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Wild-Card Grades: Steelers-Broncos


Grading out the performances from the Denver Broncos' 29-23 overtime upset over the Steelers in AFC wild-card action.

Quarterback: Considering he played on one healthy leg behind a decimated offensive line, Ben Roethlisberger's performance -- especially in rallying Pittsburgh late -- was remarkable. But it wasn't flawless. Big Ben threw a pick to help Denver to a field goal in the second quarter, then took a sack in the closing seconds, just when it looked like Pittsburgh would pull off a regulation win. Grade: B

Running Backs: Pittsburgh didn't miss injured starter Rashard Mendenhall one little bit, thanks to the effort of Isaac Redman. In just his second start of the season, Redman carried the ball 17 times for 121 yards and broke off a couple of big runs in the second half. Grade: A

Receivers: The Steelers' strength at this position is in their depth, and it was on display against Denver. The Broncos limited Mike Wallace to just 26 yards receiving, but Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown and tight end Heath Miller each had five or more catches, while Jerricho Cotchery made a sensational grab to tie the game late and send it to overtime. Grade: A-

Offensive Line: The Steelers came into this game without starting center Maurkice Pouncey, then watched left tackle Max Starks depart early with a knee injury. Given those circumstances, this group turned in a decent effort, especially in the fourth quarter. But the Steelers also allowed five sacks, including the big one late, and Pouncey's replacement, Doug Legurksy, killed a drive just before halftime by firing a snap through Roethlisberger's hands. Grade: C+

Defensive Line: Another unit that was just decimated by injuries, as Brett Keisel and Casey Hampton each left with an injury in the first half. The Steelers struggled up front all game, failing to generate much pressure on Tim Tebow, then letting him escape trouble when they did. Pittsburgh did limit Denver's run game, at least from getting big plays. Grade: C-

Linebackers: This wasn't what we've come to expect from this unit, either. Lawrence Timmons made a couple of nice plays flying into the backfield, but where was the impact from James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley and the rest of this group? Grade: C-

Defensive Backs: Oh, the humanity. Pittsburgh's plan was to stack the box and force Tebow to beat them through the air. And that's exactly what he did, connecting for more than 300 yards -- not to mention a silly 31.6 yards-per-completion rate -- plus the 80-yard game-winner to Demaryius Thomas on the first play of overtime. Far and away the worst culprit was Ike Taylor, who absolutely could not stay with Thomas (four catches, 204 yards). He wasn't alone, though, with Troy Polamalu and Ryan Mundy getting caught cheating up in coverage, too. Mundy did force a key fumble in the fourth quarter, setting up Pittsburgh's game-tying touchdown. Grade: D-

Special Teams: Shaun Suisham hit all three of his field goals, including a big one in the fourth quarter to pull Pittsburgh within seven, and punter Jeremy Kapinos put up a 46 yard-per-punt average. The Steelers did not attempt a return all game. Grade: A-

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Coaching: Dick LeBeau has long been one of the best defensive coordinators in the game, but this was far from his finest hour. Given the NFL's wacky new overtime rules, there was no excuse for the Steelers to get beat deep by Thomas -- whether it was on the play call or the execution from Pittsburgh's secondary. Once again, this team showed its resilience under Mike Tomlin. That did not make up for the lack of first-half offense and the shocking inability to slow Tebow through the air. Grade: D+

Quarterback: Any more questions about Tebow's future as the Denver QB? They should all be answered now. Sure, Pittsburgh's defensive injuries made life a little easier for Tebow, but he still turned in 366 total yards, three touchdowns and did not commit a turnover. His offense stalled out in the second half -- just three points -- but his OT strike to Thomas more than made up for it. Grade: A

Running Backs: It was a so-so day for Willis McGahee, who managed only 61 yards despite all the injuries up front for Pittsburgh. Tebow did put up 50 on the ground and punch in an 8-yard touchdown on a run up the middle in the second quarter. Still, Denver will need to rediscover its run game to keep this miracle season going. Grade: C+

Receivers: When Eric Decker limped off with a knee injury in the first half, it was hard to fathom how Denver would compensate. Turns out, all the Broncos needed were a few big plays from Thomas. His 204 yards came on just four catches, and the overtime score included about 60 yards after contact -- Thomas stiff-armed Taylor out of the way, then accelerated up the sideline to the end zone. Eddie Royal had Denver's other receiving touchdown on a sensational grab in the second quarter. Grade: A-

Offensive Line: The Broncos would have loved to generate some more push up front against Pittsburgh, and Tebow wound up having to improvise a decent amount, but any time you keep the Steelers from registering a sack, you've done a nice job. Denver was particularly effective on Woodley, Harrison and the Steelers' edge rush attempts for the majority of the game. Grade: B

Defensive Line: It was an uneven showing for Denver's D-line. The five sacks made Roethlisberger's life miserable, but the Broncos struggled to get home without bringing extra pressure -- their three-man rushes were particularly impotent -- and allowing 156 yards rushing to Pittsburgh's Mendenhall-less attack won't sit well with this unit. Grade: B-

Linebackers: When the Broncos brought these guys on blitzes, the Steelers had major issues picking them up. That's no surprise, given how successful Denver's linebackers have been getting to the QB all season, but the difference between when the Broncos used their LBs aggressively and when they sat back was very noticeable. Like the D-line, this group won't be happy with letting Redman find space on the ground. Grade: B-

Defensive Backs: The most underrated play of this entire game might be Champ Bailey's deflection of a Roethlisbeger pass on Pittsburgh's last possession. Without that tip away, either Mike Wallace or Hines Ward likely comes down with a catch to get the Steelers in field goal range. Quinton Carter also had a big interception in the first half, though Roethlisberger more or less picked this unit apart over the final 20 minutes or so. Grade: C+

Special Teams: Matt Prater opened the game by doinking the kickoff off the crossbar. He never gave Pittsburgh a chance at a kick return, and Britton Colquitt managed to eliminate the Steelers' dangerous punt return game as well. Prater tacked on three made field goals, though none came from longer than 35 yards. Grade: A

Coaching: There were rumors early Sunday that Denver might turn to Brady Quinn if Tebow struggled. Instead of calling plays like a team afraid of its QB, though, the Broncos put the ball in Tebow's hands and asked him to win the game. It's not easy to outmaneuver Pittsburgh's D, but Denver did so. Being timid at times at defense led to Denver's lost second-half lead, but overall, the Broncos made the right moves. Grade: B+