We all like to be right. When you do this sort of work for a living, writing about the NFL, much of what we do is based on prediction and prognostication. When I wrote my preview of the Pittsburgh Steelers game against the Denver Broncos, I looked deep into what I thought would be the keys to the game. And when I look back now, after watching the game twice, it’s a good news/bad news situation. What do we take from Steelers vs. Broncos?
First, the Steelers lost. You cannot understate the fact that this morning the Steelers are 0-1 and you never want that. But along those lines, it’s a long season. Success is measured in wins and losses, but it’s often a battle of attrition, so the glass is half full thinking tells me there are still 15 wins on the schedule. But it’s HOW the Steelers lost that does not bode well.
The good news is, the Steelers have decided to incorporate tight end Heath Miller into the game plan. I wrote last week that the tight ends were the secret weapon for this offense, and it looks like it really took the Broncos by surprise. Those types of plays should be there all season.
The running back combo of Johnathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman seemed to be effective at times. Their lack of success was not their doing(more on that in a moment), but until Rashard Mendenhall can return, this seems to be at least a neutral situation. For my taste I’d like to see more Dwyer and less Redman, because most backs need to get touches to find their stride so to speak, and Dwyer looks to be a more explosive option of the two.
The downside of the backfield is offensive coordinator Todd Haley is mishandling rookie Chris Rainey. When Haley was in Kansas City he had a player like Rainey in Dexter McCluster. He tried to wedge a square peg in a round hole and make McCluster a full time running back. It was a miserable failure and now he’s trying to do the same thing with Rainey. Rainey needs to be in space, either as a slot receiver or catching the football out of the backfield. Let’s all hope he watched what McCluster did Sunday for the Chiefs and comes to his sense.
Staying with offense, the offensive line is a mess. The Steelers only dressed 7 linemen, and had to use them all, mainly because there were 2 more injuries. I will update the injury status as the week goes on, but regardless this unit is a point of weakness and will continue to do so. They failed to open holes in the run game, and most of the back’s yards came on second effort by them, and while they held the Broncos rushers in check for the most part, when they needed them most, they fell flat. I am not sure there is an in-season answer for this short of a trade.
The wide outs looked great. This unit is so fast and so agile they are very hard to scheme. Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Emanuel Sanders are a match up nightmare. But on the other end of it, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is the guy who has to deliver it. And as we have always seen and will keep seeing, Roethlisberger is going to make you cheer and he will break your heart. The pick 6 at the end of the game was a dagger, and it was all on Roethlisberger. But there is no changing who he is, so this team must work with his strengths and weaknesses.
Moving to the defense, I was very disappointed. I understand that this unit was also missing starters, including linebacker James Harrison and safety Ryan Clark, but it is more complicated than that.
In my second watch, I was careful to look for linebackers Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley and safety Troy Polamalu. These are the Steelers best defensive players, and they were all but invisible. Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning was under very little duress, and that falls on the linebackers. If not having Harrison in the starting lineup means they are incapable of rushing the quarterback then that has to be addressed.
The defensive line did a nice job doing what they do. In a 3-4 they are not expected to rush the passer, but they are expected to take on blocks, free up linebackers and work in the run game. And while the Broncos backs were able to exploit some holes, on the whole the line was solid.
The secondary is another story. This group isn’t very talented, including Polamalu. Yes he’s an exciting player, and yes he makes some big plays. But last night we saw him more times than not getting to plays after the fact, or not getting there at all. Manning was essentially running his offense through where Polamalu was, and the Steelers could do nothing about it. This group, like the offensive line, were areas of concern in the offseason, and nothing I have seen to this point changes that.
In my preview I pointed out that the Steelers would need to disrupt Manning on offense to protect the secondary, and they didn’t do it. I said the Broncos would bring pressure to throw off Roethlisberger and they did just that. I said the x-factor would be who could run the ball more consistently would win, and the Broncos did that. My player to watch for the Broncos was Jacob Tamme and Manning went to him when he needed him and it paid off. The player to watch for the Steelers was safety Ryan Mundy and he was largely invisible.
Everything I thought would have to go wrong for the Steelers to lose happened, and everything I thought the Broncos had to do to win happened as well. I give all the credit to the Broncos as they outplayed the Steelers on both sides of the football. What the Steelers must do now is re-group and get ready for another explosive passing offense in the New York Jets.
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