By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: In an important late-season game, the Pittsburgh Steelers lost a touchdown due to a tight end’s inability to hold on to the football at the goal line. Later in that same game, the Steelers’ hopes were extinguished by a Ben Roethlisberger interception in the end zone.
No, Sunday’s loss in Denver was not a carbon copy of last year’s home loss to the Patriots, but the striking similarities do stand out quite a bit, even a day later.
The first deja vu moment came on the first play of the second quarter, when a misdirection play led to tight end Xavier Grimble being left alone on the right side of the Denver defense. Roethlisberger connected with Grimble, who then scampered toward the pylon for what looked to be an easy touchdown. At the very least, the Steelers were going to be set up with a goal-to-go situation.
Instead, they got nothing.
Safety Will Sparks didn’t quit on the play, as he patrolled the goal line and prepared a mammoth hit on the 6-foot-4, 261-pound tight end. (Parks is 6-foot-1, 194 pounds.)
The hit jarred the ball loose just before Grimble was able to cross the goal line, and as a result, he fumbled through the end zone.
The fumble resulted in a turnover, with Denver getting the ball on its own 20-yard line.
It wasn’t quite an exact replica of last year’s much-ballyhooed drop by Jesse James against the Patriots, but it was once again an instance of NFL rules being properly applied to the mishandling of a football by a tight end on the verge of scoring.
It was also a close cousin of the Austin Seferian-Jenkins fumble from last season. When that happened, the football world was up in arms, with some overzealous fanatics even suggesting that the enforcement of the rule was an example of the league rigging wins for the Patriots. Even long-time football men expressed confusion. Talks got serious about the NFL potentially changing the rule, but the longstanding rule was kept in place: fumbles through the end zone result in touchbacks.
The same rule applied Sunday to Grimble. The football world responded with a collective shrug.
Those seven points would have been critical for the Steelers, too, as they ended up getting the ball near midfield with 3:23 left in the fourth quarter, trailing by seven points. After taking a sack on the first play of the potential game-tying (or winning) drive, Roethlisberger completed four of his next five passes for 47 yards. In a hurry, the Steelers were in business.
But on first-and-goal at the 3-yard line, James Conner was stuffed at the line by the Denver defense. The Steelers ran it again on second down, this time getting a yard.
It was then that offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner called upon Roethlisberger to run an RPO at the goal line. It was perhaps not the best time for an old dog to learn a new trick.
Roethlisberger bobbled the snap, stuck the ball in Conner’s gut, removed the ball, and came up throwing for Antonio Brown in the end zone. One slight issue for the quarterback was that two obnoxiously orange jerseys stood between him and the receiver.
Defensive tackle Shelby Harris made the interception — a pick which cornerback Bradley Roby would have made if the big fella in front of him hadn’t already done so.
To be fair, Harris being in position to make that pick was a bit of bad luck for Roethlisberger. As he explained, the lineman wasn’t dropping into coverage; he simply got blocked into the worst possible position.
Nevertheless, the pick happened, and the Steelers lost a game they needed to win. As a result, they slid out of the No. 2 spot in the AFC, making room for the Patriots.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because Roethlisberger’s ill-fated fake spike/end zone pick following the “controversial” James ruling last year essentially sealed the Steelers’ playoff spot.
Here it is, in its most dramatic form:
That loss all but guaranteed the No. 1 seed in the AFC to the Patriots, though that proved to be a moot point when the Steelers lost their home game in the divisional round to visiting Jacksonville.
How Sunday’s loss in Denver affects Pittsburgh’s year-end standing is yet to be determined. But the Steelers surely have an uphill climb if they want to get back into position to earn a first-round playoff bye. Currently at 7-3-1 on the year, the Steelers still have to play the 8-3 Chargers next week, they still have to play the 8-3 Patriots two weeks after that, and then they still have to travel to New Orleans to take on the explosive 10-1 Saints in Week 16.
Given the difficulty of that schedule, it would have been hard for the Steelers to maintain that No. 2 seed, even if they had beaten the mediocre Broncos on Sunday afternoon. Alas, they did not do that, so the road becomes even more difficult for Roethlisberger and Co.