Steelers-Broncos matchup to watch: Ryan Mundy vs. Demaryius Thomas
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One of the primary reasons the Steelers finished with the No. 1 ranked pass defense in the National Football League last season was because of a dearth of big plays.
They allowed only two passes of 40 yards or longer and just 34 passes of 20 yards or longer -- both league lows -- in 16 games of the regular season.
But, during one afternoon in Denver, that all changed. And in a big and damaging way.
The Steelers allowed five pass plays of 30 yards or longer, including four of 40 yards or longer.
Three of those were by wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, who caught passes of 51, 58 and 80 yards against cornerback Ike Taylor -- the latter coming just 11 seconds into overtime to end the Steelers season in a sudden and stunning hurry.
Thomas, who had 32 catches for 551 yards in the regular season, finished with four catches for 204 yards. That they came on throws by Tim Tebow, who averaged fewer passing yards per game (123.5) than any NFL quarterback in 2011, made it even more surprising. It would have been more understandable if it were the Broncos' new quarterback -- Peyton Manning.
"We executed well -- that's what this game comes down to," Broncos coach John Fox said. "Whoever executes best is going to win. They're a different team. It's going to bring up all the different matchup issues and different styles than last time. So, I'm not sure that has a lot of bearing."
Taylor got most of the blame for what happened against the Broncos, especially for the quick touchdown in overtime because he was never able to recover from a stiff-arm after Thomas' catch across the middle of the field. But others have looked to blame free safety Ryan Mundy, who came up in run support and did not cover the deep middle of the field -- something Taylor, who had outside coverage, seemed to be expecting.
But coach Mike Tomlin exonerated Mundy from blame, saying the Steelers were in an "inverted cover-2" defense and Mundy's responsibility was to be in the run alleys. Once Mundy saw the play-action fake from Tebow, he quickly turned and tried to recover to help on Thomas. Too late.
"You got to tackle the catch," said defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. "You tackle the catch, get the ball back, you might still be playing."
LeBeau, though, took the blame for putting Taylor and Mundy in that position by calling a defense that left the deep middle of the field unprotected.
"I watched the game ... this week, and it was a tough play," Mundy said. "Sometimes you get the bear and sometimes the bear gets [you]. That's just a little motivation for us, as a defense, because we didn't play particularly well that whole game. But we're looking to start off the 2012 season right and this is great game to do it."
Mundy was starting because Ryan Clark was held out of the game due to concerns about his health playing in the thin air in Denver. And Mundy will start again today for the same reason.
First Published September 9, 2012 12:00 am