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Six Points... on the playoff loss to the Broncos

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Ike Taylor may be receiving the lion's share of the blame for Sunday's postseason loss, but he was just part of the problem in a loss that really was a total team effort. Numerous players and coaches had a hand in what turned out to be an overtime defeat to an inferior opponent.

Ike Taylor was a major reason the Steelers lost to the Broncos, but he wasn’t the only one. There’s no question that Ike Taylor was an absolute dud in the team’s playoff loss. Hell, it could easily be the worst game he’s played in his professional career.

The touchdown in overtime – the play that will be a lasting memory for any member of Steeler Nation over the next few months – was the least of my worries when I looked back at the game. Ike was put in a tough position on the play. I was more concerned with the fact that he was stiff-armed out of a game-saving tackle than the fact he was beat right from the get-go.

The bigger issue is that receiver Demaryius Thomas flat-out killed him in the game’s first 60 minutes. Double-moves, physical plays – Thomas had Ike’s number all evening. In addition to the 124 yards on three catches that Thomas earned in regulation, the receiver also earned his way to a long defensive pass interference flag. No excuses, Ike was beat by a receiver having a career day.

However, the final play of the game – the 80-yard touchdown pass – caught my eye for another reason. By that point in the game, it was pretty clear that Ike was not himself and that he was struggling to cover Thomas. Even with Denver’s tendency to run on first down, having Ike in single coverage with no help over the top against a receiver he had failed to cover all game made little sense. That’s a coaching mistake.

It was one of many that materialized over the course of the game. The offensive play-calling was questionable at times, and was a reason why the team came away with six points instead of 14 in the first quarter. I’m a firm believer that the game becomes entirely different with the Broncos down two touchdowns as opposed to two field goals.

Of course, the biggest coaching issue that stood out on Sunday prevented the team from stealing a win even with Ike’s performance and a few mistakes.

Pittsburgh’s two-minute drills were horrendous. Let’s start with the first one, a drive that began at the Pittsburgh 20-yard line with a little over a minute remaining in the first half. The Steelers had two timeouts remaining.

While a touchdown drive was unlikely given the fact that the team had 80 yards to go and little time to do it, a field goal would have given the Steelers three points in a situation where points are at a premium. Remember, regulation ended as a tie so those points could have changed the final result.

Pittsburgh worked fast, picking up 42 yards on its first two plays before taking a timeout. Big Ben found Emmanuel Sanders for six more yards that moved the team into effective field goal range (the 35-yard line). Two plays later, Doug Legursky sailed a snap over Ben Roethlisberger’s head and the team punted instead of attempting a field goal.

This one was all about execution. Legursky made an obvious mistake in a critical situation and it cost the team. Even so, this two-minute drill was much better than the other one.

The other one occurred at the end of regulation. The game was tied, meaning a field goal would win it and send the Steelers off to face New England the following weekend. Once again, the team had two timeouts. However, they had a shorter distance to move (76 yards instead of 80) and more time (1:37 instead of 1:02) than the two-minute drills to end the first half.

In the first drive, the first two plays were the primary reason the two-minute drill almost worked. In the second drive, the first two plays were the reason why the team fell short.

Right from the get go, Big Ben takes a sack. It’s only a four yard loss, but the bigger issue is that it costs the team 33 seconds – over a third of the remaining time.

Big Ben picks up 17 yards on the following play with an in-bounds throw to Antonio Brown. Inexplicably, the team lets the clock run and another 31 seconds disappears.

Either way, Pittsburgh makes it to the Denver 45-yard line. Unfortunately, Ben gets sacked again. Additionally, he fumbles the ball and is late calling the team’s final timeout. 11 seconds runs off the clock.

The result is that Pittsburgh is back at its own 44-yard line with only 18 seconds remaining. The team wasted over a minute of the clock to move 20 yards.

Of course, the final 18 seconds also featured a delay of game and a third sack of Big Ben, sending the Steelers to overtime where they would eventually lose.

So the question is: what the hell happened on that final drive?

