We almost had them.
That sums up a Steelers season where they were never given a chance to be in the position they were in. Each time a main contributor went down, so was the expectation of Pittsburgh's season.
That was not the case on Sunday, as the Steelers entered the 4th quarter with a lead over the Denver Broncos; a lead which was maintained throughout most of a hard fought game. In the end, the Steelers hurt themselves more than Denver did, with poor punts, penalties and the game's only turnover.
For that, I'm disappointed.
However, the game wasn't supposed to be this way. With an injured quarterback, a third string running back and the absence of Antonio Brown, no one gave Pittsburgh a chance to win. Yet, lacking their leading rushers and receiver, along with a heroic effort from the banged up Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers nearly pulled out an impossible AFC Championship appearance.
For that, I am proud.
The play calls were mostly on the money Sunday, including the game's opening heave to Markus Wheaton, who had gotten behind the Denver secondary, but was overthrown. Such was the luck of the Steelers, who were a Wheaton 4th down catch in the endzone, or a Martavis Bryant tightly-defended catch away, from putting more points on the board.
The game's opening play forced Denver's safeties to play honest, and not stack the box against the fill-in rotation at running back. That fill-in, Fitzgerald Toussaint, gave the Steelers hope where it was lost, putting in a huge effort that helped beat the Bengals, and another in this game. and added a score against Denver with his first career touchdown. But with peaks come valleys, as Toussaint fumbled on what could have been Pittsburgh's icing on the cake for another AFC title appearance, nearing the red zone toward the final portion of the 4th quarter, before the ball was ripped away from the runner, and in a way footballs tend to bounce, directly to a trailing DeMarcus Ware.
This drive lead to Denver's go-ahead score, but it wasn't without controversy. On one second half drive, Peyton Manning was pressured to move up in the pocket, and actually slides to avoid any contact. However, the game officials did not blow the play dead, and Manning got up to complete a 34 yard pass. The play was not reviewable: had the officials ruled Manning to "give himself up" or if the defender made contact with Manning, he would've been ruled down.
Although a raw deal, Pittsburgh had an opportunity to put the game away more than once. On one drive, the Steelers marched to the Denver 24, poised to enter the redzone, but backed themselves up to the 44 via penalties, and out of a good spot to attempt a field goal. Coach Tomlin decided a punt might be a better option than attempting the kick, which if missed, would've put the Broncos in decent field position. The gamble was that the defense, who had been playing excellently, could keep Peyton Manning and company in check.
Instead, the risk didn't pay off, as punter Jordan Berry's bad day continued. Instead of pinning Denver deep in their half of the field, the ball sailed into the endzone for a touchback, giving the Broncos the ball on their own 20. This essentially screwed the Steelers out of at least 3 points, but two of Berry's earlier punts were also poor. With bad special teams coverage, those 2 punts gave Denver 6 points on 2 early field goals: the punting game had a swing of 9 points in this game.
Antonio Brown may have been missed on offense, but it was his missing presence on special teams which also plagued the Steelers starting field position. Markus Wheaton, filling in for Brown, bobbled two punt returns and nearly gave the ball away on both. Another decision to not attempt a fair catch, allowed Denver to down a ball deep in the Steelers own territory. This field position game hurt Pittsburgh offensively and defensively, giving Denver shorter drives early, and Pittsburgh longer attempts at trying to score.
It was that aspect of special teams, scoring, which was a strength. Kicker Chris Boswell, formerly a homeless player, has now made a case for becoming a permanent part of the Steelers roster, with clutch kicks and a record number of postseason field goals made by a rookie/first year player.
And while Brown was missed on offense, the rest of the team adequately filled in for him. Rookie Sammie Coates played better than anyone may have imagined, but it was the previously challenged Martavis Bryant who added a career day, with 9 receptions for 154 yard and adding another 40 yards rushing.
Ultimately, the Steelers could have won this game, but failed to capitalize on several decent drives, along with losing the turnover battle. But it's the fact that a team missing key components, such as Le'Veon Bell, Maurkice Pouncey, Kelvin Beachum, and at times, Ben, Brown and DeAngelo Williams, could still compete with the top dogs of the NFL. This gives Steeler Nation an even brighter outlook heading into the future.