The Pittsburgh Steelers 2015-16 season came to an end with a disappointing 23-16 loss to the Denver Broncos in Sunday's Divisional round playoff game at Sports Authority Field. The loss was the team's first in the Divisional round under Head Coach Mike Tomlin and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Pittsburgh finished the regular season at 10-6, and 11-7 overall including the postseason.
The No. 1 seed Broncos advanced to the AFC Championship game with the win, and will host the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots this coming Sunday.
Let's take a closer look at what went right and went wrong for the Steelers on Sunday, and what it means for the team moving forward.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger played through a sprained throwing shoulder and still completed 24/37 passes for 339 yards against the NFL's top defense. Roethlisberger received a pain-killing injection prior to the game. "The shot was probably as painful as my shoulder was during the game," Roethlisberger told the media after the loss. "It was the first time I took a shot in the shoulder. I don't think there was any way I could have gotten through the game without it." On Tuesday it was confirmed that his injured shoulder would not require off-season surgery. Roethlisberger's ability to play through such a painful injury to his throwing shoulder is a testament to his toughness and competitive spirit. The offseason will provide the Steelers quarterback a chance to heal from an injury-riddled season in which he suffered a sprained MCL, a sprained foot, a concussion, and a sprained shoulder.
Second-year wide receiver Martavis Bryant answered the call as the team's No. 1 option with All-Pro Antonio Brown sidelined with a concussion. Bryant caught nine balls for 154 yards and added two rushes for 40 yards, giving him 194 all-purpose yards on the day. Roethlisberger challenged Bryant to get tough on his weekly radio show with 93.7 The Fan Pittsburgh prior to the Wild Card game against the Bengals, and the young wideout responded, finishing the playoffs with 14 receptions for 183 yards and a touchdown, and 84 yards rushing on three carries. Bryant ranks No. 1 in receiving yards (183), and Roethlisberger ranks No. 1 in passing yards (568) among all wide receivers and quarterbacks in the playoffs.
(Graphics from ESPN.com)
The Steelers offense generated several big plays against the Broncos zone coverage scheme. Bryant ran for 40 yards on an end around and added a 52-yard catch and run. Darius Heyward-Bey had a 58-yard catch and run on a blown coverage, and rookie wide receiver Sammie Coates hauled in a 37-yard pass from Roethlisberger. Pittsburgh got big contributions from Coates and fellow rookie Jessie James, who combined for 83 yards on three receptions. The experience of playing and contributing in a big playoff game should pay big dividends for young players like Coates, James and running back Fitzgerald Toussaint moving forward.
Speaking of Toussaint, the former undrafted free agent scored his first career touchdown on a one-yard plunge late in the first quarter. Toussaint spent the majority of the season on the Steelers practice squad prior to being called up to the active roster on November 27. The young back was instrumental in the team's dramatic 18-16 Wild Card playoff win over the Bengals, racking up 118 all-purpose yards and making a critical third-down catch on the game-winning drive.
The makeshift offensive line, without starting left tackle Kelvin Beachum and All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey, provided excellent pass protection for Roethlisberger. The Broncos led the NFL in sacks this season, but managed just three sacks against the Steelers on Sunday. Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva and center Cody Wallace did an admirable job filling in for Beachum and Pouncey for the majority of the season.
Despite generating three explosive plays of at least 40 yards, and 396 total yards, the Steelers offense had just 16 points to show for it. I wrote about Pittsburgh's inability to convert yardage into points following the 28-21 loss to the Patriots in the season opener. It's been an issue for the Steelers offense under Todd Haley over the past few seasons, and it was an issue against the Broncos on Sunday. Haley and Roethlisberger must work this offseason to figure out how to be more efficient in the red zone.
