Let’s start with this: The Denver Broncos beat the Steelers at their own game on Sunday.
Outside of Pittsburgh, hell, even still in Pittsburgh, there is this perception that the Steelers are a grind-it-out, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offense that hands the ball off to Jerome Bettis, Bam Morris, Barry Foster, Franco Harris or John Henry Johnson 50 times a game and grinds out tough yards by blasting into the line every play. The reality is the Steelers are a downfield passing team that throws the ball more than it runs it (and they have been for about five years now) and beat teams by making big plays on offense and not allowing big plays on defense. It’s been a pretty good recipe, and it’s won a lot of games (and Championships) in recent years.
On Sunday, we were in bizarro world. Not only did the Steelers give up more big plays than they made, they were absolutely dominated in that area. By Tim Tebow. By an offense that over the previous three weeks that regressed back to the stone ages.
During the 2011 season the Steelers had the best Yards Per Pass differential in the NFL with an incredible margin of +2.4. The second best mark in the NFL belonged to Houston, which came in at 1.7. The Denver Broncos were 27th at -1.2. Even more, that differential was the best in the NFL over the past four years, and for the fourth time in the past five years the Steelers allowed the fewest yards per pass in the NFL.
On Sunday? The Broncos averaged 15 yards per pass. The Steelers averaged six.
I’ll repeat this, because I still can’t convince myself that it actually happened: When Tim Tebow dropped back to pass on Sunday and put the ball in the air, the Broncos had an average gain of 15 yards. This is a quarterback that was reportedly in danger of losing playing time to Brady Quinn, former first-round afterthought that washed out with the Cleveland Browns, and hadn’t thrown a regular season pass since 2009.
How incredible is it for a quarterback, any quarterback, to average 15 yards per pass against the Steelers? Well, let’s just check out the eight-worst performances by the Steelers defense in that area during the Mike Tomlin era so far:
1. Tim Tebow (2011): 15.0
2. Tom Brady (2007): 8.7
3. Kevin Kolb (2011): 8.7
4. Bruce Gradkowski (2009): 8.4
5. Tom Brady (2010): 8.1
6. Jay Cutler (2007): 8.1
7. Kurt Warner (2008): 7.6.
8. Joe Flacco (2011): 7.4
So there you go.
I’m not sure if it was a run of injuries that never seemed to stop, or a poor defensive game plan or the worst performance by a Steelers cornerback since Donnell Woolford wore the black and gold, but the Steelers gave up passing plays of 51, 30, 58, 40, 17 and 80 yards, almost all of them at the expense of Ike Taylor, who started to play like a cornerback on the wrong side of 30 over the second half of the season.
If the Steelers weren’t going to get a home playoff game (which I figured they would need if a return trip to the Super Bowl was going to happen) this was the matchup I wanted. I never imagined it playing out like that. If the Steelers were going to lose I figured it would be a blizzard by some absurd score of, I don’t know, 5-4.
When we look back on the 2011 season for the Steelers, we’ll look back at three things: 1) Injuries, 2) the defenses inability to force turnovers and the offenses ability to create them, and 3) A team that just couldn’t play quality football away from Heinz Field, finishing with a 5-4 road mark (including playoffs) and getting outscored by 176-148 margin, against some not-great teams.
I still think the window for this team is still open, mainly because they have the single most important position in the NFL (quarterback) secured, and have an impressive collection of young, talented skill players on offense. But there are areas that need addressed, and tough decisions that need to be made (Hines Ward, Aaron Smith, James Farrior, Casey Hampton … I think they would all do the Steelers a huge favor salary cap wise if they just simply retired, but that’s probably not going to happen).
And hey, at least we don’t have to watch the Steelers practice squad call-ups go into New England next Saturday night and get demolished. So there’s that.