The heavily favored Pittsburgh Steelers were stunned by the Denver Broncos on Sunday because of one reason–and one reason only–they underestimated Tim Tebow’s ability to beat them through the air.
The Steelers’ defense dared the struggling quarterback to beat the NFL’s top-ranked defense by throwing deep, and he did it time and time again throughout the course of Sunday’s thriller.
Pittsburgh was torched for 20 points by Tebow and the Broncos’ offense in the second quarter alone. The reigning AFC Champions were abruptly knocked out of the playoffs on the first play from scrimmage in overtime on the strength of Tebow’s arm.
Pittsburgh wasn’t just unraveled by another theatrical Tebow finish. The Steelers took it on the chin because they believed Tebow couldn’t beat them with his arm and they paid for it.
In the final three weeks of the season, Tebow was an anemic 4 of 22 on throws over 15 yards for one touchdown and three interceptions, according to ESPN Stats & Information. However, against the Steelers, Tebow was 6 of 11 on passes of over 15 yards for two touchdowns and zero interceptions.
Tebow completed 10 of 21 passes for 316 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, giving him a quarterback rating of a 125.6.
It was uncharacteristic to see Tebow throw as well as he did and the Steelers pass defense play as poorly as they did. The NFL’s No. 1 pass defense had yielded only six completions of over 30 yards in the regular season. On Sunday, Tebow connected on five passes of over 30 yards against the Steelers.
After holding the Broncos to zero passing yards in the first quarter, the Steelers had trouble stopping in the second as their corners got torched in single coverage. Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor allowed a 51-yard throw from Tebow to wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and then William Gay gave up a 30-yard touchdown to Eddie Royal, which put the Broncos up 7-6.
On the following drive, Taylor was fooled on a stutter step by Thomas, which went for a 58-yard gain. From there, Tebow carried eight yards on a quarterback keeper for a touchdown, giving Denver a 14-6 advantage.
After Pittsburgh stormed back from a 23-13 deficit at the end of regulation to knot up the score at 23-23, Denver won the coin toss and quickly won the game by catching the Steelers defense off balanced.
On the first play from scrimmage, backup free safety Ryan Mundy, who was filling-in for starter Ryan Clark, crept up to the line of scrimmage as Pittsburgh loaded the box and took a step forward when Tebow faked the run to set up the pass. The play-action fake opened up a clear passing lane to Thomas on a deep slant because Taylor played Thomas to the outside.
Thomas caught the ball at the Denver 40, stiff-armed Taylor at midfield and it was off to the races for an 80-yard touchdown reception.
Many will make Taylor out to be the scapegoat. But defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau’s aggressive play-call and willingness to leave Taylor out on an island to get exposed should also shoulder some of the blame.