at home their average margin of victory is 13 points and the Chiefs' average is 17 points. The Colts are hot and right on their tail, too. The Colts also face Dallas and Houston. Losses to KC and LAC may not even factor in. The Ravens are in over Indy because of conference winning percentage. Lamar Jackson has somehow led this team to the light. He is putting up average stats as a QB, but he is killing teams on the ground. He has averaged 95 yards on the ground the last two games. This offense has had time of possession over 30 minutes the last two games. If the Ravens and Chargers make it into the playoffs as wild cards, we may see wild card teams make a run this year.
This final stretch of games will be very intriguing to watch all over the AFC. We have a lot of potential playoff teams that need to face each other yet. The Steelers are going to scratch and claw their way to a win. These last two games were an eye sore and may have caused some heart attacks in Pittsburgh, but most of the season has been good. I like the Steelers as an AFC contender—this team will fix itself. Steel can bend, but it takes a lot of force to break.