Ron Cook: Toussaint's fumble not solely to blame for Steelers loss
January 18, 2016 12:00 AM
Steelers running back Fitzgerald Toussaint picks up yardage against the Broncos in the first half at Sports Authority Field at Mile High Denver, Colo.
By Ron Cook / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
DENVER — It’s easy to blame Fitzgerald Toussaint. He certainly did. Sitting in the same corner of the visitors’ locker room at Sports Authority Field at Mile High Sunday night that Ike Taylor did after getting beat for the winning 80-yard touchdown pass in an overtime playoff loss after the 2011 season, Toussaint was, predictably, just as inconsolable. He not only took responsibility for his fourth-quarter fumble that turned the AFC divisional round playoff game the Denver Broncos’ way. He blamed himself for the Steelers’ 23-16 loss and the sudden, hurtful end to their season.
“I’ve got to protect the ball,” Toussaint said in a voice that was barely a whisper. “There’s no excuse for that.”
It’s true. Of course, it’s true. The Steelers, leading, 13-12, were driving for a field goal, perhaps even a touchdown, when Toussaint was hit by cornerback Brandon Roby at the Denver 31, his fumble recovered by linebacker DeMarcus Ware. The next thing you knew, Peyton Manning was leading the Broncos on their only touchdown drive and a 2-point conversion for a 20-13 lead with 3:00 left. The Broncos were on their way to a home date Sunday against the New England Patriots — Manning vs. Tom Brady one more time — in the AFC championship game.
“It’s very tough,” Toussaint said. “I hate losing. Definitely, I hate fumbling the football. Especially when it's in a position like that ...
“They made a great play. You’ve got to give them credit. But in my position, I put it on me.”
Toussaint, still in full uniform, sat with his face in his locker for nearly 30 minutes after the game.
That’s exactly what Taylor did after being beaten on Tim Tebow's 80-yard pass to Demaryius Thomas in that playoff game four years ago. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau was there to console Taylor on that painful night.
For Toussaint, it was Ben Roethlisberger and DeAngelo Williams. Toussaint started for the injured Williams, who had replaced the injured All-Pro Le’Veon Bell early in the season.
“I told him to take ownership of it — but not all of it,” Roethlisberger said of his two-minute message in Toussaint’s ear. “We wouldn't have been here without what he did last week [against the Cincinnati Bengals]. He made a mistake today. It hurt. But we all made mistakes. It’s on all of us.”
That also was true.
Let us count the ways.
• Tackle Marcus Gilbert was penalized for grabbing linebacker Shaquil Barrett's facemask on a first-and-10 play from the Denver 24 late on the final play of the third quarter. The Steelers ended up punting from the Denver 39.
“They’re seeing something that we don’t see out there,” Gilbert said of the penalty. “I don’t think there was one. They made the call, you’ve got to live with it. We needed points right there. We didn’t capitalize. We didn’t get it done.”
• After a miscommunication from the sideline and as the defense lined up, cornerback Brandon Boykin was beaten on the one good pass that Manning threw downfield. It went for a 31-yard catch by wide receiver Bennie Fowler on a third-and-12 play on the Broncos’ winning drive.
• The special teams had a miserable day other than kicker Chris Boswell, who made his three field-goal attempts. Punter Jordan Berry had not one, but two punts of 27 yards and couldn't pin the Broncos deep with the punt from the Denver 39 after Gilbert's face mask penalty. Punt returner Markus Wheaton — in for injured Antonio Brown — muffed two kicks. Broncos punt returner Omar Bolden had a 42-yard punt return.
• The offense — playing without the dynamic, injured Brown for the first time this season — was virtually all or nothing. It had 10 plays of 15 yards or longer, totaling 311 yards. On its other 49 plays, it gained 85 yards.
Roethlisberger refused to blame Brown’s absence for the loss. He mentioned Martavis Bryant’s nine catches for 154 yards, Darrius Heyward-Bey’s 58-yard catch and little-used rookie Sammie Coates’ catches of 37 and 24 yards. “Those guys were awesome,” Roethlisberger said. “We didn't lose because we didn't have A.B.”
• Roethlisberger took a sack on a fourth-down play, turning the ball back to the Broncos with 1:49 left. It’s inexcusable not to give the receivers a chance to make a play in that spot.
“Self-inflicted stuff. That will get you every time,” Steelers guard Ramon Foster said. “This time of year, we’ve got to execute. It’s on us. Nobody is perfect. We live with it.”
“We had every opportunity to win,” Gilbert said. “We’re a better team than that. We know that. We let this one go.”
And so the Steelers’ season is over.
“Way too soon,” Foster said.
There were so many amazing highs, including wins against Final Four teams Arizona and Denver, and the improbable comeback win Jan. 9 against the Bengals, the Steelers’ first playoff win in five years. There also were injuries to key players Roethlisberger, Brown, Bell, Williams, Maurkice Pouncey and Kelvin Beachum, and two bad losses to the lowly Baltimore Ravens that cost the team a higher seed.
This final loss just happened to be the freshest.
“This one,” Gilbert said, “is going to hurt for a while.”
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.
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