Resilient Steelers defense adjusting on the fly

Steelers rally past Osweiler, Broncos 34-27
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (84) celebrates his touchdown with teammate Darrius Heyward-Bey (88) during the second half of an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Dec. 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Don Wright)

PITTSBURGH (AP) – Arthur Moats winced ever so slightly at the phrase “too cute,” but he didn’t disagree with it either.

The Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker figures splitting hairs when searching for words to describe the defense’s baffling first half against the Denver Broncos on Sunday is unnecessary. Did defensive coordinator Keith Butler come up with a gameplan a little too exotic?

Did the players let the anxiousness associated with a playoff-type atmosphere get to them? Was the largest crowd in the history of Heinz Field a little too amped, preventing the players from hearing the calls?

Moats figures it may have been a little bit of all three as the Broncos and Brock Osweiler carved up the Steelers for 27 points in the opening half to take a two-touchdown lead.

“Sometimes I feel like you just as a whole team we can overcomplicate things sometimes,” Moats said. “In the first half, that was the issue.”

And just like that, the issues vanished. The Steelers shut out the Broncos in the second half, giving the league’s best offense enough time to rally Pittsburgh to a 34-27 win.

The same unit that let the Broncos convert all eight of their third-down attempts in the first two quarters allowed Denver to go just 1 for 8 on third down over the final two quarters as the Steelers (9-5) moved into the AFC’s second wild-card spot with two games to go.

Pittsburgh can clinch a playoff spot this weekend if it beats Baltimore and the New York Jets lose to New England.

It’s a scenario that seemed out of reach at halftime on Sunday.

Though outside linebackers coach Joey Porter did what he always does – animatedly challenging his players to get it together – Moats insists Butler and head coach Mike Tomlin didn’t throw the gameplan into the nearest dumpster.

Instead, they preached patience and told their players to talk to each other, something that was an obvious problem as the Steelers spent most of the first half looking at each other as Denver wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas ran across wide swathes of turf.

Late in the first quarter, linebacker Ryan Shazier was lined up across from Thomas. Cornerback William Gay ran over to chat with Shazier, then bolted back across the field just before the snap. Thomas ran by Shazier uncovered for an 18-yard touchdown. It was symbolic of 30 minutes of chaos.

“Some people thought we were in the one thing, some people thought we were in the other,” said Shazier, who was in charge of making the defensive calls in certain situations.

While Shazier took the brunt of the responsibility, he was hardly alone. Last Moats checked, there were 10 other guys out on the field with him.

“It was a lot of mental errors,” Moats said. “You think we’re dropping eight guys into coverage, we weren’t supposed to. You think we’re sending the house, we weren’t supposed to. We understood what we were capable of. That’s why it showed up in the second half.”

Denver’s curious decision to get away from the five-wide sets that worked so effectively in the first half helped. Pittsburgh’s defensive line also started to win the battles regularly, forcing the Broncos into a series of holding penalties that blunted their momentum.

Shazier then made up for his earlier miscues by collecting his first career interception with 4:20 remaining. Three plays later, Ben Roethlisberger hit Antonio Brown for a 23-yard score that put the Steelers in front to stay.

“Our offense, you give them the ball anywhere inside the opponent’s 50, we’re going to get some points,” Shazier said.

Maybe, but the defense’s work wasn’t done. The Steelers stopped Denver on fourth down with 2:14 to go, then almost came immediately back on the field when Roethlisberger threw an interception.

Four Osweiler incompletions later, the defense left the field in triumph. Call it a bit of redemption for a group that failed to get stops late in an early season home loss to Baltimore, a defeat that still stings heading the rematch.

“We’ve been battle tested,” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “Early on we had some games where it came down to getting one more stop on defense, especially that Baltimore Raven game and … (what we learned is) it doesn’t matter how many plays we get, we’ve got to keep dominating.”

(Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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