DENVER -- A Steelers operative threw open the door of the losing locker room 10 minutes after their season ended and barked to the awaiting media, "We're open."
He had unwittingly restated the general status of the Denver Broncos receiving corps over four-plus quarters of throbbing playoff football.
The Broncos were open just happens to be the main reason the Steelers season is officially closed. Not only open, mind you, but open deep. And if there was one thing you did not expect to see in the Steelers' opening and closing playoff game it was a nondescript stable of Denver wideouts operating with a highly unaccomplished passer completely outplay Ben Roethlisberger and his young money contingent of Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders.
"Offensively, you feel like you can do so much more, and you don't do it," Roethlisberger said after a dark one-pick, one-backbreaking-fumble afternoon. "Give credit to their defense."
Uh, no thanks.
It was almost purely offensive raggedness that sent the Steelers to the halftime locker room down, 20-6, perhaps worst exemplified by the 52-yard pass Mike Wallace settled under virtually uncontested at the Denver 28, and somehow failed to control the ball as he tumbled to the grass. That wasn't the first drop of the game nor the last, but it likely would have overturned a 7-6 Denver lead, to say nothing of dismantling the momentum Tebow established in 20-point second quarter.
"They all hurt about as much as they can hurt," said tight end Heath Miller, whom Roethlisberger used effectively early and all but abandoned thereafter. "For this team, the whole point is to play that first week in February, and anything short of that really hurts."
For all its fits and stops, Roethlisberger still coaxed the offense into a 23-23 tie with three desperate second-half scoring drives, the last capped 31-yard roll-and-throw to Jerricho Cotchery with 3:48 remaining. After a crucial defensive stop on the following Broncos possession, the Steelers had an opportunity to sculpt a winning drive with 1:37 remaining from their 24.
"We were moving it, and we had a shot," Roethlisberger said. "Someone got -- it felt like a finger -- on the ball and knocked it out. After that, you're looking at a 70-yard Hail Mary, and that's hard."
Denver rookie Von Miller got the fateful felt-like finger on for an 11-yard sack after the Steelers had moved almost into field-goal range on a day Shaun Suisham was 3 for 3, and they still had a shot when they had Hines Ward take his coat off on the sideline and jog onto the field for a second-and-21 play.
Ward actually appeared open, but Ben floated it just a smidgen and it was broken up.
"I never touched it," said Ward of what might have been the last past thrown to him as a Steeler. "Champ [Bailey] made a great play on it. He smiled at me and said, 'I can't let you catch that one.'"
That was Ben's last incompletion, his 18th on a 40-pass afternoon that ended with his third consecutive sub-76 passer rating, this one 75.9. By contrast, Tebow looked like Steve Young.
"He played a good game; he made plays when he had to," Roethlisberger said.
Not only that, he made plays when he didn't have to, like on the first play of overtime, when he hit Demaryius Thomas in stride and Ike Taylor capped a miserable no-interviews day by getting stiff-armed out of the postseason. Thomas went 80 to put Denver in New England next Saturday.
"We feel like we really have great potential to be a really good offense," Roethlisberger said. "I told a lot of guys that today. We can be great, we just to have to put in the work in the offseason."
What the Steelers were absolutely worst at over the past month was, in fact, staying healthy. They played Sunday without their starting running back and without a starting safety. On their way out of the playoffs Sunday they lost two starting defensive linemen, Brett Keisel and Casey Hampton, starting left tackle Max Starks for extended periods, and could not pull a full shift from hamstrung LaMarr Woodley. Who do they think they are, the Penguins?
But as the coach with the extended chin used to say, that's all part of it. Denver's secondary should have been a feast for Roethlisberger and his younger receivers. Safety Brian Dawkins wasn't able to play, meaning the free safety was rookie Quinton Carter and the strong safety was backup David Bruton. Champ Bailey is as old as Beetle Bailey.
But the best anyone could do was Sanders' six catches for 81 yards. Wallace, to whom Ben whipped 10 passes, caught exactly three of them for 26 yards. Unbecoming a fella headed for Hawaii as a Pro Bowl starter, wouldn't you say?
"It's hard to win when they beat you and you beat yourself," Roethlisberger said.
Yes, in fact, I believe the Steelers were 0-5 this year in that situation.
Gene Collier: firstname.lastname@example.org First Published January 9, 2012 5:00 AM