The Pittsburgh Steelers faced Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in Denver and lost in a final score of 16-23. At several points, the commentators noted that the defense looked tired. Part of the Broncos home field advantage is their city's high altitude.
Though the Steelers season ended on Sunday, there were several strong performances and there is reason to hope that the 2016 squad will be healthier and able to dominate the AFC North. Before we look ahead, let's take a look back on Sunday's final game against the Denver Broncos and see how each position group graded out.
Ben Roethlisberger opened the game with super-long pass, overthrown to his receiver. While inaccurate, it did show that he was able to pass long, a relief to fans everywhere. This game was not Roethlisberger's best, but he did reasonably well, throwing for 339 yards against the vaunted Broncos defense. He also avoid throwing interceptions. Unfortunately, he couldn't lead the Steelers to a victory in the final minutes of the game.
Wide Receivers: B-
Martavis Bryant had a dropped pass early in the game, but redeemed himself later with an impressive 40-yard run that helped the offense gain much-needed momentum. He continued to play reliably after his initial misstep and tallied 154 yards on just 9 receptions. 2015 draft pick Sammie Coates had a pair of huge plays, as did Darrius Heyward-Bey. Markus Wheaton had five receptions for 30 yards, while Jesse James had one for 22. His dropped passes in the preseason seem like a distant memory at this point.
Though the receiver-by-committee strategy worked reasonably well, star receiver Antonio Brown's presence on the field would have probably changed the outcome of the game.
Running Backs: D
Initially, Fitzgerald Toussaint appeared to be durable and tenacious, equally adept at fighting for difficult yards, and breaking away for longer runs. He scored a touchdown in the first quarter, after which he also earned style points for his riff on the Antonio Brown celebration dance, a tribute to his injured teammate.
Such success, however, was rare. For most of the game, the Denver defense was able to stop the Steelers running backs. In the fourth quarter, Toussaint fumbled the ball in the midst of a successful run, a big momentum killer just when the Steelers were matriculating the ball down the field efficiently. Teammate Jordan Todman had only six rushing yards on five attempts.
Defensive Line & Linebackers: C
Once again, the Steelers pass rush was virtually non-existent for much of the game. Since Manning's passes were feeble and weak, and his receivers struggled to make easy catches, the lack of a pass rush was not a huge liability for the Steelers, at least initially.
Consistency was the other weak point for the front seven. Towards the end of the first half, the Steelers defense appeared to move out of the way to make room for the Broncos running back. It was an unfortunate lapse that resulted in a 34-yard gain. The defense also fell prey to successions of ten-yard plays, failing to stop the run near the line of scrimmage or take advantage of Manning's predictability.
The linebackers and linemen played solid football marked by many fine individual performances. Ryan Shazier, Lawrence Timmons, and James Harrison played extremely well. On the other hand, there was more the units could have done to stop the run and put pressure on Manning.
The defense stood up well to the Denver Broncos offense, lead by a feeble Peyton Manning who seemed to struggle to throw the ball accurately and effectively, and whose receivers were prone to dropping easy catches. Will Allen had a very effective sack off of a safety blitz as the 2nd half wound down. Brandon Boykin was an effective tackler, bringing down the opponent instead of bumping into them with his shoulder, a favorite move of one of his teammates. The secondary did not come away with any interceptions.
Special Teams: D
The Steelers had two major special teams disasters in the first quarter, one of which involved a punt that resulted in the Broncos taking over at the Steelers 30-yard-line. During another play, Markus Wheaton did not seem to know that he could force a touchback, thereby ensuring the Steelers would start very close to the goal line. Later in the game he fumbled a fair catch. A teammate had to save the day on that play.
Jordan Berry averaged a dismal 29.3 yards-per-punt. There are several candidates for Most Horrendous Berry Punt, but one gave the Broncos possession of the ball around the Steelers 30-yard line. With three minutes left in the first half, Berry had an outstanding 50-yard punt that gave the Broncos horrible field position. In general, though, Berry was an extreme liability.
As usual, kicker Chris Boswell was reliable and consistent, scoring several field goals and an extra point in windy conditions.
The Steelers lost a winnable game, frustrating fans everywhere, and despite the future looking bright it is hard to ignore the fact the Steelers were leading this game in the fourth quarter with a chance to advance to the AFC Championship game. Tough loss for all involved.