On the Steelers: Injuries, missed opportunities prove costly in loss to Broncos
January 18, 2016 12:41 AM
Martavis Bryant breaks away from Broncos players for a first down in the second half Sunday in Denver.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger reacts after a crucial sack on a fourth down late in the fourth quarter Sunday against the Broncos at Sports Authority Field in Denver.
Martavis Bryant reacts after dropping pass for first down yardage Sunday in Denver.
Fitzgerald Toussaint is downed at the 1-yard line after a 15-yard run in the first quarter Sunday in Denver. Toussaint scored on the next play.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger makes his way to the field with a determined look to take on the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High Denver, Colorado.
By Ed Bouchette / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
DENVER — Upon his hiring by the Steelers nine years ago, Mike Tomlin talked about football and at one point called it “a game of attrition.”
That game finally caught up to his 2015 Steelers in the third week of 2016, a long, long time after it should have virtually ended their season in a cavalcade of injuries.
They could have won this playoff game Sunday at Sports Authority Field; really, they probably should have won it after leading for 43 minutes and 22 seconds. But when you are playing without your MVP — probably the NFL’s best receiver — and with your third- and fourth-string halfbacks, no fullback, 40 percent of your line wiped out and a quarterback that had to take a pain-killing shot to his shoulder beforehand, well, it’s tough to overcome.
“No one gave us a chance,” Pro Bowl guard David DeCastro said. “All year we just kind of put our head down and went to work.
“Whoa, we don’t have a chance? People are counting us out?”
They finally were counted out, but not until they dominated the Broncos for 50 minutes and eight seconds — until that third-team halfback, Fitzgerald Toussaint, lost a fumble at the Denver 35 when hit hard by cornerback Bradley Roby.
Peyton Manning, who looked every bit of his 39 years and then some, proceeded to guide Denver to its only touchdown, C.J. Anderson plunging over from the 1 with three minutes left for, essentially, the winner.
It was an emotional Steelers locker room afterward that Tomlin addressed, tears streaming down from the head coach. He has won and lost plenty of big games with the Steelers, but that is the first time anyone has ever reported him crying afterward.
“There was a lot of emotion. I never saw him cry like that,” said wide receiver Martavis Bryant. “I cried, too. It’s just a hurt feeling. It’s just really hard right now. Because of the adversity we faced. It’s a hurtful feeling.”
Said defensive end Cam Heyward: “I’m glad I have a coach like that. It hurts even worse, because he’s right in the battle with us.”
Like nearly every single game in the 2015 season, that battle came right down to the end. This, like their improbable playoff victory in Cincinnati eight days earlier, was not played well on offense by either side. But unlike that game against the Bengals, it was clean — nine penalties between them, none of the unsportsmanlike conduct variety.
And there was only one turnover, by Toussaint, who also scored the Steelers only touchdown from the 1 and set it up with a nifty, shifty 15-yard run on the previous play. He opened the season on the practice squad, moved to the 53-man roster for the final five games after All-Pro halfback Le’Veon Bell was knocked out for the season. Then, he made his first start and significant contribution in Cincinnati after backup DeAngelo Williams was injured.
Had he not fumbled, he would have been one of many reasons the Steelers won. They were headed for another likely score, up 13-12, when Roby popped him.
“I have to protect the ball,” said Toussaint, who was consoled at his locker by Ben Roethlisberger. “No excuses for that. In that situation, I put it on myself.”
His teammates refused to do that.
“I told him…we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him,” Roethlisberger said. “This is not all on him by any means. It’s on all of us.”
But, really, it was a turnover that likely cost them the game, the way Jeremy Hill’s fumble gave the Steelers new life in Cincinnati. They could have come to the young back’s aid, though, by stopping the ancient Manning on the ensuing drive. It covered 13 plays, the biggest a 31-yard pass to Bennie Fowler down the middle on third-and-12 from the Broncos 33 to the Steelers 36. Until that catch, Fowler spent much of the game dropping them, twice in a row at one point.
But, as John Elway did to the Steelers a few times in the playoffs, Manning brought the Broncos back, leaning heavily on his ground game down the stretch of that winning drive.
“They made plays when it really counted and that’s where we’re at now,” said linebacker James Harrison, 37, who again was one of their standouts on defense.
Blame it on the loss of Antonio Brown, who was missed returning punts as much as catching passes because Markus Wheaton did his best Jacoby Jones imitation. Blame it on Roethlisberger’s right shoulder, although there was no apparent lack of strength since he sent his first message 60 yards deep on the first play of the game. (“No, I think I was fine,” he said). Blame it on all the other injuries through the year.
Maybe the Steelers should not have come this far in the first place, but here they were and they had the Broncos, favored by 7½ points, on the brink. In the end, maybe it was asking just too much.
“We dealt with a lot of issues this year,” Roethlisberger said he told his teammates afterward. “A lot of injuries, a lot of next man up, people going down. A lot of teams just kind of quit, and we didn’t.
“We stepped up and got to this point.”
It was valiant, it was. But as the Steelers know all too well from both sides of it, they pat the valiant on the back; the hardware goes to the last one standing at the end.
“I’ve been doing this nine years,” Mike Tomlin said. “There’s only one year where the conversation ended in the manner in which you want it to end.
“Such is life in this business.”
Ed Bouchette: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @EdBouchette.
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