What we learned: 5 leftovers from Steelers loss to Broncos
Five things we learned from Broncos 24, Steelers 17.
1. Except for one series, the running game was non-existent
A funny thing happened when James Conner was stopped for no gain on a fourth consecutive run midway through the third quarter Sunday afternoon.
He carried the ball just one more time the rest of the way.
Off the final 27 offensive plays, Conner didn’t take a handoff until 1:53 remained in the game when the Steelers were three yards from a tying touchdown. In that span, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger attempted 22 passes, was sacked twice and scrambled two other times.
The Broncos entered the game with the No. 27 ranked rush defense, but Roethlisberger said the game plan centered on the short passing game, perhaps because the Steelers were down to their third-string right tackle who was tasked with going against All-Pro linebacker Von Miller.
And pass the Steelers did. Roethlisberger put the ball in the air 56 times, with Antonio Brown and Chris Boswell throwing passes on trick plays. Those 58 passes dwarfed the 16 rushing attempts, of which Conner had 13 carries.
Conner finished with 53 yards and had a 4.1 average per carry. Until midway through the third quarter, he had carried on successive plays just one time. Then, with the Steelers leading 17-10, Conner carried on four consecutive plays. The first three attempts totaled 23 yards.
But after he was stopped for no gain on a first-and-10 with 7:36 remaining, Conner inexplicably became an afterthought in the running game.
2. There’s no longer a clear path to a playoff bye
Because of the loss, the New England Patriots leapfrogged the Steelers and hold the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoff race. The Houston Texas, who are 7-3, also passed the Steelers into the third spot by percentage points and can remain there with a win Monday night against the Tennessee Titans.
The path doesn’t get easier with the 8-3 San Diego Chargers visiting Heinz Field on Sunday for a prime-time matchup. Two weeks later, the Patriots visit for a game that could crystalize the playoff picture.
Considering the Steelers also play their penultimate game at 10-1 New Orleans, they may need to win out or get some help if they want to avoid playing on wild-card weekend.
3. Big plays resurfaced against pass defense
Since the bye week, the Steelers secondary hadn’t permitted a pass play longer than 29 yards, with only three going beyond 25.
The Broncos had two such plays — one in each half.
Tight end Jeff Heuerman got behind linebacker Jon Bostic, who didn’t get any deep help, for a 29-yard gain in the first quarter. This led to Brandon McManus’ 41-yard field goal that gave the Broncos a 3-0 lead.
In the third quarter, one play after Roethlisberger threw his first interception, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders got behind cornerback Joe Haden for a 38-yard completion. Sanders caught a 5-yard touchdown pass on the next play to tie the score, 17-17.
4. Ryan Switzer continued to expand his role in the offense
Switzer played extensively in the slot and was targeted on eight passes, catching six balls for 67 yards. On the drive that ended with Boswell’s touchdown pass on a fake field goal to end the first half, Switzer had three catches for 44 yards.
Slot receiver Eli Rogers is eligible to come off the PUP list, but given the way Switzer has contributed in addition to his role as a kick and punt returner, the Steelers could be content with going with the status quo.
5. Communication was an issue that forced some premature timeouts
The house was nearly full at Mile High Stadium, which has a capacity of 76,536, and the crowd noise may have contributed to the Steelers burning two timeouts in the third quarter.
Roethlisberger had to call time on successive drives in the quarter, each one coming on third down. After the first timeout, he threw an interception to cornerback Chris Harris. After the second, he threw incomplete on a deep pass intended for Brown.
This left the Steelers with just one timeout, which they didn’t use, when they got the ball back a final time with 4 minutes, 26 seconds remaining.
The Steelers also were forced to use a timeout with 2:56 left in the first quarter and the play clocking winding toward zero.
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at [email protected] or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.