Most of the post-game analysis here of the Steelers' performance on Sunday night is negative, focusing on the weakness of the defense in stopping Peyton Manning's no-huddle offense or on the inability of the offense to move the ball with the run. I would like to present a somewhat different view - even though the play (and coaching) left something to be desired, the Steelers just about won this game the only way they could.
How to Combat Peyton Manning?
The best or only way to combat a Peyton Manning offense is to keep him off the field, similarly to how the Steelers beat Indianapolis in the playoffs in January 2006. You have to go in knowing that a Manning-led offense will score points when they get the ball, especially with the no-huddle, and even against the best defenses in the league. So the following formula is the way to beat a Peyton Manning-led team:
1. Reduce the number of possessions his team gets. This means using up lots of clock on offense.
2. Reduce the number of points they get on each possession - make them settle for field goals, not TDs.
3. Score points every time you get the ball - preferably seven, not three.
This approach demands a high level of execution - you cannot afford to make mistakes that cause you to punt or give up points. By and large, the numbers show that the Steelers did the above. In fact, I will point to Ben's running down the clock and spiking the ball with first and goal with 30+ seconds left in the first half as a play in support of the above - they had only one timeout left in the half and didn't want Denver to get the ball back with time on the clock and this was the way to ensure it. Remember that we want to reduce their *number* of possessions, not just time of possession, because Manning can take it down the field in very little time.
In order to win the game, I have to believe that the strategy was to:
1. Reduce the *number* of possessions that Denver had.
2. Keep the score close until late in the fourth quarter.
3. Get the ball back late in the fourth quarter and run down the clock and/or score with less than 20 seconds left.
This is how to beat an explosive quarterback like Manning, and this is basically what the Steelers did on Sunday until the interception.
Which gets me to why the Steelers lost the game - execution. As some have pointed out, the Steelers' execution wasn't good enough. Against an opponent like Cleveland, who cares - you get a lot of chances. But against a team whose QB can put up 7 points on any given play, mistakes are deadly. You have to make tackles, make your blocks, catch the balls that hit your hands, and so on ALL THE TIME. Any single mistake could put the ball back in the other guy's hands and the game starts slipping away.
So I am not so fussed about what this game says about our prospects this season. Execution can be fixed - after all, we saw that last year. Now let's see on Sunday if they learn from this episode.