Encouraging, But Not Enough

Jon Dwyer (Pensinger/Getty Images)

In spite of loss, enough went right for the Steelers in Denver last night that Mike Prisuta would gladly take the same scenario again late in their games to come.

DENVER – A lot of stuff happened.

A lot of stuff usually does.

But after most of it, the good, the bad and the ugly, the Steelers still found themselves 80 yards from the would-be, game-winning TD, and with three minutes, two timeouts and the two-minute warning with which to work.

If you're the Steelers you have to like those odds, especially on the road against Peyton Manning.

They crapped out this time, but Ben Roethlisberger has rolled sevens amid such circumstances before and will do so again.

That being the case, the big-picture fallout from Broncos 31, Steelers 19 isn't what the Steelers didn't do but rather all they accomplished along the way to 0-1.

No, close doesn't count.

But this was still a quantum leap forward compared to what happened for openers last season in Baltimore.

Let's start with play selection that featured 15 runs and 16 passing attempts in the first half. That's the balance and ball-control (16:29 in the first two quarters) the Steelers are looking for this season.

Let's also focus on the variety of personnel groups deployed. One tight end, two tight ends and three tight ends at a time were featured. One- and two-back formations with multiple two-back groups were used. Multiple third-down backs were called upon. Four receivers saw the field, one, two and three at a time. And a couple of backup offensive linemen, including rookie tackle Mike Adams, played more than half the game.

That's the unpredictability they seek and the depth they need to realize it, and it helped the Steelers converting 11 of 19 third downs (58 percent).

On defense they played without James Harrison and Ryan Clark, and with plenty of subbing up front and at linebacker to combat playing at altitude. And while the defense didn't exactly dominate Manning, that couldn't have been a realistic pregame expectation.

The defense made some plays and missed some others, but in holding the Broncos to a field goal with three minutes remaining on a drive that had included a first-and-goal at the Steelers' 8-yard line, the defense at least gave Roethlisberger and the offense a chance to win the game.

In most games, that'll be enough.

And the special teams held up their end in the first game that mattered minus Al Everest. First-time Steelers Baron Batch, David Paulson, Brandon Johnson, Will Johnson, Adrian Robinson, DeMarcus Van Dyke, Robert Golden, Leonard Pope, Chris Rainey and Drew Butler all contributed there.

And then there's Roethlisberger, who probably called 75 percent of the plays due to the Steelers' gradual reliance on the no-huddle attack and was at times absolutely masterful. For long stretches the Steelers found the right balance between offensive coordinator Todd Haley's grinding style and Roethlisberger's trademark ability to hold the ball and make a play.

That was never more evident than on a 23-yard hookup with Antonio Brown that converted a third-and-11, and on a 17-yard strike to Emmanuel Sanders that moved the chains on third-and-13, two critical elements of what became a 14-play, 79-yard drive for a touchdown against the Broncos and the clock late in the second quarter.

Most of the rest of the time the ball came out quickly, as it needs to, and the quarterback stayed upright until the game-ending circumstances introduced him repeatedly to the Sports Authority Field at Mile High turf.

Yes, Roethlisberger missed a wide open Heath Miller on what should have been an easy touchdown on third-and-goal from the Denver 3, and, yes, Roethlisberger would love to have that game-clinching, pick-six back.

Troy Polamalu, likewise, would like to have the Broncos' 71-yard catch-and-run touchdown to do over and this time take the proper pursuit angle (Polamalu, by the way, spent some of his early time on the sidelines during offensive series with his right leg extended on the bench and wrapped in a heating pad and was dragging his right leg across the locker room after the game).

If any one of those three plays works out differently the eventual outcome may, as well.

None of them did and the Steelers were still on the verge of a fantastic finish.

There was enough positive in what set up that scenario that I'll gladly take the ball 80 yards from victory with three minutes left this Sunday against the New York Jets.

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