Last night was a disappointment, no doubt. If the circumstances had been otherwise—in other words, if Peyton Manning was known for sure to be back to his old self—not many people would have taken the Steelers to win the game. A minority did, anyhow—the line yesterday was Broncos by 1.5.
But if one could have forecast the actual events of the game, especially the loss of two fifths of the starting offensive line, with said two fifths being both at the right end—no one with any intelligence, looking at the phenomenal pass rushers the Broncos have, would have given the Steelers a chance to even keep it close.
And make no mistake, it was not only close, but winnable, at least until a gassed and depleted offensive line finally became porous enough to allow an undue amount of pressure on Roethlisberger. It would have helped, naturally, if the Broncos’ defense had not so greatly improved in run defense over the offseason. It would have also helped if the Steelers’ run defense hadn’t been quite so generous to Willis McGahee. It would have also helped if James Harrison and Ryan Clark had been on the field. But in football you play the hand you’re dealt, and, all things considered, I thought the Steelers played it well, right up until about 2:10 on the play clock.
There will undoubtedly be a tremendous amount of rehashing what went wrong. Honestly, though, the only place this is really helpful is in the Steelers’ film room. So for the moment let’s rehash what went right.
1. The Steelers controlled the time of possession
Assuming Manning is playing like Regular Season Peyton Manning of old, the best way to prevent him carving up your defense is to keep him off the field. The Steelers did that very successfully for the most part, particularly at the beginning of the second half. As the announcers noted, by the time Manning got back on the field in the third quarter he had been on the sidelines (or in the locker room) for almost an hour of real time. And Manning showed just how much he can hurt you when he’s on the field with his seriously annoying, 36-second-consuming drive when he finally got the ball at 6:05 in the third quarter. It would have been really nice if a well-rested defense could have made that a three-and-out instead, but these things were sent to try us.
Starks was definitely a question mark coming off of knee surgery. It was not only an issue because of the knee, but because of the limited game time Starks had in the preseason. Given the altitude issue, which isn’t just a problem for the defense, and given the long periods of time the O line had to be on the field, whether Starks' conditioning would be up for the challenge was a reasonable question to ask. And Elvis Dumervil is not a man to be taken lightly. Yet Starks was able to make him essentially a non-factor in the game.
And this also brings up the larger question of the O line. Yes, it would have been really nice if Willie Colon had not drawn a number of false start penalties. Yes, it would have been nice if the line had been able to open up some more room for the runners. And it would have been seriously nice if the Steelers had not had to play the entire second half with the last two O linemen they had dressed. It would also have been a good thing if the right guard replacement had been Ramon Foster, instead of already being down to the second stringer before the game even began. But a combination of runs and short passes allowed the line to hold their own for much of the game, and gives hope for the future. The hope for the future will be more firmly founded if Foster and Gilbert’s injuries prove to be short-term. In the meantime, Mike Adams’s play was encouraging.
3. Mike Wallace’s holdout didn’t seem to have affected the game much
Frankly, I rather expected Wallace to be pretty much a non-factor in the game, but he showed he had studied the playbook and was in good condition last night. He even got a holding penalty. In once sense, this is not good, but it shows he was trying to block. Now he just needs to be taught how to hold so the refs don’t see it.
4. Haley’s offense shows definite promise
I didn’t see anything to indicate the offense wasn’t on the same page for most of the evening. There was some lack of execution from time to time, including dropped balls in big moments by the receivers. But that wasn’t on the playcalling or the QB. I think we can stop worrying about whether the new offensive scheme is confusing to the players. And I think the offense should fare very well in even slightly more advantageous circumstances.
In the meantime, last night’s game tape should help the coaches to know exactly what to concentrate on. Because unfortunately we will face a number of excellent defenses this season.
5. At least the turnover/takeaway ratio wasn’t a negative
After last season's embarrassing lack of turnovers by the defense, they managed to get the ball back from Denver once. This was against a quarterback who is too experienced and skilled to turn the ball over very often. And there were a couple of opportunities for picks the defense was unable to cash in on, even with Manning throwing the ball. In the meantime, Pittsburgh managed to not give it back to Denver until the waning moments of the game. Of course, Ben threw a couple of almost-picks himself, but overall it balanced out. I'm inclined to think the situation will be different when Harrison and Clark are back, especially against lesser QBs than Manning at his best.
6. Ben looked good at times and terrific at others
Yes, he zipped in some really tight throws, forcing a couple of balls where he probably shouldn’t have thrown them. It only really came back to haunt him at the end of the game. And why was he forcing those throws? Because for the most part he didn’t have much choice. And after all, he did exactly what Steeler Nation has been crying for during the last, um, let’s see, how many years is it since 2004? He got rid of the ball. He even threw it away once or twice. His arm, which many were concerned with last season, looked as strong as ever.
Yes, he missed wide open receivers a couple of times. This is especially embarrassing because no other quarterback has ever done this in the entire history of the NFL. But we will hope for better things against teams with a somewhat less fierce pass rush.
There was a lot not to like last night, but there was a lot to give Steeler Nation hope for this season, if Steeler Nation will just come down off the ledge, take a deep breath, and consider what actually went on last night. If Peyton Manning loses every game the rest of the season, it might be a different story. But if he plays like he did last night, especially once he went no-huddle, for the rest of the season, he will be almost indefensible. And if the Broncos defense stays healthy and plays as well as they did last night, the Broncos are going to win a whole lot of games.
The Steelers may lose their next six games and prove me wrong, but until such time as they reveal themselves impotent in the face of lesser QBs and lesser defenses, I’m going to keep drinking the koolaid. Join me. It’s quite refreshing.