There’s obviously a lack of communication between coach, coordinator, and quarterback in a situation like that. The team should have called a timeout either after the first sack or the Brown completion, an act which would have saved an extra 20-25 seconds. I’m not sure whose responsibility it is in that situation. Whoever it was, they botched it.

However, even if the responsibility falls on the quarterback there, Tomlin or Arians needed to man up and take charge; take the timeout and extend the drive. They didn’t, and the result was a failure to even get a sniff at a game-winning field goal.

That’s simply unacceptable.

The Steelers missed out on multiple opportunities all game. Whether it was near incompletions, near sacks, near catches, etc, a number of players contributed in the loss.

Jerricho Cotchery and David Johnson both dropped big-time passes. Cameron Heyward was one of a handful of players who failed to seal the deal on a sack, allowing Tebow to escape and keep the drive moving. Of course, we’ve already discussed Legursky’s high snap and Ike Taylor’s day.

Execution was a major issue for the team. If one of those plays becomes a sack, or a catch, I’d be writing with an eye towards New England, instead of an eye back at Denver.

This game could have been won in the first quarter. The key to beating this incarnation of the Broncos is to build a quick lead on them and then put the pressure on.

In the first quarter, the Steelers defense came out red hot. Tim Tebow and the Denver offense went three-and-out on their first two possessions.

On the other side of the ball, Pittsburgh’s offense was merely good, not as great as they needed to be. They moved the ball a little, but only came up with six points. As I said before, a fourteen-point lead completely changes the dynamic of this game.

The low-scoring Broncos offense would have had to start pressing, at least a little. In addition, Denver wouldn’t have been able to take the lead as easily as they did. Pittsburgh dominated the first quarter only to see Tebow hit Eddie Royal to give his team a 7-6 lead. That was all it took.

The pressure of having to score two touchdowns to tie things up could have been too much for a limited passer taking the reins of a very young offense. Tebow’s desire to catch up to Pittsburgh could have played right into the hands of Pittsburgh’s defense, with the result being a sack or two, or even a turnover.

Unfortunately, the offense only came away with six points when it should have had 10 or 14, and that set the stage for the rest of the action.

Isaac Redman is the only player that comes out of the loss smelling like a rose. In his first postseason start and with his running backs coach in the hospital as a result of a house fire, Redman flourished. He was solid as solid can be in the first half, churning out regular yardage and keeping the offense in manageable situations.

In the second half, he took over, breaking out big runs to put the offense in scoring position. Make no mistake, he was the driving force behind the team’s second-half comeback. He was the spark the team needed.

Unfortunately, his breakout performance came in a loss.

All the same, he should be in the mix for more carries next season, especially with the uncertainty surrounding Rashard Mendenhall and his torn ACL. Here’s hoping he receives the extra work, and then blows everyone away like he did on Sunday.

Looking back, the early playoff exit shouldn’t have been too surprising. This team never established a presence in the league all season. In previous successful years, the team was a powerhouse that no one wanted to face.

In 2005, the Steelers were the hottest team going into the playoffs and they turned that hot streak into a Super Bowl ring. In 2008, Pittsburgh established itself as the league’s premier team to eke out a sixth championship. Even in 2010, the team felt like one of the league’s elite for a majority of the season.

The 2011 version of the Steelers never reached that point. Every time it looked like they were turning the corner, they’d take a step back and make you re-evaluate what you were looking it.

Were they as good as their 12-4 record? Probably not. The schedule was easy enough that they were able to get away with a chance at a division crown. Occasionally, the team looked like an elite unit – particularly in the 25-17 win over the Patriots – but those moments faded over time.

Don’t worry though. This could just be a semi-off year for a team that really is in transition from its old core (Hines Ward, Aaron Smith, etc.) to its new, younger group (the Wallace/Sanders/Brown troika, LaMarr Woodley, etc.)

In that case, going 12-4 and losing in the playoffs doesn’t look that bad. Look at this way, would you rather be a fan of a franchise that has to start over to rebuild, or do you want to cheer for a team that can rebuild on the fly?

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