By Christina Rivers

Before the game kicked off on Sunday afternoon, the odds were stacked against the Pittsburgh Steelers in their divisional playoff game against the Broncos in Denver. After dealing with injuries to key players, mostly on offense, the Steelers were banking on the defense to stand firm and Ben Roethlisberger to lead them with a banged-up shoulder.

Overall, the Steelers were patient in setting up plays on both sides of the ball and going for the win at times when they could have been conservative. Pittsburgh could not hang on late in the fourth quarter and watched the Broncos take the lead and send them home with a 23-16 loss and for the final time in a rough 2015 season.

Steelers offense a no-frills affair in Denver: B

Roethlisberger opened the game by throwing a long ball, giving the Broncos defense something to think about as the game progressed. With a healthy mix of run and pass, the Steelers were willing to take the underneath routes when Denver played zone. They progressed fairly well throughout the game, but did not get much of a spark.

One thing that stood out was the way the offense worked from the depth chart and took what was given to them. Fitzgerald Toussaint scored the only Steelers touchdown via the run, but was guilty of a costly fumble on a drive that had the potential to be a game-winner. In the end, the offensive line just could not keep Roethlisberger out of the grasp of the Broncos defense to move down the field for one last drive. 

Steelers defense firm, but non-disruptive: A-

There is a ton of credit to be shared by the players on Pittsburgh’s defense. As a unit, there were few mistakes and it paid dividends in keeping Peyton Manning and the Denver offense from scoring opportunities. Especially stingy in the red zone, the Steelers only allowed the Broncos to score once on a one-yard run by C.J. Anderson. Although the Steelers mixed their blitz packages, only James Harrison recorded a sack. The Steelers limited Denver to a third-down efficiency rating of 20 percent (3 of 15) and were dedicated to keeping the Broncos receivers from getting big catches over the top. It was one of the most consistent games from the Steelers on defense in 2015, but without enough points put on the scoreboard by the offense and zero takeaways, there just was not enough disruption to change momentum in Pittsburgh’s favor.

Special teams positive and negative: B

Chris Boswell was one of the best acquisitions by the Steelers this season, proving his worth yet again on Sunday by creating 10 points. Boswell has been at the top of the list of scorers for Pittsburgh all season and on Sunday, he kicked a perfect three-of-three field goals in the wind. Boswell also was successful in the only point-after attempt of the game.

Markus Wheaton, handling kickoff and punt return duties, had two muffed handlings that could have been especially costly. On the first, he did not signal for a fair catch and was immediately tackled. On the second, Wheaton did not control the ball and watched as Ross Cockrell recovered the ball in the end zone for a touchback.

The Steelers return team had one big return against them, but prevented a touchdown. Punter Jordan Berry dealt with a strange crosswind the entire game, but did have one end-over-end punt that went over 45 yards and was downed inside the five yard-line, pinning Denver deep.

Tomlin and company set up smart, uncomplicated game plan: A

From a coaching standpoint, Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Todd Haley put together a game plan that focused on keeping their team calm under pressure. Some may question whether they were too conservative, but in the fourth quarter a call for a field goal and then an onside kick were smart. By getting the easy three points from Boswell, they were close to successfully recovering the subsequent onside kick that would have allowed Roethlisberger to get the offense on the field for one last hurrah. They were effective in executing a plan to limit Denver on both offense and defense. In the end, all the coaching staff could do was hope that their players bought into the plan and executed. 

Steelers go down swinging

The Steelers didn’t play a perfect game against the Broncos, but by limiting penalties they were able to remain competitive. This team showed heart all season as they experienced some of the worst injury situations and costly mistakes. The loss is a disappointing end to a season that required Pittsburgh to dig deep. 

Christina Rivers has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers and National Football League professionally as a journalist and photographer for over a decade. Rivers studied Exercise Physiology and Sports Psychology at Brigham Young University as a student-athlete. Christina is a freelance writer covering all things NFL as well as a published author. Her work can be found on
Examiner.com.

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