Week 20 Game Recap: Pittsburgh Steelers 34, Denver Broncos 17
What you need to know
QB Ben Roethlisberger seems to have blossomed in this postseason. He’s making up for his playoff failings of a year ago with his dominance this postseason, and he put a stamp on that success Sunday in leading his team to the Super Bowl. Roethlisberger was simply terrific, never once making a glaring mistake and playing a fantastic game in a tough road environment.
The Steelers’ running game never really got off the ground. There were a handful of good runs here and there, but nothing of any sustained quality. The smash mouth Steelers totaled fewer than 100 yards on the ground.
The Pittsburgh defense dominated Denver all day. The Broncos had several isolated key plays and one nice looking drive. Aside from that, they were completely dominated by the Steelers. One never got the sense that they could really compete in this game, and it was over just about when it began.
QB Jake Plummer picked the worst of possible times to rediscover his sketchy past. Playing in front of former Broncos legend John Elway, Plummer looked nothing like the MVP candidate he’s been all season long. He made several terrible throws and to make matters worse, he also made terrible decisions.
The Broncos vaunted running game of Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell was effectively shut down. Partly due to falling behind and partly due to a lack of execution, the Broncos could never really get the run game going.
Denver’s pass defense, a strength coming into the game, was ripped up by Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger. The Broncos allowed nearly 300 yards and two scores through the air, and the blitz packages were rendered meaningless against the poised Roethlisberger.
What you ought to know
Regardless of how well he plays in the Super Bowl, Ben Roethlisberger has already taken some big steps forward in his development from first round draft pick to legitimate NFL star. He continued his torrid postseason with another fantastic game, both from a fantasy standpoint and from a real life one. The mistakes he did make were minimal and didn’t cost his team anything. Not only that, he seemed to learn from them and work on fixing them as the game went on. His first error in judgment came on Pittsburgh’s opening drive. He waited a bit too long to throw a pass to Hines Ward, and Denver CB Champ Bailey jumped the route, looking for the return TD the other way. Fortunately for Roethlisberger, the ball was deflected up in the air and right into the waiting arms of Ward for a first down. Later on that same drive, Roethlisberger threw a pass into the corner of the end zone intended for Nate Washington. The ball was seemingly intercepted by CB Domonique Foxworth, who had the ball in his hands. Luckily for Roethlisberger once again, Washington was able to get his hands up in time to knock the ball away for an incompletion. After those two close calls, Roethlisberger never once came close to turning the ball over again. If a play broke down, he simply threw the ball away or took off and ran for a minimal gain. He never forced anything, and made great decisions all game long.
In addition to the great decision making, he made some terrific athletic plays as well. His best pass of the game came on the TD to Hines Ward just before the half. With Pittsburgh up 17-3, Jerome Bettis seemed to score to make it 24-3. The TD was negated due to a penalty, leaving the Steelers with just 15 seconds to work with and the ball at the 17 yard line. Rather than panic, Roethlisberger simply rolled out and lofted a gorgeous pass to the back end line of the end zone, just above the outstretched arms of several Broncos defenders for the touchdown. The play put the Steelers up 24-3 and in essence, ended the game. His other TD pass, to Cedrick Wilson, featured a terrific pump-fake by Roethlisberger that froze CB Champ Bailey. Throughout the game, Roethlisberger faced relentless blitzes from Denver, and each time he dealt with it with the same calm and cool demeanor. Pittsburgh faced a number of third and long situations, yet time and time again they were able to convert them because of Roethlisberger’s precision and ability to read the defenses. He also scored on a bootleg late in the contest that iced the win, and showed a “Favre-esque” quality in that one could tell he was really having fun out on the field.
Parker struggled getting anything in the game, 24 of his 35 yards came on successive carries late in the first half. That means his other 12 carries totaled just 11 yards, which really serves to illustrate just how tough it was for him. He didn’t help matters by appearing to fumble on one play (he was correctly ruled down) and then fumbling out of bounds on another. He didn’t get any red zone carries, and Jerome Bettis was in when Pittsburgh was running out the clock. Still, Parker’s only two productive runs of the game couldn’t have come at a better time. He paired a 14 yard run with a ten yarder, setting Pittsburgh up at the Denver 14 yard line. Hines Ward scored three plays later to give Pittsburgh an insurmountable 24-3 lead.
Bettis made an impassioned pregame speech to his teammates about helping him get to the Super Bowl in his hometown of Detroit, and then sat back and watched them carry him there. Bettis’ production in the game was limited by an aggressive Denver front that basically eliminated the Steeler run game. He was also very under the weather, as he was sick since Thursday. Additionally, he has a severe asthma condition that is exacerbated playing in the thin air of Denver.
