Who’s not impressed with Tim Tebow? Part 4, just about nobody
Have you heard about this Tim Tebow character? Apparently he played in some sort of playoff game or something yesterday? It hasn’t been covered too much in the media so I can understand if you’re a little fuzzy on the details. In short, after three weeks of looking downright terrible, Tim Tebow returned to the inexplicably extraordinary play that propelled Denver into first place in their division with a 29-23 overtime win against the Pittsburgh Steelers and their number one rated defense. Tebow finished the day with 316 yards passing (more on that later) and two touchdowns, with another 50 yards rushing and a touchdown. The game was Tebow’s most complete of the season, finishing with his second highest QB rating of his career and the highest in Broncos postseason history. The result was…surprising, to say the least. While Tebow still wasn’t efficient (finishing 10-for-21 passing), he made the Steelers pay for stacking the box against the run consistently, completing 5 passes of 30-yards or more, nearly doubling the Steelers total 30+ yard passes allowed the entire regular season, including three passes of 50-yards or more, all to Demaryius Thomas. His passes (that were completed) looked crisp and accurate and very un-Tebowish, especially when looking at his last three games of the regular season. So how did this happen? We break the factors that helped Denver pull off the win after the jump.
Defensive injuries for Pittsburgh
While Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin will refuse to use injuries as an excuse, it certainly didn’t help the Steelers on Sunday. Pittsburgh entered the game without safety Ryan Clark, who was the team’s leading tackler during the season, and starting Pro-Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey. Clark was replaced by Ryan Mundy, who played well during the game, causing the fumble in the fourth quarter that turned into the game-tying drive for Pittsburgh. However, anytime you lose your leading tackler on defense, it’s going to hurt the team and Steelers fans are left to wonder if Clark would have been able to bring down Thomas in overtime instead of Mundy merely chasing him into the endzone. Pouncey’s replacement, Doug Legursky, did not fare as well. On a drive right before halftime, the Steelers were driving into field goal range when Legursky snapped the ball well over Ben Roethlisberger’s head. The play pushed Pittsburgh well out of field goal range and the half ended with Pittsburgh still trailing by 14. Legursky continued to struggle throughout the game, as Denver consistently got pressure when they blitzed, a sign that the line wasn’t prepared for the Broncos bringing five or more, a responsibility that falls to the center.
During the game, the injuries continued to mount for Pittsburgh. In the first half, both Casey “Half Man, Half Mountain” Hampton and Brett “the Beard” Kiesel were lost to lower body injuries for the game. While their replacements played well enough, the loss of two starters in the defensive line rotation caused a shift in defensive philosophy for Dick LeBeau, forcing him to bring more support from the safety position to continue keeping the Denver running game in check. This kept Pittsburgh’s cornerbacks on an island, which they definitively proved incapable of defending. Speaking of Pittsburgh’s corners…
Ike Taylor and William Gay
These guys have proven themselves to be average cover men at best in the NFL. Put them on an island against speedy wideouts and you end up giving up 30 yards per completion like Pittsburgh did on Sunday. The secondary has been this team’s Achilles heel over the last several seasons, exemplified by their brutal showing against the Packers in last year’s Super Bowl. Despite less than stellar play in the secondary, though, the Steelers have failed to upgrade the position whether through free agency or the draft, seemingly content to be annually disappointed by Ike Taylor as their top cover man. Taylor especially got victimized by Denver, and wide receiver Damaryius Thomas in particular. Thomas went from averaging about 3-yards after catch during the season to a whopping 25-yards after catch on Sunday as he carried Taylor all over the field. Speaking of Thomas…
Demaryius Thomas is finally healthy
Thomas was drafted a few slots ahead of Tim Tebow in the 2010 draft. He was an explosive playmaker in college, with a mixture of size, strength and speed that was drawing comparisons to Calvin Johnson. His rookie season showed some promise before he ruptured his Achilles tendon returning a kickoff (for some reason) and spent the entire offseason trying to come back from it. The going was slow for him, but his health, and more importantly his speed and athleticism, gradually came back to him. His return to the field coincided nicely with Denver’s trading of unhappy wideout Brandon Lloyd, who did not fit in with the team’s new direction with Tim Tebow under center. Thomas has continued to return to form as the season has gone, quickly replacing any production lost when Lloyd was shipped to St. Louis, and has quickly become one of Tebow’s favorite targets as he’s returned to the explosive player that made him a first round draft pick. His ability to run past, through or around defensive backs really allowed the Broncos to open up the passing game down the field on Sunday and Tebow delivered. Speaking of the play calling…
Broncos offensive gameplan (in the 2nd quarter and overtime at least)