Toussaint's back-breaking fumble could not have come at a worse time. With ten minutes remaining in the game, the Steelers were driving in Denver territory with a 13-12 lead. On the fourth play of a drive that began at the Pittsburgh 25-yard line, Toussaint ran for what would have been a first down at the Broncos 31-yard line, but he was stripped by cornerback Bradley Roby. The fumble was recovered by defensive end DeMarcus Ware at the 35-yard line. At the very least, the Steelers would have more than likely kicked a field goal on the drive, which would have given them a 16-12 advantage. It's also possible they'd have scored a touchdown, which would have put them up 20-12, and would have all but iced the game. It's not fair to criticize Toussaint, who is a third-string player, and was a major contributor throughout the team's playoff run. But the fumble was the only turnover in the game, and it proved to be the difference, as Peyton Manning led the Broncos on a 13-play, 65-yard touchdown drive on the ensuing possession.
The Steelers defense kept Manning and company out of the end zone until the 6:52 mark of the fourth quarter, and played well enough to win the game. Keith Butler's unit was constantly forced to work against the Broncos on a short field, as Pittsburgh lost the field position battle. The Broncos average starting field position was at their 36-yard line. The Steelers average starting field position was just beyond their own 20-yard line. On all three Denver drives that started in Pittsburgh territory, the Steelers defense kept the Broncos out of the end zone.
The Steelers run defense played particularly well, led by veterans Will Allen and James Harrison, and young buck Stephon Tuitt. The three combined for 17 tackles, including six tackles-for-loss, and a sack. Denver running backs C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman averaged just 3.3 yards on 31 carries.
The Steelers defense prided itself on being an opportunistic group in 2015, finishing the season tied for third in the NFL in takeaways (30), but failed to force a turnover against the Broncos. Manning passed for just 222 yards, and the Broncos offense moved the sticks on just 20 percent of its third down conversions, but Denver did a great job of taking care of the football. In a game that featured one turnover, it was Toussaint's fumble that proved to be the difference.
Following Toussaint's fumble, the Steelers defense surrendered a 13-play, 65-yard touchdown drive that allowed the Broncos to claim a 20-13 advantage with three minutes remaining in the game. Pittsburgh's defense had been stingy throughout the game, and the players appeared to wear down in the high altitude, especially in the fourth quarter.
Kicker Chris Boswell finished a perfect 3/3 on his field goal attempts, which included a 47-yard boot that narrowed the Broncos lead to 23-16 with 19 seconds left in the game. Boswell also managed five touch backs on all five of his kickoffs. He was responsible for 10 of the team's 16 points.
Punter Jordan Berry had a terrible afternoon, averaging just 39.7 yards on six punts. Unfortunately, his longest punt of the day, a 52-yard boot following a three-and-out on the Steelers opening drive, was returned 42 yards to the Pittsburgh 30-yard line. His two shortest punts of the game traveled just 27 yards, and one of those set the Broncos offense up at the Steelers 31-yard line. Perhaps his worst punt of the game came with 13:21 remaining in the fourth quarter. Rather than attempt a 52-yard field goal, Tomlin elected to punt from the Denver 39-yard line in order to try to pin the Broncos, putting faith in his defense to get the job done. Berry's ensuing punt landed deep in the end zone, and resulted in a net gain of 19 yards.
With Brown sidelined with a concussion, Markus Wheaton was forced to return punts, and he looked incredibly uncomfortable doing so. It's hard to blame Wheaton, as returning punts in the NFL is an extremely difficult job, and it was his first time doing so all season. With 11:41 remaining in the fourth quarter, Wheaton muffed a punt at his own seven-yard line. Fortunately, the ball was recovered by Ross Cockrell in the end zone and resulted in a touchback.
The Big Picture
Sunday's loss to the Broncos means the Steelers 2015-16 season is officially over. The team finished 10-6 in the regular season, earning the No. 6 seed in the AFC Playoffs. After failing to advance past the Wild Card round in 2014, the Steelers managed to take down division rival Cincinnati on the road in an epic AFC North slugfest. Battling through injuries to most of its key offensive weapons, Pittsburgh managed to come a few plays away from upsetting the Broncos at Mile High and advancing to the AFC Championship game. Now, for a team loaded with young talent on both sides of the ball, the long offseason begins. The arrow is pointed up for the Steelers, who will look to make another run at a seventh Lombardi Trophy in 2016.