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Broncos 24, Steelers 17: Sloppy Steelers let win slip away

Who needs a first-round bye anyway? It didn’t exactly work out too well for the Steelers in the playoffs last season.

The Steelers blew a chance to pull to within a half game of the Chiefs and stay ahead of the Patriots in the jockeying for AFC playoff seeding after falling 24-17 to the Broncos Sunday.

This team won’t go very far in the playoffs, regardless of its seed, if it doesn’t clean up its sloppiness.

The Steelers (7-3-1) entered Sunday’s game with six straight wins, but they’ve essentially played one quarter of winning football in the last two games. They turned the ball over four times Sunday and didn’t force a turnover. They committed three turnovers and forced just one last week in Jacksonville and their turnover ratio this season is minus-3.

Ben Roethlisberger threw two interceptions Sunday, including one into the hands of 290-pound Shelby Harris in the end zone with a minute left that clinched the win for the Broncos (5-6).

Roethlisberger bobbled the snap and faked a handoff to James Conner, who almost tripped and ended up with his back to the goal line. Not the best way to sell a fake.

After that awkward exchange, Roethlisberger tried to force a throw to Antonio Brown when Harris stepped in. Once again a disheveled goal-line play cost the Steelers, like last season’s end-zone interception that dashed their hopes of defeating the Patriots.

The Steelers already had burned two timeouts in the second half Sunday before getting the ball with 4:26 left and a chance to tie. They just don’t seem organized in their two-minute offense, resembling a family of tourists in New York walking around haphazardly and having three different conversations as they try to figure out where they’re going and how they’re going to get there.

On their opening drive, the Steelers pretty much clued us in on the kind of day it would be.

  • There was an illegal formation penalty.
  • JuJu Smith-Schuster unsuccessfully tried to catch a pass with his facemask.
  • Brown practically threw the ball to Boulder targeting Jaylen Samuels on a trick play.
  • Roethlisberger threw the ball to James Washington.

Yes, just throwing the ball to Washington is a lapse on the level of the previous three bullet points. The rookie receiver has eight catches on 25 targets this season. According to Pro Football Reference, Washington’s 32 percent catch rate is dead last in the league.

The Steelers must believe in Washington if he’s getting on the field, but they’re also in win-now mode and a breakout game from him would be nice at some point. On Sunday, he was part of the reason the Steelers came away with no points on their opening drive. Chris Boswell‘s 48-yard field goal attempt was blocked by Justin Simmons.

Boswell made up for it, and showed Brown how it’s done, when he fired a 2-yard touchdown pass to left tackle Alejandro Villanueva on a fake field goal attempt in the closing seconds of the first half, tying the score 10-10 at halftime.

The Steelers’ other touchdown also was highlight-reel material, a 97-yard pass from Roethlisberger to Smith-Schuster that gave the Steelers a 17-10 lead with 10:32 left in the third quarter. Roethlisberger had Harris in his face when he released the ball in the end zone and hit Smith-Schuster, who became the first player in NFL history with two 97-yard touchdown receptions in his career.

Those moments of brilliance, however, were offset by flubs such as Xavier Grimble‘s fumble through the end zone early in the second quarter. The tight end hauled in a pass from Roethlisberger from the Denver 23 and rumbled toward the end zone for an apparent touchdown that would have given the Steelers a 7-3 lead. But safety Will Parks, who weighs about 70 pounds less than Grimble, knocked the ball loose just before Grimble reached the goal line and the ball bounced through the end zone for a touchback.

Fellow tight end Vance McDonald dropped a touchdown pass later in the game. The Steelers ought to disinfect their tight end room this week, because there must be some kind of end-zone allergen in there.

Even Conner, the Steelers’ saving grace amid the Le’Veon Bell fiasco, has been mistake-prone over the last two weeks. He nearly scuttled the Steelers’ game-winning drive last week with a dropped pass and a pass that fell incomplete because he wasn’t looking.

After Roethlisberger’s first interception led to the Broncos’ game-tying touchdown Sunday, Conner’s fumble at the end of the third quarter opened the door for the Broncos’ game-winning touchdown. The running back took Roethlisberger’s pass to the Broncos’ 23 before Bradley Roby took his legs out from under him and popped the ball loose.

Phillip Lindsay, who ran the ball 14 times for 110 yards (7.9 yards per carry), scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 2-yard run with 9:17 left in the game. During these two games that Stephon Tuitt has missed with an elbow injury, the Steelers have allowed 4.59 yards per carry.

Conner, meanwhile, has just 77 rushing yards over the past two games. He’s not the first Steelers running back to be robbed by Roby in Denver.

It was Roby who punched the ball out of Fitzgerald Toussaint‘s hands with the Steelers clinging to a 13-12 lead in the fourth quarter of their AFC divisional playoff game at Denver in 2015. The Steelers gave Peyton Manning and the Broncos all they could handle in that game despite being without Brown and Bell, but that turnover was converted into the Broncos’ game-winning touchdown and the Steelers lost that game 23-16. Bad things tend to happen to the Steelers in Denver, a place where they’ve won only five times in their history.

The Steelers’ schedule at sea level doesn’t get any easier. They host the Chargers (8-3) next week, although they might get a break there if Melvin Gordon is out.

In Week 14, the Steelers go to Oakland. The Raiders (2-9) might seem like an easy win under Jon Gruden’s reign of error, but Roethlisberger is 0-3 in his career at Oakland. Those three Raiders teams that beat the Steelers had a combined record of 10-38.

The Patriots (8-3) come to Pittsburgh in Week 15. The Steelers can’t beat the Patriots whether the game is in Pittsburgh, New England, Russia or Antarctica. That game could go a long way toward determining a first-round bye, but the Steelers would probably have to win that game and all their other remaining games to finish ahead of the Patriots, and they visit the Saints (10-1) in Week 16 before closing the regular season at home against the Bengals, who might still be fighting for a playoff spot.

The Ravens (6-5) seem to be rejuvenated with Lamar Jackson spelling Joe Flacco and Gus Edwards coming out of nowhere to run for 233 yards over the last two games, but they’re about to have a full-blown quarterback controversy on their hands and they have games at Kansas City and Los Angeles against the Chargers remaining on their schedule.

The sky isn’t falling. The Steelers’ hold on first place in the AFC North seems safe for now. As tough as their remaining schedule is, the Steelers are talented enough to win all of those games.

They just can’t keep leaving wins on the table like they did Sunday.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

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