DENVER -- A guy turns 75 just one time in his life. You would think the Steelers defense could have done a better job to make it a happy birthday Sunday night for defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. It was sliced and diced by Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and failed to protect two second-half leads in a 31-19 loss.
Every player will tell you that LeBeau -- who is beloved in the Steelers defensive meeting room -- deserved so much better.
"We all wanted to win for him," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "He truly is the father of all of us on defense."
"Too bad we couldn't get it done for him," linebacker LaMarr Woodley added.
LeBeau has been involved in many tough losses in his 54 years as a player and a coach in the NFL, but this one had to be high on his list of disappointments. He took a lot of the blame for the team's playoff loss to the Broncos in January. His call for the players to sell out to stop the run on the first play of overtime left cornerback Ike Taylor with no deep inside help and the Broncos turned it into an 80-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Tim Tebow to wide receiver Demaryius Thomas.
"It wasn't a very good call," said LeBeau, who beat himself up for a long time.
This game meant a lot to LeBeau, but his players didn't have his back. They held their own against the great Manning, who was playing for the first time after missing all of last season, in the first half and had a chance to ruin what clearly was the big story of the NFL's opening weekend. But they were powerless to stop him and the Denver offense in the final two quarters. The Broncos had three possessions and scored two touchdowns and a field goal.
"Too many big plays," Woodley said. "We allowed too many big plays. You can't be a great defense and do that."
The biggest Broncos play was the game's turning point and brought back horrible memories. They had the ball for just two plays in the third quarter but scored a touchdown to wipe out the Steelers' 13-7 lead. On the second play, Manning threw a quick screen to the left to Thomas, who turned the play into a 71-yard touchdown. It was the 400th touchdown pass of Manning's fabulous career.
"We're too good of a defense to allow those type of plays," Keisel said.
This one was all on safety Troy Polamalu, who got caught inside on the coverage.
"I under-pursued," Polamalu said. "I should have went over the block. I should have made a better decision for sure."
The defense was given a second chance when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Mike Wallace early in the fourth quarter for a 19-14 lead. But Manning picked it apart on the next drive, completing 6 of 7 passes for 57 yards in a 10-play, 80-yard touchdown drive that gave Denver a 22-19 lead after a successful 2-point conversion.
The defense was so bad in the second half that it almost seemed like a positive when the Broncos had to settle for a field goal on their next possession for a 25-19 lead.
"We just weren't making any plays -- any significant plays," Polamalu said. "We weren't getting pressure. We weren't getting pass break-ups. We just weren't making plays."
Manning completed 19 of 26 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns. His passer rating was 129.2.
"He played great," Keisel said. "I have a lot of respect for him. He's the big reason they won."
It was a disappointing ending after the Steelers defense played a strong first half.
Manning did lead the Broncos on an 80-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter to put his team ahead, 7-3. He showed no signs of rust on that march, completing 6 of 7 passes for 54 yards. He also had a 7-yard scramble for a first down when he got outside of linebacker Lawrence Timmons' contain. He looked pretty mobile for an old quarterback -- 36 -- coming off of major neck surgery.
But, the Steelers defense -- playing without linebacker James Harrison (knee) and safety Ryan Clark (blood disorder) -- seemed up for the Manning challenge on this gorgeous night in the Rocky Mountains. It sacked Manning twice in the first half and forced a turnover when linebacker Larry Foote knocked the ball loose from running back Willie McGahee in the first quarter. Those were big plays by a defense that struggled to make them last season despite leading the NFL in fewest points and fewest yards allowed.
But the Steelers couldn't get close to Manning in the second half. It didn't get another sack or force another turnover.
It didn't make a single stop, either.
So much for LeBeau's 75th birthday celebration.
This birthday party was a dud.
Ron Cook: email@example.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.