The Broncos have been notoriously conservative in their play calling this season, which could be a reason for their late-season slide into the playoffs. They were committed to doing things one way: running the ball 70% of the time and throwing the occasional pass deep to a go-route. However, on Sunday, against one of the most aggressive defenses in football, the Broncos finally got a little creative. They used the playmaking desire of James Harrison to lure him down on the zone-read (which has been little more than a dive the last month or so) and got Tebow out on the edge. They baited Troy Polamalu into jumping a route they’d shown all season and released the receiver right behind him when he did for a big gain down the middle. They ran a double screen where they faked one direction before spinning and throwing back to the other side. That one got called back for offensive pass interference, but it was still creative. They stayed true to their identity as the top rushing team in the NFL with 34 running plays for 131 yards, but added in the wrinkles to take advantage of a defense that adjusts to stop their running game. On Sunday, the Broncos ran the ball on first down 23 of 25 times, with one of those two passes coming on the first, and only, play of overtime, taking advantage of Pittsburgh bringing everyone to the line of scrimmage to stop the run. It was gameplan that will make this offense sustainable and will help keep Tim Tebow a starting quarterback in the NFL. On the other side…
The Steelers gameplan killed them
Defensively, they sold out to stop the run, and got burned. Then they got burned again…and again and again and again. There’s something to be said for sticking to one’s guns, but that was ridiculous. Ike Taylor was burned three times for 50 yards or more on Sunday, including the 80-yard game winner in overtime. After the first time, I would have thought about leaving a safety back to help him. After the second time, I would have definitely done it. And the third time? Well, the third time killed them, so adjustments at that point were pretty moot. Losing Hampton and Kiesel early in the game seemed to change the mentality of the defensive gameplan. Suddenly, they didn’t feel they could stop the run without having 8 or 9 nine guys stacked in the box. I understand taking away a team’s strength (the run in Denver’s case) and trying to make them beat you with their weakness…but when that weakness has burned you for 31 yards a catch, maybe you put the onus on your front seven to make a couple of stops?
Offensively, the Steelers gameplan was equally confusing. You come into the game with a quarterback on one leg, whose main offense comes from his ability to scramble and improvise, who can’t plant and throw with his full power, with a backup center who hasn’t been calling out protections all season…and your first instinct is to drop back and pass 48 times? I understand that the running game was hurt as far as depth goes with Rashard Mendenhall tearing his ACL and Mewelde Moore being inactive, but the Pittsburgh running game was working. The Steelers rushed for 156 yards while averaging almost seven yards per carry. Isaac Redman was averaging 7.1 while gaining 121 yards on just 17 carries! Yet, when Redman needed to be spelled, the Steelers refused to hand the ball off to rookie John Clay of Wisconsin, where they know a thing or two about running the ball. After Redman’s 17 carries, the next Steeler in terms of attempts was Ben Roethlisberger with three scrambles. Clay finished with just one carry for a single yard. Protect your quarterback, control the clock, and continue to wear down the defense of your opponent by playing vintage Steeler football could have given the game on Sunday a much different look. But none of that really mattered since…
God is looking out for Tim Tebow
I’m just kidding, but plenty of pundits and media (and probably politicians and preachers) aren’t when they associate Tebow’s success with favor from the Almighty. His 316 passing yards are not merely a coincidence, I’ve read today in an alarmingly high number of stories, but a sign of a higher power, that Tebow is some kind of Biblical hero, using faith to conquer all. Let’s pump the brakes, though, on that. To throw everything that has happened for the Broncos this season up to the Divine intervening on their behalf unfairly ignores some key factors. First, this Denver team is young, talented and getting healthy. They have youth and talent at every position on the field, which continues to improve as they gain more experience. Second, Tim Tebow has worked incredibly hard to become a better football player and not just the beneficiary of God’s love of Denver football. The work he has put in during offseasons is well documented, and except for the three week hiccup at the end of the regular season, you can see marked improvement in his game. Give the man his due for the hard work he’s put in to improve. I, for one, didn’t think I’d watch a Broncos game where Tebow would throw receivers open or hit a man in stride, but that’s what we saw on Sunday because of the intense work he’s put in all year long. Isn’t it possible that man of Tebow’s intense faith would be the type to commit to hard work and sacrifice to improve himself more than God taking a vested interest in a game of football?
The Broncos have hit their stride it seems at just the right time, and Tebow has done well to heed John Elway’s advice to “let it rip.” Their improbable win on Sunday solidified Tebow’s place in the starting lineup and will go a long way in giving a young and talented group like Denver a great deal of confidence moving forward to the game on Saturday against New England and moving forward into next season. I mean, if the Broncos could knock off the defending AFC Champions with the top rated pass defense in football, who knows what might happen when they play a team with a recent history of struggling in the playoffs and has the worst pass defense in the AFC? With Tim Tebow under center, miracles can happen…again.