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Tim Benz: Old road habits return in Steelers’ familiar-feeling loss to Broncos

Tim Benz
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Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger calls a play against the Denver Broncos during the first half Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018, in Denver.

Here’s a tweet I sent out during the second quarter as the Steelers were struggling to come back from a 3-0 deficit in Denver.

It was met with the predictable reaction of, “What!? Didn’t you see last week’s game in Jacksonville?”

I did.

Similarly, I wonder if many of those who tweeted such responses saw any of the all-too-common losses — or ties — by the Steelers on the road to inferior competition in the Mike Tomlin era.

The Chicago loss last year. This year’s tie in Cleveland. The slew of such games in 2009, 2012, and 2013 that went a long way toward keeping the Steelers out of the playoffs in those seasons. And, of course, the loss to Tim Tebow and company on the same field in the 2011 postseason.

Before we go any further, the point of this isn’t to rewrite the narrative about favored Tomlin teams faltering on the road. Yet, the Steelers tendency to play down to competition does bite them almost every year when it comes to making the playoffs, or at least having an easier road through them.

To be fair, the Steelers have been solid on the road lately. The stumble in Denver is their only road loss this season. They dropped just one road game last season. And they closed out 2016 by winning their last four regular-season road games and a playoff matchup in Kansas City.

Rather, the point of this entry is twofold.

First, if you thought the Jacksonville game was some type of defining moment that made the Steelers foolproof against lesser teams on the road, you were kidding yourself.

Second, the Steelers familiar formula for defeat in this Denver game must be avoided in the future.

Like in Oakland two weeks from now.

So many of those unfortunate Steelers losses away from Heinz Field follow the same script I alluded to in the above tweet.

Overly fancy play calling. Painful turnovers. Allowing lesser teams to hang around early in games so belief builds in the fourth quarter. Special teams miscues. Red-zone screw-ups. Stat-sheet dominance that isn’t reflected on the scoreboard.

Those items have frequently been at the root of the Steelers undoing in games such as this 24-17 loss to the 5-6 Broncos. They were all on display Sunday in Denver.

I’ll be honest. Despite my looming-storm-cloud way of thinking in that first half, I still felt as if the Steelers were good enough to come back.

As it turns out, they were. The Black and Gold turned a 10-3 hole into a 17-10 lead.

However, all the early errors gave the Broncos enough cushion to sustain the body blows of Chris Boswell’s fake field goal touchdown pass to Alejandro Villanueva and JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 97-yard touchdown.

“They just executed better,” defensive end Cameron Heyward said. “We have to look in the mirror and see where we made mistakes. They ran the ball well and won the turnover ratio.”

Heyward is right there. The Steelers allowed 124 yards rushing after yielding 179 a week ago. Denver probably could’ve had more. Phillip Lindsay averaged 7.9 yards per carry en route to 110 yards and a touchdown. He only rushed 14 times.

And as far as the turnovers go? Yeah, as was the case last week, the Steelers were guilty of too many. They had four versus the Broncos.

Ben Roethlisberger threw three interceptions against the Jaguars and had two more called back via penalty. He had two more interceptions Sunday in Colorado, including a third-down killer in the end zone with just over a minute remaining the game.

But how about creating one or two? This was the fourth straight road game where the Steelers failed to generate an interception. And they forced just one fumble.

If this club can statistically dominate a game like they just did in Denver and still lose, then it’s possible to do so in Oakland.

Remember the losses in “The Black Hole” to 4-12 editions of the Raiders in 2012 and ’13?

Have I mentioned 2012 and ’13 yet in this post?

Will failing to win road games in Cleveland and Denver cost the Steelers a playoff spot? Unlikely.

Will failing to beat those teams hurt playoff seeding? Absolutely. Especially when the schedule still holds dates with New England, the Los Angeles Chargers and New Orleans.

The Jacksonville game was a fun comeback. It wasn’t a cure all. And it easily could’ve had a less favorable outcome. Along with this Denver defeat, both games should simply prove to be a reminder of what symptoms still plague the Steelers on the road against sub-.500 competition.

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