Bettis’ big run of the game went for just seven yards, and he didn’t register a reception. Bettis did manage to find the end zone, on a hard fought run from three yards out. His emotion was evident after the play, as his trademark shout could be heard from the CBS sideline microphone. The score marked Bettis’ fifth consecutive postseason game with at least one touchdown. Bettis later had a 12 yard touchdown run negated by a Hines Ward illegal procedure penalty. Ward scored on the next play on a reception from Ben Roethlisberger. It will be interesting to see the split in carries next week between Bettis and Willie Parker. While Bettis had a potentially disastrous fumble last week against Indianapolis, Parker fumbled twice Sunday (though on one he was ruled down and on the other the ball went out of bounds). Still, it was Bettis who was in the game as Pittsburgh tried winding down the clock, and Bettis who got the goal line touches. With turnovers being the central theme to this postseason, Parker may get a shorter leash in the Super Bowl, though that is purely speculation at this point.
|WR Hines Ward, Rush: 1 - 4 - 0, Rec: 5 - 59 - 1 (9 targets)|
While his stats don’t look huge, Ward was clearly the go to guy in any big situations Pittsburgh faced with the passing game. He had what seemed to be a costly illegal procedure penalty late in the first half, taking a touchdown away from RB Jerome Bettis. Ward made up for the penalty on the next play, however, snagging a touchdown in the back of the end zone to give the Steelers a 24-3 lead.
After Ben Roethlisberger, Wilson was the offensive star of the game for the Steelers. He approached 100 receiving yards and had a game-high five receptions and 92 yards. His touchdown reception against the coverage of Champ Bailey was a nice play on which he had to tip-toe the sideline to be sure he got his feet in. Wilson made the catch look easier than it was. Wilson later made another fine grab on a pass thrown low by Ben Roethlisberger, displaying excellent hands on the play.
Randle El didn’t do anything exceptionally well or exceptionally poorly. He simply played his typical game and turned in a standard performance. He had several key receptions to extend drives, but nothing of major importance. His lone opportunity for a big play was a pass late in the game where he broke behind the secondary wide open for what would have been an easy touchdown if Roethlisberger had seen him. The pass went to the other side of the field, however.
Miller snared an early 24 yard reception down the seam, then was very quiet for the remainder of the contest. Miller never got a chance to be a red-zone threat, as the Steelers scored too quickly and easily down by the goal line that they never had to look for a second option most of the time.
Reed quietly banged in two more 40+ yard field goals, this time from 47 and 42 yards out. While they didn’t figure highly into the final result, the 47 yard field goal gave Pittsburgh its first lead, a lead they would never relinquish. The importance of having a clutch kicker cannot be overestimated, and Reed has proven to be adept at making key kicks in big spots. Today was no exception.
Pittsburgh’s run defense was helped in part by the Pittsburgh offense. Because the Steelers got out to such a large lead at halftime, Denver all but abandoned the running game in the second half. That goes to explain why the Broncos ran the ball for over four yards per carry, yet were still dominated in the game. The only two times the Steelers run defense was tested, they came up on the short end each time. The first was a third and three run early in the game, which Denver converted. The next was a fourth and one run by Mike Anderson in the second quarter. While he was initially stopped short, his second effort got him the first down. Anderson also took a carry in from three yards out for a touchdown run late in the fourth quarter.
Pittsburgh succeeded where most other teams failed this season -- they got Jake Plummer to look like the old mistake prone Jake Plummer again. Early in the game especially, the Steelers got to Plummer early and often. LB Joey Porter was the catalyst of the pass rush, several times getting intense pressure on Plummer. And Plummer responded with a crushing four turnover day in what was the biggest game of his career to this point. In addition to rattling Plummer, the Steelers’ defensive backs did a terrific job in staying with the Denver receivers downfield. The Broncos were at a bit of a disadvantage in that the Steelers secondary is considered their weakest point, but Denver lacks a real breakaway threat that can stretch the field consistently. Ashley Lelie shows glimpses of it, such as on his 30 yard touchdown reception in single coverage, but it isn’t on a consistent enough basis. Pittsburgh had no trouble hanging with Rod Smith and Lelie for 30 pass plays, and the result was a combination of pressure on Plummer and no one open to throw to – a losing combination indeed. S Troy Polamalu once again played like a maniac, throwing his body around the field with reckless abandon. At times, he was a bit too aggressive and missed a couple of tackles, but overall he played another terrific game.
|QB Jake Plummer, Pass: 18 - 30 - 223 - 1 TD / 2 INT, Rush: 7 - 30 - 0|
Unfair or not, Jake Plummer turned back the clock to his days of mental errors and poor tosses in the biggest game of his career. Trying to erase the unfair comparisons between himself and John Elway, Plummer instead has likely created a situation where fans will complain even louder about how Plummer is not Elway. That complaint, while unfair, has a lot of validity after this game. Plummer never got into any kind of rhythm, and followed up one bad decision after another until he had finished with a four-turnover game. He fumbled early in the game under heavy pressure from Joey Porter, and things went downhill fast after that. He was later intercepted just before halftime on what was by far his worst pass of this season, a duck to the sideline that was easily picked off by CB Ike Taylor. Then in the second half, just when it appeared Denver may be ready to gain a little momentum back, Plummer was intercepted over the middle by LB Larry Foote, pretty much killing the buzz that had been growing in the crowd. Plummer did make some isolated nice plays, such as a perfectly-thrown ball to TE Jeb Putzier in the first half, and an extremely athletic play in avoiding the rush of Joey en route to setting up a long pass interference penalty in the fourth quarter. But the positives were far too few and far between. He didn’t do a very effective job in running the offense in the fourth quarter, taking far too much time off the clock between plays and not putting the team in the right positions to stop the clock. Not only that, his fumble late in the game sealed the win for Pittsburgh.
