Let me start with a plea: leave Fitzgerald Toussaint alone. Yes, his fumble swung the momentum from Pittsburgh’s side to Denver’s. Yes, it was a heart-breaking gaff. And, yes, if there is one play that defines this game, it is that play.
But, Toussaint’s fumble is not the only reason that the Steelers lost the divisional playoff game against the Broncos.
Let us start with the first play from scrimmage. With the element of surprise on their side, the Steelers attempted a long pass play. Markus Wheaton had his man beat, but Ben Roethlisberger overthrew him. Instead of being up 7-0, the Steelers punted.
On the ensuing punt, the Steelers’ special teams allowed a return into field-goal range. Even though Pittsburgh’s defense stifled Denver’s offense by not allowing them to get a first down, the damage was already done; the Broncos kicked the field goal to take the early lead. Considering that the Broncos could do absolutely nothing on offense, giving them three points was huge and would come back to haunt the Steelers.
On the next Steelers’ possession, the Steelers had a fourth-and-one in “no man’s land”: too far/too windy for a field goal, but too close to punt. Big Ben threw a perfect dart to Wheaton in the endzone, which was dropped. Some will lambast Ben for not throwing the dump-off pass to a wide open Heath Miller, but simply, Wheaton should have caught that pass. As was the case on the first drive, a touchdown pass to Wheaton did not come to fruition. Thus, instead of being up 14-3, the Steelers once again walked away empty handed.
Meanwhile, as I already mentioned, Denver could do absolutely nothing on offense. But, thanks to a shanked punt by Jordan Berry, the Broncos were once again given possession of the ball already in field-goal range… giving them another three points would come back to haunt the Steelers.
The Steelers managed to finally put everything together and finish a drive by scoring a touchdown. Then, on the next possession, Roethlisberger hits a wide open Darius Heyward-Bey for a long gain. While this completion set up a field goal, the pass to Heyward-Bey really should have ended with a touchdown. When Heyward-Bey caught the ball, he inexplicably ran right at the safety in the middle of the field. If Heyward-Bey had run along the sideline, he scores a touchdown. Adding up all three of these “missed touchdowns” should have had the Steelers comfortably in the lead 28-6. Instead, they merely led 10-6.
Fast-forwarding to the fourth quarter, the Steelers were leading 13-12. Then came Toussaint’s fumble. Pittsburgh was having an excellent drive; they had all of the momentum. Toussaint took the hand-off, and if he had merely plowed forward, the Steelers would have had first down inside of long field-goal range. But Toussaint hesitated for a second, noticing that if he cut around a block, he might be able to get an additional ten yards. That momentary pause allowed Bradley Roby to jab his arm around a block and make the most fortuitous forced fumble that I have seen in a while.
This is where some Steelers fans feel that the game was lost. Sure, the fumble swung momentum 180 degrees, but there was nearly nine minutes left to play, and the Broncos had yet to put together a single good drive. If the Steelers’ defense simply forced the Broncos off of the field, then Toussaint’s fumble would have been no more harmful than if the Steelers had had to punt. Facing several third downs, including a third-and-twelve, the Broncos drove down the field, eating up nearly six minutes of clock, and scoring the game-winning touchdown.
To recap the seven moments that decided this game:
-Ben Roethlisberger overthrows Markus Wheaton.
-The Broncos returned a punt into field-goal range.
-Markus Wheaton drops a touchdown pass.
-Jordan Berry’s punt gives the Broncos a field goal.
-Darius Heyward-Bey runs at the safety.
-Pittsburgh’s defense gives up a touchdown drive.
With all of those negatives out of the way, I would like to commend the Steelers on one heck of a game. No team had ever entered a playoff game without both their leading receiver (Antonio Brown) and their leading rusher (DeAngelo Williams). Plus, Big Ben was hobbled. Yet, Pittsburgh controlled the game… well… they controlled the game until Denver’s touchdown drive. If this game was a harbinger of things to come for next season, the Steelers will be in good shape for a deep playoff run.
If the Steelers can add a couple of secondary players, in addition to getting back Senquez Golson, the defense should be very formidable. On the flip side, the Steelers’ offense merely needs to get back all of its injured players: Le’Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams, Maurkice Pouncey, and Antonio Brown. Here is to a very good 2015 season, and to an even better 2016 season.
Editor’s Note — Original article revised to correct Jordan Berry as punter, not Brad Wing.