Steelers lost by underestimating Tebow

Tim Tebow hit Demaryius Thomas on an 80-yard touchdown pass on the first play of overtime. AP Photo/Joe Mahoney

DENVER -- Ike Taylor sat in front of a ripped-up locker, staring blankly down at the floor.

The player who got beat on the winning play in the Pittsburgh Steelers' 29-23 overtime loss to the Denver Broncos represented what every player and coach was feeling. Frustrated. Shocked. Confused.

Taylor didn't talk in the locker room where the frame that had his No. 24 on it was ripped down, leaving fragments of wood scattered around him. But he didn't have to speak. His expression said it all: What just happened?

The heavily favored Steelers were upset by the Broncos because they underestimated Tim Tebow. Pittsburgh dared the struggling quarterback to beat the NFL's top-ranked defense by throwing deep, and he did it again and again.

The Steelers were gashed by Tebow for 20 points in a near record-setting second quarter. The defending AFC champions were knocked unceremoniously out of the playoffs on the first play of overtime by the arm of Tebow.

Pittsburgh wasn't just undone by another dramatic Tebow finish. The Steelers were punched in the gut because they believed Tebow couldn't beat them throwing the ball and they paid for it.

"On defense, we felt like we let the team down," Steelers linebacker James Farrior said. "We felt like we had a good grasp of what they were going to do to us or try to do us. They came out and made way more plays that we thought they were capable of making."

This isn't to say that the Steelers had the wrong strategy. Playing aggressive man-to-man defense with no help over the top essentially forced Tebow to win the game. And, based on Tebow's numbers, that's exactly the game plan that Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and everyone else in the football world would've written up.

In the final three weeks of the regular season, Tebow was 4 of 22 (18.1 percent) on throws over 15 yards for one touchdown and three interceptions, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Against the Steelers, he was 6 of 11 (54.5 percent) on those passes for two touchdowns and no interceptions.

It was out of character for Tebow as well as the Steelers' defense. The NFL's No. 1 pass defense had given up six completions of 30 yards or more in 16 games. Tebow connected on five of them in one game against Pittsburgh.

It's hard to second-guess the Steelers to take this approach. But you could criticize them for sticking with it.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was asked whether he was surprised by Tebow's passing.

"The number of [passing] attempts wasn’t surprising," he said. "The number of long completions was."

After not allowing one passing yard in the first quarter, the Steelers couldn't stop Tebow in the second as their cornerbacks couldn't hold up in single coverage. Taylor allowed a 51-yard throw to Demaryius Thomas and then William Gay gave up a 30-yard touchdown to Eddie Royal, putting the Broncos up 7-6.

On the next drive, Taylor was faked out by a stutter step by Thomas, resulting in a 58-yard gain. Tebow ran in an 8-yard quarterback draw over fill-in safety Ryan Mundy to put Denver ahead 14-6.

"They are the No. 1 defense and we are the No. 1 offense running the ball, so I feel like they wanted to make a statement and stop the run," Thomas said of the Steelers. "I don't know if they forgot about the passing game."

The Steelers won't make that same mistake again against Thomas, Tebow and the Broncos. After Pittsburgh rallied to tie the game in regulation, the Broncos won the toss and quickly won the game by catching the Steelers guessing.

On the first play from scrimmage, Mundy crept up to the line of scrimmage as Pittsburgh loaded the box and took a step forward when Tebow made a play-action fake. That allowed a clear passing lane to Thomas on a deep slant because Taylor had played him to the outside.

Thomas caught the ball at the Denver 40, stiff-armed Taylor at midfield and outran everyone to the end zone for an 80-yard touchdown.

Many will rightfully blame Taylor for the mistake. But the Steelers' defensive call has to shoulder some responsibility, too.

"I felt like I could have given [Taylor] more help," Mundy said. "But that was our run-stopping defense."

Mundy was one of many backups pressed into action for the Steelers because of health reasons. Pittsburgh was without its leading rusher (Rashard Mendenhall), leading tackler (Clark), Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, left tackle (Max Starks) and two starting defensive linemen (Brett Keisel and Casey Hampton).

Plus, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was playing on one leg because of a high ankle sprain. It was a painful game in many different ways.

"You can never say how much it can affect because we weren’t out there," Clark said. "The thing you look at is, even with the guys we had in there, we had opportunities to win this game and Denver made plays. You can’t take that away from them by saying we were hurt and it would have been different if we were out there because you don’t know."

What the Steelers knew, or at least thought they knew, was Tebow couldn't beat them.

Tebow finished last in the NFL with a 46.5 completion rate this season, the lowest mark by a qualifying quarterback since Akili Smith in 2000, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He is also the first quarterback to start a playoff game after completing less than half of his passes in the regular season since Scott Zolak of the New England Patriots in 1998, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

But the Steelers were wrong. Tebow finished with 316 passing yards against a pass defense that had allowed 171.9 yards.

When overtime was about to begin, Hines Ward was talking to receivers about plays in anticipation of the defense forcing a three-and-out on the first drive. Then he heard the cheers of the crowd and knew something had terribly gone wrong.

Once again, the Steelers were in disbelief.

"This will stick with [us] a lot as one of the worst games we ever lost," said Ward, who declined comment on his future with the team. "I thought last year losing the Super Bowl [was worse], but this is fresh on our minds and the way we lost is disappointing."