Anderson had two key runs in the game, one a fourth and one carry in the first half that he converted with a great second effort. The other, a three yard touchdown run in the second half. Aside from those two runs, Anderson’s name wasn’t called very often. A lot of that can be attributed to the fact that Pittsburgh built a large lead early in the game, and Denver was unable to establish the running attack they so desperately need to win football games.
|RB Tatum Bell, Rush: 5 - 31 - 0, Rec: 5 - 28 - 0 (6 targets)|
Bell pretty much did nothing for the majority of the afternoon until the Broncos’ final drive. He had just 59 yards for the game, and 29 of those yards came on Denver’s final possession when the Steelers weren’t playing defense anymore. After an electrifying regular season, Bell really faltered in the playoffs. It remains to be seen what his role will be for 2006, but he must work on his blitz pickups and improve his durability issues.
Smith showed he can still go and get it on occasion, even against a stellar defense. While he didn’t come up with a huge game, he did snag a fantastic 32 yard reception against Troy Polamalu midway through the third quarter on Denver’s touchdown drive. The Pro Bowler wasn’t much of a factor in the offense outside of that one play, however.
Lelie’s two receptions were both things of beauty, as he displayed some of the athleticism that caused many an owner to drool over his fantasy prospects this past season. After just one regular season touchdown all year, Lelie beat S Chris Hope down the seam for a twisting 30 yard TD grab. Lelie made a nice effort on the ball, and did a great job in holding onto it all the way to the ground. He later added an even better 38 yard reception along the right sideline. Again, coverage was all over him, and once again he came away with the football. Still, aside from those two big plays Lelie just wasn’t involved enough to make a huge impact. He again had trouble getting off the line consistently, and actually had to briefly leave the game for a time in the first half after being shaken up following a hit. He obviously returned to action and made those two grabs.
Putzier had an excellent game stat-wise, though much of his production can be attributed to some fancy footwork by QB Jake Plummer. It was Plummer’s ability to buy some extra time in several instances that resulted in Putzier’s receptions.
The sure-footed Elam wasn’t tested today, with his only attempt coming from just 21 yards out. He of course nailed that, as well as his two extra point attempts.
Looking at the Denver rush defense stats, one might have come to the conclusion that the Broncos dominated this game and easily won it. After all, when you hold a run based team to a paltry 90 yards on the ground on 33 carries, you’re supposed to win. Denver did as good a job as can be expected against a team like Pittsburgh. Considering 24 of those yards came on two back to back carries in the second quarter, it is plain to see that the Broncos did not lose this game because of any failings in the run defense.
A few breaks, a few bounces of the ball another way, and this game could have been drastically different. For instance: 1) A first quarter Ben Roethlisberger pass intended for Hines Ward is read perfectly by CB Champ Bailey. Bailey jumps the route, and is inches from picking it off and taking it the other way for a score. The pass, however, deflects straight up in the air, and Ward cradles it in for a first down reception. 2) CB Domonique Foxworth (who the Steelers attacked every chance they got) seemingly intercepts a Roethlisberger pass in the end zone. Unknown Steelers WR Nate Washington, the intended target on the play, gets his hands up in Foxworth’s face and breaks the pass up at the last possible moment, rendering the pass incomplete. 3) A fourth quarter pass missed its intended target and headed right for S John Lynch. Rather than bring the ball in, the veteran simply deflected the pass into the ground. An interception at that point could have been huge, as Denver started to gain just a little bit of momentum back. As it stands, none of those plays really worked out in Denver’s favor. And the rest of the game was simply a mess for them. They got a decent pass rush on Roethlisberger, but could never really finish the job. They did manage to sack him twice, but neither resulted in much difference as far as the respective drives went, and the constant blitzing actually worked against them as Pittsburgh usually had someone open at all times. Denver’s biggest problem this game may have been their shoddy coverage on third down plays. For the game, Pittsburgh converted an astounding 10-16 third down opportunities, with many of them coming on third and long situations. A big factor in Denver’s disappointing performance could have been because of health issues by the defensive leader, S John Lynch. He was seen hobbling around at times in the second half, apparently the victim of a right knee injury. With Lynch a non-factor in the blitz, it really made Denver’s pass rush far less effective.