Break It Down: Tim Tebow takes to the air
You can use whatever explanation you want to explain Tim Tebow's success throwing the football against Pittsburgh Sunday: Luck, injuries to the Steelers' defensive line, Ryan Clark being unable to play due to health issues.
But the truth is pretty simple: Tebow played a terrific game, and the Pittsburgh defense did not.
Despite giving up big play after big play, the Steelers failed to adjust to account for Tebow's arm. Meanwhile, Tebow found some confidence early by hitting a couple of big passes and that fueled Denver's offense all day.
Let's take a look at what happened, starting with Tebow's first completion:
And it actually took until the second snap of the second quarter, with Denver facing a 3rd-and-12 one play after Eric Decker injured his knee, before Tebow connected. When he did, though, it changed the whole outlook of the game.
Pittsburgh had a pretty conservative defense called here -- they dropped seven with two-deep coverage. Denver operated with split backs next to Tebow, a five-man line and three receivers.
Problem one for Pittsburgh, both on this play and throughout the entire game, was that the defensive line failed to generate any pressure. Tebow took the snap, dropped a couple steps, then set and looked downfield. He still had plenty of time to survey his options.
Finally, Pittsburgh came up with a tiny push. Tebow responded by sliding to his left into an open space and gunning downfield.
The Steelers lost Brett Keisel and Casey Hampton early Sunday (though Keisel was still in on this play), which severely limited their defensive front. As a result, Pittsburgh came up with exactly zero sacks of Tebow and had to commit more people up to guard against the run.
Now, the problems on the back end for Pittsburgh.
Ike Taylor had a downright miserable day trying to defend Demaryius Thomas on the outside. Thomas caught four passes for a whopping 204 yards, including the 80-yard game-winner, plus Taylor was flagged for a defensive holding and a pass interference penalty on separate plays.
On Tebow's first completion of the game, Thomas ran a little stop-and-go on Taylor -- not the last time he'd pull that off -- and Taylor bit on the fake inside, then watched as Thomas blew past him up the sideline.
The coverage here didn't wind up being all that bad, but Tebow dropped in a perfect pass and Thomas made a great catch. This was a huge moment in the game -- after more than 15 minutes without a completion, Tebow proved to himself, his team and the Steelers that he could do some significant damage downfield.
One play after Thomas' grab, Tebow went back to the air, this time to Eddie Royal for a 30-yard TD. The Steelers showed a five-man rush and came with four, leaving seven back in coverage. Again, this wasn't an overly aggressive tact.
And again, the coverage was there. Tebow and Royal just beat it.
Denver trailed 6-0 and looked set to give Pittsburgh the ball back before Tebow's bomb to Thomas. Had that not connected and the Steelers scored after the potential ensuing punt, there's no telling what might have happened in Sunday's game -- but there's a good chance Denver would have found itself in a lot more trouble.
Instead, Tebow found Thomas and Royal for back-to-back big plays, which woke up the home crowd and gave the Broncos some huge momentum.
Denver took advantage of that by coming back to the pass, over and over.
On the Broncos' next possession, they picked on Taylor again. Look at Pittsburgh's setup here, as Denver lined up in an offset-I -- you can count all 11 defenders in the picture, within six yards of the line of scrimmage.
It's no secret that Pittsburgh expected a run on this play -- which is why Tebow's play-action fake to Willis McGahee worked wonders.
There were 11 defenders in the picture prior to the snap. After Tebow faked his handoff, there are still nine Steelers collapsing on the line of scrimmage.
Sure, Taylor had a bad day trying to cover Thomas, but it's hard to fault him entirely on a play like this. With every other defender diving down toward the line, Taylor's stuck in a one-on-one against Thomas, with no deep help and 70 yards of the field to defend.
Thomas slipped inside Taylor and turned this into a big 58-yard play.
To pin this entire Pittsburgh meltdown on Taylor would be a huge mistake. He was far from alone -- everyone from the coaches to superstar safety Troy Polamalu deserves a little slap on the wrist.
Case in point: A 40-yard connection from Tebow to tight end Daniel Fells with 4:30 left in the second quarter.
At this point, Denver had put up 17 second-quarter points and Tebow had hit on a number of big plays. But again, the Steelers stacked up looking for the run -- there are nine guys within four yards of the line of scrimmage here, leaving Taylor one-on-one with Thomas outside and Polamalu deep.
Tebow faked a handoff and rolled left. The coverage was, for the most part, stellar, including Taylor locked down on Thomas outside. The lone hiccup came as Tebow showed a half-hearted pump fake.
Polamalu completely bit on the move and broke toward the line ... just as Daniel Fells released downfield.
Tebow hit the pass over the top for 40 yards.
The Denver QB may not throw the best ball or make great reads all the time, but his mobility and athleticism make him difficult to deal with. Pittsburgh's linebackers were so worried about Tebow running on that play that they allowed Fells to get behind them, which in turn caused Polamalu to jump what he thought was a crossing route.
That left no one deep and gave Tebow an easy pitch-and-catch with his tight end.
Pittsburgh never really settled into a groove defending Denver, even though the Broncos mustered just three points in the third and fourth quarters combined. The final, crushing piece of evidence to that point came in overtime, when Tebow and Thomas delivered an 80-yard touchdown to send the Steelers home.
Let's play "Count the defenders" again ...
You should get 11. Polamalu's up tight over the left side of Pittsburgh's line, while Ryan Mundy, the Steelers' other safety, charged toward the line just before the shotgun snap.
There was not a single Steeler more than five yards away from the line when Tebow received the ball. Had Pittsburgh broken through and come up with a little pressure on Tebow, that strategy may have paid off. But, as we saw all day, the Denver front held firm.
Tebow quickly faked a handoff, freezing everyone just enough to let Thomas sneak into the seam. It was an easy delivery for Tebow.
And this play will get pinned on Taylor, too, since he both allowed Thomas to get inside of him for the catch and then failed to make a tackle as Thomas stiff-armed him.
But Pittsburgh absolutely put Taylor on an island here, whether it was the play call or a pre-snap read mistake by Mundy. Give plenty of credit to Denver for countering Pittsburgh's aggressive look with an over-the-top shot, and to Tebow for putting the pass on the money.